The Importance of the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

The promotional brochure for the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair, celebrating 100 years of railroad progress from 1848 to 1948 proclaimed: “In Chicago this summer, the Chicago Railroad Fair graphically retraces this parallel history of railroading and the nation to give America its first great outdoor exposition since the war.”

Many books casually mention that this railroad fair was one of Walt’s inspirations for Disneyland.

Walt Disney had mentioned the possibility of building a small amusement park as early as the premiere of the animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at Los Angeles’ Carthay Circle Theater in December 1937.

For publicity purposes, during the movie’s run at the theater, a small “Snow White Island,” approximately 900 feet long, had been built in the middle of a nearby street. It featured a mill wheel, a diamond mine, a wishing well, a forest, and a cottage all inspired by the popular film with actors costumed like the Seven Dwarfs going about their tasks.

Walt told animator Wilfred Jackson that one day he would like to build an amusement park with the same small proportions for children to enjoy.

For more than a decade, Walt studied other entertainment venues, including Tivoli Gardens (where he was impressed by the cleanliness, lack of alcohol, and the “popcorn lights” on the buildings, which would later decorate Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. buildings at night), Coney Island, Knott’s Berry Farm, and even many smaller areas, like the Beverly Park, with rides designed for children where he sometimes took his young daughters.

However, the Chicago Railroad Fair might have had an even greater impact than previously acknowledged by Disney scholars.

Disney Legend Ward Kimball told interviewer Walter Wagner the following for the book You Must Remember This (Putnam Publishing Group 1975):

“Walt’s doctor told him to slow down, that it was dangerous for him to work that hard. It was bad for his heart. The doctor told him to relax and get away from it all.

‘Damn it,’ he said to me one day after a physical checkup,‘ you have more fun than anybody I know. How would you like to go back to the Chicago Railroad Fair with me?’

“That was 1948. I couldn’t believe it at first. Walt taking a vacation and doing nothing except trying to enjoy himself. He never took a vacation. Every time he went to Europe, it was to figure out some deal. Now he was going to take a week off, and he was inviting me to go with him to the Railroad Fair. It was his first and only vacation as far as I know.

“Going to that fair was great for me because I’d have Walt’s company and because railroading was my hobby. We had a ball in Chicago. The fair was the history of America through railroading. They had all these famous locomotives like the DeWitt Clinton and the Tom Thumb. When they heard [Walt] was there, it was carte blanche. We could do anything we wanted.

“So, we’d go down in the morning and they let us run the steam locomotives around the three or four miles of track they had there. Running the DeWitt Clinton was one of the greatest thrills of my life. It was like shaking hands with George Washington.

“It was a great nostalgic week for Walt, and he was a man who loved nostalgia before it became fashionable.”

In truth, it was Disney Studio nurse Hazel George who had read about the fair, and knowing Walt's love of railroading and American history suggested he visit the event to relieve his building stress from his concerns about financial challenges.

The release of the animated classic Cinderella two years later would later alleviate some of that stress as well but at the moment, Walt was consumed with worry about the future of his studio as he tried to recover from the monetary hardships of the war years.

Walt did not want to go alone, but he knew his wife Lillian would not be interested in attending, especially during the August heat. Once again, it was George who suggested Kimball because of his interest in vintage railroading and his exuberant behavior that she hoped would raise Walt’s spirits.

Ward recalled to author Michael Broggie that Walt called him on a Sunday morning. “[Walt] said we would have to leave in two days to make it in time,” said Kimball. “I had been reading about the rail fair in the papers. I replied to Walt, ‘Wow, I want to see that.’ Here was my chance. So, I told him I’d be happy to go along.”

Two days later, they were both aboard the Santa Fe Railway’s east bound train, the Super Chief, its premier luxury streamliner. When the train pulled into Chicago’s Dearborn Street Station, both Walt and Kimball were well rested and eager for the adventures of the event. They checked into the hotel and then went directly to the fair.

