Chapter One: The Founding Father
The Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 was to be a celebration of US American life and industry, organized in a city which represented its marvels of progress. Of course, the neoclassical facades of the so-called ‘White City’ in no way resembled the polluted tenements of the actual Chicago; as always, the propagated images of the ‘American way of life’ would be an exercise in illusion and distraction. However, amid all this false celebration, there was one feat of trickery which even its main organizers had not counted on until the last minute.
Near the back of the exposition, the imposing model of a classic red-and-white lighthouse promised to take visitors to the ‘marvelous floating city of Columbia’. While the illustrations of massive sky-buildings surely impressed the fairgoers, even they were likely too skeptical to accept such feats of engineering. Nevertheless, those who were curious would be taken up to the top of the lighthouse, where an enclosed ‘rocket capsule’ was waiting to take them to the supposed city. In reality, the vigorous shaking of this capsule only covered up its sideways motion into the adjacent building. Here the visitor would be treated to a longwinded religious lecture by Columbia’s main leader and propagandist, the idiosyncratic prophet known as Zachary Comstock. Perhaps as a way of making up for this tedium, the end of the mostly interior tour would see one come out on a balcony that did indeed give the impression of being in a floating city. Besides the constant bobbing of the building itself, a combination of balloons, facades, and copious mist machines covered up the fact that one was hardly six feet off the ground. At the time, these techniques might have tricked an uneducated few, but the specific context of this illusion would not win its creators much praise regardless. To explain this, it is important that I go into the particulars of Comstock’s most unusual views.
Zachary Hale Comstock was a virtually unknown figure until his emergence in Chicago. His very existence is not attested to before 1890, the year he claimed to have participated in the massacre of Lakota people at Wounded Knee. Perhaps out of a feigned sense of remorse, Comstock would be baptized and become a born again Christian only a year after these gruesome events. After this however, his spiritual views would quickly diverge from any mainstream Protestant currents of the day. Perhaps inspired by his own participation in Indigenous genocide, he came to believe that the very founding of the United States was an act of divine creation, with its main actors like Washington and Franklin being akin to saints. Much more than a Christian creed, Comstock had created a uniquely US American religion.
By the time of the Columbian exposition, Comstock’s heresy had taken on a practical program. As with so many colonial Christians before him, he believed that the ‘decadence’ of the present world could be overcome through the foundation of a new one. The only difference was that Comstock’s call for ‘moral ascension’ took on a quite literal bent. “Only by rising above the lower races in our own New Eden,” he explained, “can we hope to preserve the providence of the white man”. Heaven was to be a place on Earth, and divine inspiration was supposed to grant him the technological knowledge that could make this possible. But given his illusionist techniques in 1893, such enlightenment still seemed a long ways off.
The initial reaction to Comstock’s attraction was decidedly mixed. While some were impressed or even convinced by the prophet’s showmanship, many more were just bored or annoyed by the lectures which suffused it. As time went on however, and repeat visitors to the fair began to pay greater attention to his precise message, this irritation turned to hostility. In order to explain this, it is important to be precise in what his audience objected to. To be sure, it was not Comstock’s claim that the United States had been founded and expanded through divine influence. Even in the twilight of Western expansion, the twin creeds of American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny were still as popular as ever. However, most settlers believed that their colonization had been effected in the name of Christ, and it was this latter figure who Comstock seemed to be ignoring. Canonizing the Founding Fathers was already odd enough, but there was no denying the Son of God!
Within a few weeks, it was clear that the USA’s foremost prophet had been abandoned by his fellow citizens. The protestations of the pious were soon joined by the outrage of Chicago’s immigrant population, who did not take kindly to Comstock’s overt xenophobia. With almost daily occurrences of verbal and physical assault around the “City of Columbia” exhibition, it was clear that the fair’s organizers had a problem on their hands. Thus, on the most ironic date of July 4th, 1893, Chicago’s local constabulary arrived at the fair to shut down Comstock’s operation and arrest him personally for ‘continued disturbance of the public order’. What happened then probably changed the fate of the United States forever.
As the CPD police officers made their way through the still crowded fair, Comstock’s vantage point atop the lighthouse allowed him to see them coming from far away. His few followers formed a protective chain around the exhibit, determined to keep the protestors and policemen from their prophet and his providential paradise. Though their confrontation turned into a short brawl, both sides were soon interrupted by a booming voice from above. “O ye, of little faith,” bellowed Comstock, “who would not partake of the New Eden when it is offered to you freely! While you are destined to fall once more, it is the people of Columbia who shall rise up! Thus, in the words of great Saint Franklin, I shall present you with one last choice: join us, or die!”
