The 1901 Pan-American Exposition

Posted on 1/16/2018

The “Rainbow City" — and the assassination that took place there — inspired new coins and medals.

By 1900, the United States had established itself as a major world power. The frontier had been settled coast to coast. The major hostilities with Native Americans ended in 1890 at Wounded Knee, and the massive buffalo herds were no more. The US was by far the largest producer of agriculture, oil, and steel. The transcontinental railroad, first established in 1869, now had 193,000 miles of track, with five systems spanning the continent. Henry Ford introduced his gasoline engine in 1892, and the Ford Motor Company would be in operation less than a decade later. By 1900, telephones were in wide use, Edison’s motion pictures were a curiosity, and electric lights were popping up to illuminate cities at night. The world was changing, and it was the perfect time to celebrate American accomplishments and show off the latest innovations and technology of the time.

The Pan-American Exposition was held in Buffalo, NY, for this purpose, as well as to promote trade relations with America’s neighbors. The fair lasted from May 1 to November 2, 1901, and featured everything from a nine-ton elephant to a 389-foot “Electric Tower,” which demonstrated America’s technical superiority and power. Unlike the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which was nicknamed the “White City,” the Pan-American grounds were nicknamed the “Rainbow City,” as bold colors and intricate color schemes covered the architecture. The buildings on the outskirts of the Expo were painted more pastel colors, and became brighter and bolder as you approached the center.

Panorama of the Pan-Am
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A photograph of the Exposition at night. The three most prominent buildings in view are the Temple of Music, The Electrical Tower, and the Ethnology building.
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Every building was outlined with incandescent lights, and at night, the city sprang to life when two million light bulbs were simultaneously powered on by Niagara Falls from 25 miles away. There were also midway attractions, sporting events, concerts, and Indian versus cavalry skirmishes re-enacted for spectators three times a day. The Temple of Music could seat 2,200 people and possessed the largest pipe organ ever to have been built to that date. Inventions on display where the newly invented X-ray machine, infant incubators (with live infants), a newly improved phonograph, a typesetting machine, and an electrograph, which transmitted pictures over a wire.

Dignitaries line up to enter the Temple of Music for a ceremonial dedication of the Exposition on May 20, 1901.
Photo by C.D. Arnold.
Click images to enlarge

Like previous expos, the Buffalo fair offered numerous souvenirs and mementos to the 8 million visitors who traversed the grounds. Most notable among the numismatic items offered was a large (64 mm) award medal, made by the Gorham Manufacturing Company. The medal features a female figure striding alongside a buffalo, with a nameplate for the awardee’s name below. The reverse depicts two Native Americans, representing North and South America, sharing a peace pipe. On the edge is stamped, “Gorham Co.” The medal was designed by Hermon Atkins MacNeil, who is famous for designing the Standing Liberty quarter. NGC uses the reference Panorama of the Pan-Am, by Frederick Lavin, published in 2010, and the medal is cataloged as TM-103. A remarkably preserved gilt-bronze example of this award medal was recently graded NGC MS 67.

According to Barbara Baxter, author of The Beaux-Arts Medal in America,
as with the Columbian Expo 8 years earlier, American artists were stimulated to create new, distinctly American designs.
MacNeil himself said of this piece that he aimed "to produce a design that could be mistaken for nothing not American."
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This medal comes in gold, silver, bronze, and gilt-bronze. Gold examples are extremely rare, with possibly only two in existence. One certified by NGC as Uncirculated Details, Bent, Scratched, realized a whopping $46,995 in a Rago Auctions sale in February 2017. A silver specimen in NGC MS 63 sold for $2,820 in a Heritage auction a few months later in June. One year earlier, a bronze example graded NGC MS 62 went for $1,175.

Another example of MacNeil’s medal, but in silver, awarded to Arthur C. Jackson. It graded NGC MS 62.
While mintage records are unknown, The St. Louis Republic newspaper published a list of awards at the Exposition.
There were 887 gold, 1,159 silver, and 1,147 bronze. Most of the “gold” and “silver” medals were actually plating over bronze;
however, there were a small number of solid silver struck, and a few in 24K gold.
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Before he was eclipsed by the famous Theodore Roosevelt, William McKinley was a popular president. Just two years earlier in 1898, he had guided the US through the massively successful Spanish-American War. The conflict, which lasted less than 100 days and resulted in a mere 289 American deaths, was labeled “a splendid little war” by Secretary of State John Hay. The victory plunged the United States into world-superpower status, and displayed its naval dominance. Most importantly, the US was able to claim the territories of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and annexed the independent nation of Hawaii. McKinley quipped, “We need Hawaii just as much and a good deal more than we did California. It is Manifest Destiny."

Leon Czolgosz shoots President McKinley with a concealed revolver. This is a wash sketch of the event by T. Dart Walker. Czolgosz was tackled by a tall African man named James “Big Jim” Parker before he could deliver a third shot.

Of the many great attractions at the Pan-American Expo (including the famous Indian chief, Geronimo), the most exciting of all was a two-day visit by President McKinley himself. He delivered a speech to a record attendance of 116,000 people. The following day, on September 6, a meet-and-greet was scheduled at the beautiful Temple of Music. It was here that the president was approached by anarchist Leon Czolgosz, who fired two shots at point-blank range with a pistol concealed in a white handkerchief.

Emergency surgery was conducted by Dr. Matthew D. Mann, an obstetrician and gynecologist, with no experience treating gunshot wounds. He succeeded in removing one bullet that did little harm, but he could not find the other, which was lodged deep in the President’s abdomen. All he could do was sew the wound closed. While a newly-invented X-ray machine was displayed at the Expo, doctors did not use it to search for the bullet for fear of negative side effects. Despite this, McKinley’s condition appeared to improve, with enthusiastic doctors reporting he was alert and even reading the newspaper. However, infection and gangrene set in around the wound, and he took a turn for the worse. He died 8 days after the event on September 14, 1901. The President’s last words were from his favorite hymn, “Nearer, My God to Thee.” After that date, many numismatic souvenirs featuring McKinley’s portrait and the Temple of Music were offered to the public.

This was the official medal of the Exposition, designed by George Thomas Brewster and struck in the Mint Exhibit
on the Exposition grounds. It is catalogued in Hibler and Kappen’s So-Called Dollars reference as HK-289.
While this example is brass, the medal was also struck in silver and copper.
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This is an aluminum example of the President McKinley Assassination dollar,
featuring a bust of McKinley and the temple of music where he was shot.
It is catalogued as HK-290a.
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Elongated cents were also popular souvenirs at the fair.
NGC certifies elongated coins listed in Martin and Dow's reference, Yesterday's Elongateds.
The above specimen, featuring the Temple of Music, is referenced as M&D-13a.
Click images to enlarge

While America was mourning the loss of its well-loved president, the Exposition was thrown into turmoil. While abnormally cold and rainy weather had kept visitors away during the summer months, the assassination had completely overshadowed the end of the Expo, which had lost its magic. The last day of the fair was declared “Buffalo Day,” and was a last-ditch effort to make the fair a success. The day ended in failure, however, when mobs of people began to destroy the architecture and midway attractions. Windows were smashed, doors were kicked in, and exhibits were destroyed. Cleopatra’s needle was torn to the ground, the National Glass Exhibit was demolished, and lightbulbs were jerked out of their posts and smashed. When it closed to the public, the Expo had seen only 8 million of the projected 22 million visitors.

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