In 1607, Jamestown was founded in Virginia. And three hundred years later, the U.S. wanted to commemorate the famous event. Event planners thought it impossible to set up the exposition at the original site of Jamestown; the area was abandoned and not geographically convenient for large volumes of visitors. Because of this, the site of Norfolk was eventually decided on. Norfolk, Virginia sits close enough to Jamestown and is today a large, thriving city.
Event planners set the location of the exposition at Sewell’s Point, a beautiful location but a difficult one to construct on because of its isolation. They had to build roads just to get to the site! This foreshadowed a number of different preparation issues. Most difficult of all, Fitzhugh Lee, the Governor of Virginia and president of the Norfolk City Council, died in 1905 while working on the project.
The Exposition opened on April 26, 1907, exactly three hundred years after colonists first landed in Virginia. Similar to other World Fairs in the past, the Jamestown Exposition had a rough start. On opening day, only one fifth of the lights were able to turn on, and multiple buildings and sites were not completed. Constructors even failed to finish two buildings by the exposition’s end. But President Theodore Roosevelt himself personally opened the exposition!
A difficult start didn’t have to forebode a bad exposition – though setbacks did continue. Attendance never achieved projected numbers after the opening day, and the fair did not make enough to pay back a million dollar loan.
But the show did have its successes. One of the most popular was the recreation of the Battle of Hampton Roads, a battle between the warships USS Monitor and CSS Virginia. This epic battle between ships was one of the changing points for Virginia in the 17th century; the exposition built a whole building around the model. Military prowess was a common theme for the exposition, which some visitors protested.
Overall, the exposition was not a big success. It lost several million dollars thanks to a much lower attendance than expected. Too much ambition and poor planning ended up being the exposition’s downfall.
However, some great postcards came out of it! If you’re interested in vintage Jamestown Exposition postcards, you can find them here.