In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt announced that the U.S. would complete a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, begun years earlier by a French company.
The canal would cut 8,000 miles off the distance ships had to travel from the east coast to the west. No canal of this scale had been built before, and many said it could not be done.
At the turn of the 20th Century, San Francisco was the largest and wealthiest city on the west coast of the United States. In 1906, a disastrous earthquake struck San Francisco. The ensuing fire was more devastating than the Chicago fire of 1871.
Less than 10 years after most of San Francisco was destroyed, the proud city was rebuilt and its people were ready to hold a party, one designed to dazzle the world and showcase the new city.
Even as San Francisco was rebuilding after the earthquake, local boosters promoted the city in a competition to host a world’s fair that would celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal.
The new San Francisco was the perfect choice, and Congress selected the city over several other aspirants, including New Orleans and San Diego.
In order to build this grand fair, over 630 acres of bayfront tidal marsh, extending three miles from Fort Mason to east of the Golden Gate (today’s Marina District and Crissy Field), were filled.
On this new land, 31 nations from around the world and many US states built exhibit halls, connected by 47-miles of walkways. There were so many attractions that it was said it would take years to see them all.
Locals simply called it ‘The Fair.’
For nine months in 1915, the Presidio’s bayfront and much of today’s Marina District was the site of a grand celebration of human spirit and ingenuity. Hosted to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition reflected the ascendancy of the US to the world stage and was a milestone in San Francisco history.
Over 18-million people visited the fair; strolling down wide boulevards, attending scientific and educational presentations, “travelling” to international pavilions and enjoying thrilling displays of sports, racing, music and art. The fair promoted technological and motor advancements.
It was the first world’s fair to demonstrate a transcontinental telephone call, to promote wireless telegraphy and to endorse the use of the automobile. Each day, the fair highlighted special events and exhibits, each with their own popular souvenirs.
The fair was so large and spread out over such a length of land that it was virtually impossible for any visitors to successfully see it all, even over the course of several visits.
The Panama-Pacific International Exposition looked to the future for innovation. Things we take for granted today – cars, airplanes, telephones, and movies – were in their infancy and were shown off at the fair, and some well-known technological luminaries were involved in the fair.
Henry Ford, who brought mass production to American manufacturing and made the automobile affordable to middle class society, built an actual Model T assembly line at the fair. Fords were produced three hours a day, six days a week.
New farming and agricultural technologies were also introduced at the fair. Luther Burbank, creator of many new kinds of plants including the Burbank potato, Santa Rosa plum, Shasta daisy, and the fire poppy, was in charge of the Horticulture Palace.
Author Laura Ingalls Wilder was particularly impressed with new dairy techniques. She wrote, ‘I saw…cows being milked with a milk machine. And it milked them clean and the cows did not object in the least.’
The scale and design of the fair were exceptional. The Palace of Machinery, the largest structure in the world at the time, was the first building to have a plane fly through it. The Horticulture Palace had a glass dome larger than Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
The Tower of Jewels reached 40 stories skyward and held 102,000 pieces of multicolored cut glass that sparkled by day and were illuminated by intense electric lights at night. When the fog came in, 48 spotlights of seven different colors illuminated the sky to look like the northern lights.
The physical structures of the fair were built to be temporary. Most were torn down shortly after the fair closed. However, a few reminders of the fair remain. The railway tunnel under Fort Mason and the San Francisco Yacht Harbor still exist, and the shape of an old race track may be seen on perimeter of the grass Crissy airfield.
The most impressive remnant of all is the Palace of Fine Arts. This landmark, much loved by San Franciscans and visitors from around the world, was spared demolition and was restored and reinforced in the 1960s. It continues to dazzle many millions of people each year. (NPS)
A few agencies and municipalities purchased the smaller buildings that could be transported by boat to new locations. San Mateo County purchased the Ohio Building; Marin County purchased the Wisconsin and Virginia Buildings; the army maintained the Oregon Building on its Presidio location as a military clubhouse.
Some of the larger buildings that were too big to move, like the Tower of Jewels, were disassembled and sold to scavengers. Unfortunately, because the fair buildings were only constructed of plaster, faux travertine and chicken wire, they did not last as long as permanent buildings; once the buildings reached a serious level of deterioration, they were demolished. (NPS)
One of the most popular attractions at the Exposition was a daily show at the Hawaiian Pavilion featuring Hawaiian musicians and hula dancers. It’s where millions of people heard the ‘ukulele for the first time. (Mushet)
“Kamehameha Day at the exposition, or Hawaii Day as they called it here, was all that had been hoped for it. There was splendid weather; the water pageant and the singing of Hawaiian music made a deep sentimental and esthetic effect, and the program as a whole drew tremendous crowds.” (Hawaiian Gazette, June 15, 1915)
At the corner of what is now Baker Street and Marina Boulevard in San Francisco’s Marina District was where the Hawaiian Pavilion stood during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
These Hawaiian shows had the highest attendance at the entire fair and launched a Hawaiian cultural craze that influenced everything from American music, to movies, to fashion. (Mushet)
“The hugely popular Hawaii pavilion … showcased Hawaiian music and hula dancing, and was the unofficial launching pad for ukulele-mania.” Hapa-haole songs were featured in the Hawaii exhibits.
“After the expo, Tin Pan Alley and jazz writers and musicians took interest in the cheery little instrument. Songs such as “Ukulele Lady” and “Oh, How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo (That’s Love in Honolulu)” were published in sheet-music format.”
“Guitar maker CF Martin & Co. built more ukuleles in 1926 than in any previous year. But the uke’s popularity, along with Martin’s production of the instrument, dwindled in the 1930s.” (San Francisco Examiner)
Everyone began writing hapa-haole songs, and in 1916, hapa-haole recordings outsold other types of music. Over the decades they were written in all popular styles—from ragtime, to 30’s swing, to 60s surf-rock. (Ethnic Dance Festival, 2015)
The Panama Pacific International Exposition closed in November 1915. It succeeded in buoying the spirits and economy of San Francisco, and also resulted in effective trade relationships between the US and other nations of the world. (Lots of information here is from NPS.)