Iowa State Fair's Historic Spectacle Attractions

Our Great State Fair | Clip
Jul 31, 2023 | 3 min

Fairgoers took great pleasure in experiencing the danger, mayhem and destruction of many fair spectacles. Let's take a look at some of the historic events that brought record crowds to the fair in the first half of the 20th century.


[Narrator] Fairgoers also took great pleasure in danger, mayhem and destruction.

Enormous crowds would gather in the Grandstand to see a person dive from a 40-foot platform into a bucket.

(water splashing)

(crowd cheering)

A human cannonball.


Or to witness the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the fall of Pompeii.

[Chris Rasmussen, Historian] The disaster spectacles were enormously popular. They were the Grandstand's main attraction for decades from the 1890s into the 1930s, and they were staged by large pyrotechnic companies, usually out of Chicago or some other big city. And these spectacles toured the country. They would be produced on many other fairgrounds as well. As I say, people seem to take a kind of they had a morbid fascination, I think, with the prospect of seeing a recreation of an earthquake or a volcanic eruption or a catastrophic battle from history.

[Narrator] Many of these spectacles eventually fell out of favor as people lost their taste for celebrating trauma and loss. But over the top entertainment would continue to be a mainstay for thrill-seeking fairgoers.

(Woman dives off a high platform while riding a horse)

Perhaps the most iconic feat came from Iowan Joe Connelly, who offered the fair a unique opportunity.

[Leo Landis] So, he goes to the Agricultural Society and says, I would like to stage a locomotive crash in 1896.

[Narrator] His plan was simple. Lay down some tracks, find a couple of train engines destined for the trash heap and crash them into each other.

Joe's show played out just like the action movies of today. There was a conflict. In this case, politics.

(Political cartoon states "Free Silver Coinage Craze") (Political ad features two Democratic nominees and states "Gold and Silver Unlimited Coinage)

[Leo Landis] So, the idea of gold versus silver is a big political issue. One of the locomotives is called the Gold Bug, the other locomotive is called the Silver Bug. 

[Narrator] And of course, there was a heroic star, a train engineer who would start the locomotive and jump off at the precise moment it achieved speed, all culminating in an explosive ending.

[Leo Landis] I'm sure it was exciting to see in 1896 if you had come to Des Moines. And it was, it was one of the biggest days of the fair in history up to that time.

[Narrator] Estimated attendance was 50,000 to 60,000 and many watched from building roofs near the Grandstand. Nothing quite finishes the day off like explosions or fireworks, a spectacle that continues to this day.