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The Centennial Exhibition is usually described as the sixth international exhibition of its type, after the Crystal Palace Exhibition at London in 1851, Paris 1855, London 1862, Paris 1867, and Vienna 1873. But there were many other world-class exhibitions both before and between these events. In 1853-54 New York held an exhibition at Reservoir Square (now Bryant Park), which boasted a Crystal Palace that eventually burned in a spectacular fire in 1858.

Centennial organizers learned well from the Vienna Weltanschauung of 1873. This event was a disaster of logistical planning. There was no convenient way for visitors to reach the fairgrounds, and carriage drivers charged exorbitant rates to carry visitors through mud caked fields to the site. In addition, a cholera epidemic in Vienna caused many fairgoers to stay away. Philadelphia was ready for visitors, with direct railroad connections able to service passenger trains every half hour, trolley lines, carriage routes, and even docking facilities along the Schuylkill. The city also constructed a separate water system for the Centennial with filtered water unconnected to municipal supplies to avoid any threat of epidemic.

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