Searching for the White City: University of Chicago archaeology students comb Jackson Park for remnants of the 1893 World’s Fair

For students in Rebecca Graff’s archaeological field methods class at the University of Chicago, involvement with Hyde Park’s history extends much further than the four years they’ll spend here in college. They’re waist-deep in the South Side’s past, excavating the remains of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in 1893 in Jackson Park.

Petra Johnson, a second-year anthropology major, says that she hears a lot of skepticism about digging in the city. “People say, ‘Oh, archaeology in Chicago? What’s there to find?’ The popular idea is that only really old things belong in archaeology, that it’s all Indiana Jones and mummies.” But their dig is a real excavation, she says, and is yielding valuable information about the World’s Fair of 1893, which attracted over 26 million visitors when that was nearly one fourth of the United States’ population.

The team’s findings so far seem unglamorous: lots of glass bottles, crumbled white plaster, and pipes. But bottles were often stamped with their date of manufacture, allowing precise dating of surrounding artifacts, and the plaster is a sure marker of fair remains, as it covered the gleaming (but temporary) buildings that gave the Exposition the name “The White City.” Pipes, explains fourth-year Bryan Moles, are special: “Pipes go somewhere.” They lead to building foundations, which often differ from official maps, and can reveal the state of late-nineteenth-century infrastructure: where electricity was used, for example, as opposed to the older, cheaper method of gas lighting, or how the city sewer system dealt with the sudden growth of a new miniature metropolis in its midst. The number of pipes remaining is “really amazing and surprising, because it’s always been the idea that all of that was gone,” Moles says. Their survival may open a new chapter in the Fair’s documented history.

This material evidence is important, says Moles, because historical records of the fair are seriously lacking. Contemporary reports were tightly controlled by fair officials, and the fee for bringing in a camera was four times the price of admission; existing photographs are either poor quality or as idealized as possible. But the presence of 26 million tourists over six months–a situation analogous to the possible 2016 Olympics in Jackson and Washington Parks–had to have made an impact. Moles imagines it as the inverse of a classical archaeological site: instead of thousands of years of occupation by a small population, as one has in the ancient world, the World’s Fair hosted millions over a very short time.

But the Jackson Park dig is also important because it proves that Chicago’s past is not buried as deeply as one might think. Moles has excavation experience, but he’s only worked with much older sites. “It’s so different when you’re sweating over twenty years[‘ difference] instead of six hundred years,” he says. Variations in lip design on the mouths of glass bottles can identify specific manufacturers and vendors at the Fair, an entirely different level of certainty; as Moles says, “You don’t get that in Egyptology.” Students are more or less working in their own backyard, looking for clues to the lives of people perhaps no older than their great-grandparents.

And the community still remembers. “We get comments all the time from people walking by,” reports Moles. “Half of them have stories about their family members who worked at the fair. They have really good questions for us. And the guys who fish from the bridge come over to ask us for earthworms, then stay to chat.”

Johnson agrees that the project has relevance beyond teaching field methods to undergraduates. “It’s interesting to see how Chicago has changed without really changing,” she says. Because “urban archaeology is more relatable, closer to our own experience,” exploration of the neighborhood’s past can lead to stronger connections with the community. “People rag on the South Side for not having much in it, but there’s all this here. Where else would you find a piece of the original Ferris wheel? The South Side has so much potential that people just don’t see.”