1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition
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 United States to the world stage and was a milestone in San Francisco history.
GGNRA Park Archives
Though San Francisco was the largest and wealthiest city on the west coast by the turn of the twentieth century, the disastrous 1906 earthquake and ensuing fire destroyed most of the city. Less than ten years later, however, the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition was an ambitious endeavor designed to showcase the new city to the world. Selected by Congress over several other aspirant cities, San Francisco filled 630 acres of bayfront tidal marsh—extending three miles from Fort Mason through the Presidio waterfront to just east of the Golden Gate—to build the grand fair. On this new land, thirty-one nations and many U.S. states built exhibit halls connected by forty-seven miles of walkways. It was said it would take an individual years to visit all the attractions.
Visitors to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition could stroll through California's "Big Trees" inside the Southern Pacific Railroad exhibit or see the replica of the Greek Parthenon with columns made of redwood trunks. They could spend the night in a full-scale replica of the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park or meet Blackfoot Indians at the Glacier National Park exhibit. For a taste of internationalism, they could view a working model of the Panama Canal, experience Samoan dancing and Sumo wrestling, or visit the Persian and Siamese exhibits. The French exhibit hall was a replica of the Hotel de Salm in Paris, where Napoleon's Order of the Legion of Honor was headquartered.
Though its structures were designed to be temporary, architecture at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition was impressive nonetheless. 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 and the forty-story Tower of Jewels held 102,000 pieces of multicolored cut glass that were illuminated by electric light at night. When the fog came in, forty-eight spotlights of seven different colors illuminated the sky to resemble the northern lights.
Bob Bowen Collection
Beyond impressive buildings, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition was intended to showcase new technologies—including cars, airplanes, telephones, and motion pictures—that were in their infancy in the early twentieth century. New farming and agricultural technologies were also introduced; 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—as she wrote, "I saw…cows being milked with a milk machine…it milked them clean and the cows did not object in the least." Other famous attendees included Henry Ford—who built a working Model T assembly line at the fair—and Lincoln Beachy, one of the best-known pilots of the day. Sadly, Beachy crashed an experimental monoplane during one of his shows and died.
The Panama Pacific International Exposition closed in November 1915, just nine months after it opened. In its short lifespan, the fair succeeded in buoying the spirits and economy of San Francisco and also resulted in effective trade relationships between the United States and other nations of the world. Though its legacy was enduring, the fair’s physical structures were built to be temporary and most were torn down shortly after the fair closed. A stroll from Fort Mason to Fort Point takes you through the most lasting physical legacy of the fair, the land created for the fair from bay wetlands including the beautiful Marina District and Crissy Field which was a 1920s grass airfield created from the fair's automobile race track. Along the way you will also see the last structure from the the fair, the Palace of Fine Arts, a San Francisco landmark that was spared demolition and restored in the 1960s.