Of all the spectacles mounted by the 1907 Jamestown Exposition during its momentous seven-month run, none was bigger than the May 13 blowout that marked the 300th anniversary of America's first permanent English settlement.
Starting at midmorning, column after column of sailors and marines from more than a dozen foreign ships moored off Old Point Comfort and Sewells Point marched past a jam-packed grandstand in full-dress review, followed by a larger, still more martial display of thousands of U.S. Marines, sailors and infantry mixed with cavalry, field guns and military marching bands.
Then there was the eye-popping sight that erupted as darkness fell over the Norfolk fairgrounds, with hundreds of thousands of lights strung across the buildings, thousands more hung high above the decks of 50-plus warships and countless paper lanterns borne by a swarm of boats.
More spectacle came from the parade of illuminated water floats re-enacting such historic themes as the English settlers' ships and the "Marriage of John Rolfe and Pocahontas."
Hundreds of searchlights swept the sky, too, clearing the air for the mammoth fireworks that capped what an organizer called "one of the most gorgeous marine spectacles ever witnessed in American waters."
It was an ambitious statement for a fair that struggled to open on time and wound up owing more than $1 million.
But the grandiose schemes and financial miscues savaged by the press weren't its only legacy.
"Newspapers as far away as Texas were full of embarrassing reports about the money problems and how badly the fair underperformed. But the people who came seemed to have a very good time," says Curator Joe Judge of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.
"It brought national attention to an area that had been ignored since the Civil War — and it was a tremendous showcase for the newly expanded and modernized Navy.
"The images of all those American battleships anchored in Hampton Roads are very powerful."
No single source was responsible for the wave of interest that led to the Jamestown Exposition.
While College of William and Mary President Lyon G. Tyler may have been first to suggest "a national celebration" in the William & Mary Quarterly of April 1900, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities — which owned 22.5 acres on Jamestown Island — had resolved to stage an observance, too, and it was soon followed by the Businessmen's Association of Williamsburg.
Norfolk interests spoke out the following year, as did Newport News.
"Significant also in the resolutions of the Newport News Businessmen's Association was the emphasis on federal participation," writes historian Robert Taylor in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography.
"The Newport News resolutions regarded the Jamestown fete first and foremost as a national affair."
Portsmouth lawyer Theodore J. Wool provided the final push in late 1901, when he urged the cities of Hampton Roads to form a league with far more financial resources and political clout than any of them could muster alone.
That brought Newport News, Hampton and Phoebus into the fold, forging an alliance that surged past competition from Richmond to win the commonwealth's charter.
"The people of the state capital were unprepared for the large, well-organized delegation that arrived Dec. 3 and 4," Taylor writes, describing how the lobby of the Capitol swarmed with Tidewater partisans wearing buttons and yellow streamers touting the "Jamestown Exposition."
"The proposal that a great naval exposition be held in Hampton Roads throughout the celebration gained strong support for a Tidewater site."
Buoyed by its triumph, the Jamestown Exposition Committee purchased 340 acres at rural Sewells Point in Norfolk County, a site that was equidistant from all its member cities.
Then it began making plans for a fair that would draw national and even international attention to America's growing naval might and the long-overlooked history and economic potential of the region.
"They didn't want it to be just for 1907," says former HRNM Registrar Michael Taylor, whose office at Naval Station Norfolk — like the original base — rose from the old fairgrounds.
"They were envisioning a new kind of theme park showcasing Virginia."
From the beginning, the committee struggled to sell stock and raise money, though it did attract funding from the commonwealth, the federal government and nearly two dozen states as well as international interest from King Edward VII of Great Britain, Germany, Austria, Brazil, Japan and others.
The Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of War pledged their support for the massive military displays early on, and after some three dozen congressmen visited Jamestown in late 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt — a keen student of history as well as big-stick naval diplomacy — invited the world's navies and armies to take part.
Work on the grounds began in late 1904, driven by ambitious plans for water, sewer and electricity as well as a street grid connected to Norfolk by streetcar.
"This was the first big exposition to be fully illuminated with electric lights — and when it came to sewer and water it was far more advanced than any other place in Hampton Roads," Taylor says.
"Some of the lines they built are still there."
Far-sighted plans drove the landscaping, too, prompting the early planting of such iconic Tidewater vegetation as honeysuckle, trumpet vines, Virginia creeper and crimson rambler roses along the fair's perimeter to form "a wall of verdure and bloom."
Hundreds of trees were transplanted to form rows alongside the avenues, focusing again on native Virginia and Southern species.
By the end of 1905, the grounds boasted miles of graded streets, a water and sewer system fed by a reservoir and great basins designed to match if not surpass the architectural statements made by previous expositions, writes Charles Russell Keiley in the fair's official history.
The grand designs for the Colonial Revival and Beaux Arts buildings had assumed working shape, too, and in early 1906 construction began in earnest.
But despite continued problems raising funds and paying bills — partly due to House Speaker Joseph G. Cannon's reluctance to provide more federal funds — the committee not only plunged ahead but also added more attractions.
So vast was the gap between their deficits and their dreams that they mailed out a tongue-in-cheek postcard bearing an image of a hanged man and the words: "BEWARE This man was hanged for saying the Jamestown Exposition would not open April 26, 1907."
"It got big — and then it got bigger and bigger," Taylor says.
