Saguaro Show

Written by Alexa D'Angelo Category: History Issue: October 2014
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“A saguaro boards a train bound for Chicago...”

It sounds like the opening line of a joke, but it really happened in 1893, when some of Arizona’s native desert plants were shipped to the Windy City. Why? Landscaping for a building touting the territorial bounties of Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

There were more than 30 buildings erected by states and territories to promote themselves at the event, but the structure pictured above was the only joint building on the grounds. Designed by architect Seymour Davis of Topeka, Kansas, the building cost roughly $7,500 – or $191,000 in today’s dollars – to create, according to Arizona’s official state historian, Marshall Trimble.  

The building displayed the flora of the three territories, as well as Arizona minerals like gold, silver, copper and turquoise. However, the display of cacti, including a crested saguaro, is what mainly caught the attention of passersby. The cacti, especially the crested saguaro, must have been difficult to transport using the technology of the day, according to Kenny Zelov, Assistant Director of Horticulture at Desert Botanical Garden. “If I had to guess, because the plant is relatively flat, I imagine they braced it and somehow cradled it to remove it horizontally,” Zelov says. “The crescent saguaro is an extremely rare specimen, weighing about three to four thousand pounds; moving it would not have been an easy task back then.”

Nowadays, to move such a display of plants, a modified pickup truck with a hydraulic system would be employed, Zelov says. The cacti would be laid at a 45-degree angle as they sat on a cradle so they could easily be ejected using the hydraulic lift to place them at a final 90-degree angle. “Someone went through a lot of trouble to get these plants there,” Zelov says.

And what became of that rare crested saguaro, with its estimated average lifespan of 150 years? Could it have survived that visit to Chicago 121 years ago? Would any of those desert plants have lived? “No way,” Zelov says. “They would have lasted until the first frost and then they would’ve died... [The plants] weren’t happy, but for a temporary display, it was very dramatic.”

 

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