The Chicago Railroad Fair was an event organized to celebrate and commemorate a hundred years of railroad history west of Chicago. It was held in Chicago, Illinois (the birthplace of Walt Disney), in 1948. with Lake Michigan as a backdrop for all the activities.

A 450-foot-long stage (larger than a football field) had been built. Different gauges of track had been installed to accommodate presentations of all the trains.

It is often referred to as "the last great railroad fair" with 39 railroad companies participating. In addition to being the last great assembly of some classic original (and replica) railroad equipment and technology by participating railroad companies, the Fair held other activities and events.

Major Lennox Lohr was the official host for the fair because he was also in charge of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. He wanted Walt to get VIP treatment. Walt and Kimball were also allowed to operate some of the steam locomotives that were at the fair.

Walt even got a chance to perform a bit part in one of the performances of "Wheels A Rolling,” a pageant featuring a variety of scenes about how the railroads helped build America. Walt, in stovepipe hat and frock coat, pantomimed the role of a passenger disembarking a train and being served a meal by the famous Harvey Girls.

The entire show included 12 scenes, plus prologue and epilogue, a live-action extravaganza that depicted the history of railroading from 1673 to 1949. Staged and directed by Helen Tieken Geraghty (adapted from a pageant play by Edward Hungerford) in front of a 6,000-seat theater.

This epic presentation included everything from a restaging of Abraham Lincoln's funeral coach (which, according to Kimball, brought tears to Walt’s eyes) to the U.S. Cavalry racing alongside a classic steam engine barreling westward, to the Burlington's Pioneer Zephyr (that raced non-stop 1,015 miles from Denver to Chicago in 13 hours, 4 minutes—a record set in 1934 that still stood more than a decade later).

However, this show was just one part of the "50 acres of thrills, drama, action."

I pulled from my personal archives the program book for the Chicago Railroad Fair (which originally cost only 35 cents, but cost me considerably more to add to my collection).

"The Fair's 50 acres of stirring spectacles is an opportunity to relive again in vivid realism those dramatic moments of the past when an infant people was fighting its way to its present position in the world,” states the program book.

I've always assumed that Walt was adamant that the time period of Main Street at Disneyland be "1890-1910" because it was a transition period from gas lighting to electric lighting, from horse-drawn vehicles to motorized vehicles, and other similar transitions that would help capture the entire spirit of the turn of the century.

However, I notice in the program book, there is a section devoted to "Horse-Drawn and Man-Drawn Equipment (all originals) 1890-1910 Period" that includes such vehicles like a three-horse fire engine, a steam calliope, a popcorn wagon, and many other items that all popped up on Main Street U.S.A. the first year Disneyland opened.

Every night was a "Free firework display…unless weather or special circumstances prevent, free fireworks displays are staged nightly at 10:30 p.m., following the last daily performance of 'Wheels A Rolling’. Location—north end of Fair Grounds."

It was a wonderful way to end a long day of amusements by seeing the night sky come alive with color and music.

New Orleans Square? "The old New Orleans exhibit with its typical French Quarter street and flagstone courtyard, takes the visitor back to the gracious living of the early 1800s. Strolling musicians sing the melodies of the Old South in keeping with the hospitality offered by youthful hostesses in dainty Dixie costumes."

There was even a Cafe St. Louis. How many folks remember that Walt actually included a taste of New Orleans in the original Frontierland and it was prominently mentioned in the opening day broadcast?

How about Audio-Animatronics, or at least the simple "electro-mechanicals" figures that first appeared at Disneyland in Adventureland, or the art demonstrations in the Disneyland Art Corner?

"Meet Paul Bunyan! A 35 foot robot of the mythical superman of the North Woods, complete to his size 69 boots and 80 neck size shirt. Paul talks, moves, shakes hands and gets a real kick, recounting his famous feats. Babe, the Blue Ox is here, too.

“Approximately 10 times daily, the Northwestern also present a free 30 minute chalk talk by well-known artists. Spectators, guessing what the final drawings will be, receive cash awards. Wrong guesses mean a bigger pot for the next show. In addition, the finished drawings go by lot to members of the audience."