"They had huge plans — grandiose plans — and it almost gets out of hand."
So epic was the hurry-up construction effort that the committee — unable to buy all the materials its contractors needed — built its own giant on-site sawmill.
Some 8,000 workmen labored overtime as opening day approached, but their task was made doubly hard by a depleted treasury and extended bad weather.
Only a last-minute $1 million federal loan in early 1907 enabled the project to go forward.
But unlike the great Columbian Exposition of 1893 or the St. Louis World Fair in 1904 — which absorbed such delays by postponing their openings for a year and more — the Jamestown Exposition had no option.
Not only were the ships of the nation and the world scheduled to steam into Hampton Roads in late April but the federal money came with strict conditions.
"No other national exposition in America has ever quite been ready for the public on the date appointed," Harper's Weekly reporter William Inglis wrote in May 1907, noting "the long, unfortunate record" of previous fairs.
"(But) postponement was impossible. The date of the opening, April 26, was unalterably fixed by act of Congress."
Ten days before opening, the exposition was running months behind schedule.
And when President Roosevelt arrived to push a golden button setting the huge complex of exhibition buildings and amusements in motion, it was only three-quarters finished.
Still, nearly 45,000 people watched the opening unfold, including thousands from Richmond — who'd traveled on special trains to ferries in Newport News — and thousands more from the Peninsula, where hundreds of businesses joined the city governments and Newport News Shipbuilding to declare a holiday.
"Closed Today! Meet us on the War Path!" one store advertised in the Daily Press, extolling the attractions of the fair's midway.
So crowded was the parade ground during Roosevelt's morning speech that he had to leap atop the speaker's table in order to calm the "avalanche of humanity," the paper reported.
And despite such widely recognized shortcomings as the unfinished exhibits and muddy streets piled high with building materials, a spectacular military review and nighttime illumination of the giant fleet filled onlookers with wonder.
"This was a real technological achievement in 1907 — and they really wanted to show it off," HRNM Registrar Katherine Renfrew says, describing the impact of an electrical system that was far from finished.
"For a lot of people, it must have been magical."
Just 17 days later, the fair had made so much progress that it staged an even bigger spectacle for May 13 and Jamestown Landing Day.
Completed in late April, the power grid surged through more than 1 million bulbs and scores of searchlights as darkness fell — transforming both the buildings and the warships into what the Daily Press called a "fairy land."
"Big Crowd Witnessed Electrical Display," it reported, describing the thousands who looked on from the wharf at Old Point Comfort and Chesapeake Boulevard in Hampton.
Buildings and exhibits began opening at a brisk pace, too, drawing thousands to such attractions as the 154,000-square-foot Palace of Manufacturers & Liberal Arts and similarly sized halls dedicated to the states as well as machinery and transportation.
Twenty-one additional state exhibit buildings clustered along the shores of the fairgrounds, including a $40,000 replica of Daniel Boone's frontier fort, whose rough log framing vied for strangeness with the flat roofs and futuristic lines of Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Soap Building.
Some of the biggest crowds filled the streets of the War Path, lured by the 101 Ranch Wild West Show, exotic dancer Princess Rajah and the House of Mirth as well as panoramic moving-screen reproductions of the San Francisco earthquake and the Civil War battles of Hampton Roads, Manassas and Gettysburg.
Then there were such curiosities as the aeronautics, Infant Incubators and Pure Foods displays, where the wonders of applied science and engineering drew spectators in droves.
"These exhibits gave people the chance to see into the future," HRNM Historian Clay Farrington says.
"They were fascinated."
Still, even after a record crowd of 46,537 people gathered on June 10 to see Roosevelt return for Georgia Day — and nearly as many showed up for the Fourth of July and famed black educator Booker T. Washington's Aug. 3 speech for Negro Day — the exposition never recovered from its early troubles.
Though its late surge almost convinced the organizers to reopen the following spring, they declared bankruptcy after the fair ended in November.
Despite drawing more than 3 million people, the exposition fell short of its attendance projections by half — and less than half who came paid for a ticket.
"If they'd made them pay, they almost would've been in the black," Taylor says.
"But they let too many people in for free."
Financial failures notwithstanding, the exposition showcased America's new steel Navy at a critical time in the nation's emergence as a world power.
"This was a coming out party," Farrington says, describing the array of 16 battleships that dominated Hampton Roads, then steamed around the globe as The Great White Fleet.
"Naval officers from around the world were there to see these ships — and they got an eyeful."
A decade later, that legacy would lead to the founding of Naval Station Norfolk at the start of World War I, then the building of the world's largest naval base as the Navy exploited the advantages of the exposition's infrastructure.
Even today, most of the streets and more than 20 buildings from the fair survive, as do many prominent landscape features.
"If you know what you're looking at, you can still get a good sense of how people moved through the paths and looked down the streets," Renfrew says.
Old postcards from the museum's collection help bring back the past, too, recalling such places as the vast military encampment where more than 100,000 National Guardsmen gathered over the course of the fair to camp, drill and challenge each other as well as the world in athletic and martial contests.
Then there's the note from Mary L. Jackson of Elizabeth City, N.C., who visited eight buildings and walked 18 miles before sitting down and resting.
"You certainly have a treat in store for you," Sallie Radford of Lynchburg wrote to a friend on Sept. 20, 1907.
"We are enjoying it immensely."
Erickson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4783.