Countdown To The Future

—Taquiny Williams

When a person thinks about a world’s fair, what comes to mind? Extravagant replicas that show off how one place is better than the other? A spectacular event where people spend their money and enjoy themselves? No. The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair was deemed one of the greatest fairs held in the U.S. because it gave visitors a glimpse into the future, and left Seattle with a lasting legacy. The Century 21 Exposition gave Seattle ubiquitous recognition, effectively “putting it on the map.” Years of planning went into the fair by the hard work of visionaries and dreamers such as Al Rochester and Don Follet.

At the age of fourteen, Al Rochester worked as a bread slicer with big dreams. By 1955 Rochester had come of age and was a Seattle City councilman. Remembering the successes and joys of the A-Y-P (Alaskan Yukon Pacific Exposition), the first world’s fair in Washington state, Rochester began to talk about the idea of a second World’s Fair in Washington. At an informal luncheon at the Washington Athletic Club, Follett, executive vice-president of the Chamber of Commerce, took an interest in Rochester’s idea. Follett was a part of the state legislature to consider supporting a new world’s fair that would celebrate the 50th anniversary of the A-Y-P. Eventually, a bill was drafted in Olympia calling for $5,000 to form a World’s Fair Commission.

Less than a year later, and just two days before the Seattle Century 21 World’s Fair opened, one of Seattle, Washington’s most iconic landmarks was create. The Monorail was christened on April 19, 1962. The system’s original cost was $4,200,000. The Century 21 Corporation, which staged the Seattle World’s Fair, took over the line and sold it to the Seattle Transit Commission for $600,000 after The Fair in 1965.

Construction began in April of 1961. The Monorail opened to the public on March 24, 1962, nearly one month before the start of The World’s Fair and carried more than eight million guests during the six months of the fair, easily paying for the cost of construction. The electric motors were designed to take the Monorail up to 70 mph, and were designed and produced by General Electric Co. It was intended to be a prominent feature of The Century 21 Expo. The contract to build the Monorail was awarded to Alweg Forschung, a Swedish designer.

The entrance to the Alweg Monorail in Seattle, Washington, one of the many remnant of the Century 21 Exposition. (Photo by Abington Review staff)
The entrance to the Alweg Monorail in Seattle, Washington, one of the many remnants of the Century 21 Exposition. (Photo by Abington Review staff)

The Monorail was designed to run on a raised track nine-tenths of a mile in distance and travel above and along 5th Avenue, and would journey back and forth from the Century 21 Fairgrounds to just north of Pine Street. Today it runs from Seattle Center to the Westlake Center downtown.

Today, the train carries approximately two million passengers every year. The Monorail has become an important fixture in Seattle for locals, who use the trains during major festivals and sporting events. Seattle Center Monorail is one of the few fully self-sufficient public rail transit systems in the nation. It holds ten thousand people per hour for ten minutes per ride.

The Seattle World’s Fair was so spectacular that people were ecstatic, excited, and fascinated to see the best things the world had to offer. The event was originally planned to take place for two years but after much deliberation the board decided to reduce the duration. While the cost of this exposition was around $47 million, the net profit was only $100,000. However, due to the hype of the event, and the tremendous attendance, 23 nations were recognized along with over 800 published articles on the fair.

The Fair was divided into five worlds, each with a specific focus: The World of Science, The World of Tomorrow, The World of Commerce and Industry, The World of Art, and The World of Entertainment. The World of Science, housed in the Spacearium, centered on the United States Science Exhibit and held a majority of the government’s contributions. This included an exhibit dedicated to NASA, figures and models of various satellites, as well as the Project Mercury Capsule that carried Alan Shepard into space. The exhibit also included a simulated voyage through the Solar System and the Milky Way Galaxy. The World of Science was a place where attendees could learn all about the development and advances in every aspect of science.

The World of Tomorrow was housed in the Washington State Coliseum along with exhibits hosted by France, Pan American World Airways, General Motors, and the American Library Association. The World of Tomorrow’s exhibit included a section called “Century 21 the Threshold and The Threat.” This area’s main attraction was “The Bubbleator,” a ride that took attendees on a quick tour of history.

The Bubbleator was a giant bubble used as a hydraulic elevator. Built specifically for the fair, the giant machine was housed in the Washington State Coliseum, currently known as Key Arena. For nearly two decades it was a fixture at the Center House, moving hundreds of thousands of people up and down two floors. For the Bubbleator’s current owner, Gene Achziger it’s been turned into a recording studio inside a greenhouse.

In 1962, there were real innovations happening in the moment. It gave the city confidence. The organizers of Century 21 pulled off something that continues to be celebrated. It’s something left behind that’s worth remembering. The Monorail imagined a future that was sleek, streamlined, and bold. Some call it “the train to nowhere.” It was also once called “The world’s first full-scale rapid-transit system.” The memories of 1962 ignite joy for those who attended it, and historians and civic leaders say the legacy still matters today. The fair had a little of everything, it left its physical footprint. Will it soon be time for Century 22? Let’s bring it back!