Just as he had spoken these words, a great roaring and rumbling came from behind the façade of his exhibit. Before any of those present could reckon with its cause, the main building of his prospective Columbia—the only completed piece of it, in fact—rose into the heavens behind its creator. At Comstock’s command, him and his followers, retreated to the top of the lighthouse, boarding here an actual rocket which subsequently launched them towards the sky palace. As the prophet later indicated from above (making use of a newfangled device that could amplify his voice), the faithful would be allowed to join him in Columbia, but he would not himself come down again until all formal charges against him were dropped.
Though the initial reactions to these miraculous events were greatly confusing, the eventual result would be a comprehensive victory for Comstock’s cause. Some of those who had protested him before continued to do so, but many more flocked to Columbia’s banner in the sudden conviction of its divine inspiration. Meanwhile, local authorities were feeling ambivalent about their policy towards this flying prophet. While they didn’t want to let anyone get away with such flagrant obstructions and ridiculous disturbances, it was undeniable that Comstock was now bringing a lot more curious tourists and pilgrims towards the Columbian Exposition. Thus, both sides settled into a begrudging tolerance of one another, one that would last no longer than the fair’s ending.
By the time the Chicago Exposition was drawing to a close, the floating ‘city’ of Columbia had gone through several important changes. The first was a rapid expansion of its resident properties, new buildings being arranged alongside the central palace to give it the impression of an urban space. With this came the establishment of the first “sky-lines”, buoyant metal rails which would allow passenger cars to ride between buildings. Near the end of the fair, they became the primary way of reaching Columbia, replacing the cumbersome or limited alternatives of rockets and airships.
With the physical growth of Columbia came great interest in its economic future. Comstock and his followers seemed to be inventing new technologies out of nowhere, and their industrial potential was catching the eye of the nation’s foremost industrialists. This was still the Gilded Age, a time where the dominant trusts were always looking for new markets to monopolize. Those who could charm the prophet first would likely be part of a new industrial revolution, bringing personal prosperity for years to come. However, Comstock demanded a steep price for any capitalist compact: those who committed themselves to Columbia’s development would have to do so fully, divesting themselves of any ‘earthly business’. In the end, the only one willing to take this offer would be Jeremiah Fink, a millionaire whose business were already likely to be squeezed out of the market. Thus, he sold out and became Columbia’s primary industrial employer. His partnership with Comstock would bring the city much suffering in times to come.
By the end of Chicago’s 1893 fair, its original title as the “World’s Columbian Exposition” had taken on an entirely new meaning. Most of its last visitors came primarily for the increasingly city-like sky structures which hung above the exhibition grounds. Though the fair wouldn’t last forever, Columbia’s popularity only seemed to be growing, and so it needed a more permanent mooring place. Ironically, this permanence was found in itinerance, as Comstock announced that the city would go on a tour of the nation’s major cities. If the faithful could not come to Columbia, then Columbia would come to them. And so, on Christmas Day 1893, the strange airfleet that made up this new US city departed Chicago, symbolically heading West to signal the settler-colonial roots of its own forthcoming prosperity.
Before I move on, it is important to note the patently absurd nature of the preceding events. Even those who have accepted Columbia as a part of US history must admit to its frank imposition on the nation’s social and technological trajectory. How could such a bizarre place come to be? Concerning the ability of these massive buildings to float so peacefully, both the prophet’s own claims and early technical explanations—based in divine grace and experimental buoyant gases respectively—would prove to be falsehoods. However, the true origin of this miraculous technology would not come to light until almost fifty years later, when several Columbian buildings were downed during the cataclysmic battle of Washington. As it turned out, the buildings of Columbia were kept aloft by a highly exotic quantum particle, one which basically eschewed and even repulsed the ordinary influence of gravity. Associated documentation would describe these strange sub-atoms as “Lutece particles”; while likely named after their primary inventor or discoverer, their identity has remained unknown in the years since. Could it be that Comstock met this mysterious Lutece figure at the Chicago fair, who then supplied him with the means to make his floating city a reality? While the full truth of this historical enigma will likely remain unknown, its devastating results are far from obscure. We will explore these in the next few chapters.