3-D movies or CircleVision 360? "Vitarama, a new 3-dimension picture discovery which has thrilled and mystified private audiences, is brought to the public for the first time as a feature attraction at the joint exhibit of the nine Eastern Railroads. Only machine of its kind in the United States today, the Vitarama uses simultaneously five different screens to depict the part played by the Railroads in the growth of America. Vitarama Hall holds 650 spectators."

Frontierland? "Gold Gulch: Frontier Town of Gold Rush Days. From its action-filled Main Street and wooden sidewalks to the bearded gun toting old timers working its gold mine. You will like its 'Grubstake' eating place, 'Dutch Annie's' waffle shop, 'Pierette's' 1870 barbershop, 'Silver Dollar' saloon, 'Gazette' newspaper, Western bank, Mexican store, assay office, 'Old Daguerreotype' picture gallery, 'Law and Outlaw' show, gambling house and jail, sheriff's 'offis' (sic), shooting gallery, 'Boot Hill' cemetery and the Gold Gulch Opera House with its stirring melodramas at 4 p.m. and continuously from 7 p.m."

Remember that when Disneyland first opened, it had two trains. A passenger train boarded at the main entrance and went around the entire park while the cattle car boarded at Frontierland. Well, at the Fair, "The Deadwood Central" railroad (two trains) operated between the main entrance at 23rd Street and "Gold Gulch." These trains had "quaint open sided sight-seeing cars" so that visitors could see most of the site.

Ever wonder why Walt may have been influenced to pick Florida for his second location? Could it have been that the Fair recreated the Florida of the past with "its 25-foot scale replica of the famous Bok singing tower, the reflection pool of the picturesque bird sanctuary at Lake Wales, Florida, with the walkways lined as an avenue of palms.

“More than 2,000 varieties of semi-tropical flowers and fruits supply an exotic background for the lake front lounge where visitors are invited to relax in true Florida style under brilliantly-hued beach umbrellas. Sip cooling orange juice served by beautiful Southern hostesses."

And that's not all. One of the shows at the Fair was:

"Cypress Gardens Water Thrill Show--the world's foremost water ski, aquaplane and water toboggan champions skim over the blue water of Lake Michigan at 40 miles an hour while performing unbelievable feats of skill and daring.

“There are spectacular routines by the lovely Aqua Belles from Florida's famed Cypress Gardens -- the same lithe beauties you have seen many times in motion pictures and the newsreels. Their 'Parade of Beach Fashions' features the newest and smartest in feminine bathing garb. And the amazing Aqua Clowns rollick through one of the funniest comedy routines ever staged. Seating capacity: 4,700."

So there was a lot more going on at the Chicago Railroad Fair to inspire Walt than just some classic locomotives. There are pages of exhibits and shows I haven't listed from an outdoor ice skating show to Old Faithful Geyser spouting to Bronco Busting to "Genial Joe" (a giant robot railroad fireman for the kids to interact with) to even an authentic Indian village "where dancers of more than a dozen famous tribes in their colorful religious dances perform several times a day"…. just like at early Disneyland.

When the story of the creation of Disneyland is written, it is important to remember that the Chicago Railroad Fair might have helped springboard several ideas for Walt and not just the idea of having a steam train running around the park as it did at the fair.

On August 31, 1948, just days after returning from the Chicago Railroad Fair, Walt sent a memo to Dick Kelsey, one of the Disney Studio production designers, outlining his ideas for a little Mickey Mouse Park to be built across the street from the Burbank studio.

The City Council of Burbank rejected the proposal with one councilman proclaiming, “We don’t want the carny atmosphere here in Burbank! We don’t want people falling in the river, or merry-go-rounds squawking all day long.”

That rejection resulted in Walt dreaming larger and finally building the Happiest Place of Earth in Anaheim.

It was a place that had a lot of things that looked like the Chicago Railroad Fair.



  1. By smd4

    Great Article, Jim! I think you nailed a big part of Disneyland's inspiration.

  2. Discuss this article on MousePad.