Rise From The Rubble

—Sean Dermer

“I have seen tonight the greatest revelation of beauty that was ever seen on this Earth. I may say this meaning it literally and with full regard for all that is known of ancient art and architecture and all that the modern world has heretofore seen of glory and grandeur. I have seen beauty that will give the world new standards of art, and a joy in loveliness never before reached.” (Edwin Markham)

Arising as one of the country’s largest and wealthiest cities, San Francisco was the site of The World’s Fair of 1915. The 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition had the purpose of celebrating the completion of The Panama Canal, and the 400th anniversary of the Pacific Ocean’s “discovery.” Although it was mainly viewed as a celebration for the completion of the Panama Canal, many people viewed this world’s fair as an opportunity to showcase the rebirth of the new San Francisco after the tragic 1906 earthquake. The exposition, which featured 31 nations and many of the U.S. states, featured the newly built city that was destroyed just nine years prior. On the 636 acres of land, countless exhibits and buildings littered what’s now known as the Marina District to show the world The United States’ achievements and ingenuity. The event, which ran from February to December, 1915, established effective trade between The United States and other nations, and it also helped boost the spirits of those affected by the 1906 quake.

On April 16, 1906, a severe earthquake struck San Francisco. The city violently shook for just under a minute. The quake fractured the San Andreas fault, which was felt for over 296 miles from San Fran. The quake was felt from southern Oregon to central Nevada, and although it preceded the Richter scale, the magnitude of the quake was estimated at around 7.8. For about 40 seconds, the tremor violently shook houses. Chimneys of red and brown brick crashed to the ground like a mass of giant Jengas. After the forty second tremor, there was a 10 second pause. Then, another tremor came for another 25 seconds, which was stronger than the first. People gathered in the streets to assess the damage, and panic set in as many people were trapped under rubble. Horses laid covered by bricks in the center of streets. The roads all across San Francisco were split open, the surface ruptures extending close to two hundred miles, revealing water lines and the earth below.

Crowds of people gathered in the street as the city was engulfed in flames. They watched almost in awe as their city burned to the ground. The initial tremors destroyed most of San Francisco’s water lines and also ruptured many of the gas lines underground. Over 30 blazes engulfed the city for several days. The most famous fire was nicknamed the “Ham and Eggs” fire. Owners of Caffe Delle Stelle were cooking breakfast when the initial tremor struck. The chimney on the building collapsed on a lit stove, sparking a fire. The fire travelled blocks until it made its way to City Hall. In an effort to stop the fire from spreading to City Hall, dynamite was used to destroy buildings along the fire’s path in hopes of stopping the fire from spreading. Their efforts were rendered useless as the dynamite sparked more fires. City Hall was overtaken by the raging fire, which burned for four days.

Since the water mains were destroyed in the initial quake, the fires raged on consuming the city of San Francisco. The U.S. Navy stepped in by running water lines into the city to help aid firefighters. Over 28,000 buildings and close to 3,000 people perished in the fires. With damages estimated around $11 billion, and over a quarter of a million left homeless, the U.S. Army opened refugee camps that distributed food and clothing to those in need. Throughout all of San Francisco, tents were used to shelter the people that were displaced after the devastating fires. These tents were later replaced by shack cottages. Refugees paid two dollars a month for their shacks in order to remain. By 1908, all shacks were taken down as many people began to rebuild their homes.

The 1906 earthquake was one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. It was one of the first natural disasters to have photographic evidence of the effects. Although the earthquake caused a significant amount of damage, the fires that followed caused the devastating damage that left San Francisco in dire need of rebuilding. Rising from the rubble and ashes, San Francisco was given a tabula rasa to rebuild.

Growing ever since the Gold Rush of 1849, San Franciscans quickly began to recover from the earthquake’s devastation. The destruction of an entire city offered new ways to improve the city and reestablish the wealthiest and largest city. This produced new elegant structures and encouraged the birth of new towns around the San Francisco bay area.

After being selected over New Orleans by President Taft, San Francisco was given the chance to be the official host of The 1915 World’s Fair. With much debate as to where the event was to be held, it was decided the bay area of the city, now known as the Marina District, would be the spot. The 636 acre fair was located between Fort Mason and the Presidio waterfront. The new land featured exhibits from the U.S. and many other nations, all of which were connected by over 40 miles of walkways. A visitor of the fair said that it would take an individual years just to visit all of the attractions offered.

With many exhibits at the visitor’s disposal, one could get lost visiting the attractions featured. The 65 acre amusement area offered guests days’ worth of entertainment. The Liberty Bell was loaned from Philadelphia and placed on display. (It was the final trip for the Liberty Bell on its nationwide train journey before returning to Philadelphia.) Southern Pacific Railroad exhibited their first purchase of a steam locomotive, the C.P Huntington. Southern Pacific also had on display a replica of the Greek Parthenon created with columns made from redwood tree trunks.

The Palace of Fine Arts from The Panama-Pacific World’s Fair as it stands today. (Photo by Abington Review Staff)
The Palace of Fine Arts from The Panama-Pacific World’s Fair as it stands today. (Photo by Abington Review Staff)

AT&T featured the transcontinental phone line. It marked the first time that a transcontinental phone call had been made, which was established between San Francisco and New York. The historic four way call was made by Alexander Graham Bell in New York, his assistant Thomas Watson in San Francisco, President Woodrow Wilson in Washington, and president of AT&T, Theodore Vail, in Georgia. Although it stretched over 3,400 miles, only 3 circuits were used to connect this historic phone call. The phone call between New York and San Francisco was made possible with over 130,000 telephone polls, 2,500 tons of copper, and months of construction. Guests of the fair were given the chance to see the American Grand Prize, the first Grand Prix race of the 1915 season, and the Vanderbilt Cup. An option to spend a night at a full scale replica of Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park was offered to the visitors. Thousands of manufacturing and production exhibits were on display at the fair.

For almost three hours a day, Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company had an operating assembly line on the fairgrounds. The assembly line produced a new automobile in an astonishing ten minutes. The cars were then driven to a local Ford dealership to be sold. Whether you were taking a ride in a new biplane over the bay or reading the news headlines typed on a 14 ton Underwood typewriter, the exhibits entertained anyone of any age.

For the guests who wanted an international taste of the fair, there was much to offer. A five acre working model of the recently completed Panama Canal was on display. The model was recreated to commemorate the completion of the Canal. The model, which took over two years and eleven million dollars to construct, featured miniature trains, lighthouses, and ships going through the working canal locks of the model. Visitors could also experience Samoan dancing and live Sumo wrestling and visit the Persian and Siamese exhibits. A replica of the Hotel de Salm in Paris, where Napoleon’s Order of the Legion of Honor was located, was on display in the French Exhibit. Food samplings from various countries around the world were available to guests. With many exhibits at the fair, it wasn’t a surprise to see people returning to take in as much as they could before it was closed down.

Since San Francisco was given a clean slate to rebuild after the earthquake, building architecture was a huge influence on the world’s fair. Many of the buildings erected were only to be temporary. Most buildings were created with a wooden base then molded with staff, a combination of plaster and burlap. John McLaren, the landscape architect, worked with all of the building architects to keep the same theme in mind throughout the entire fairgrounds. He had over 30,000 imported plants, trees, bushes, and flowers surrounding the grounds around the courts and palaces. Over 1,500 sculptures and paintings covered the palaces, adhering to the theme of the fair. With the help of General Electric, the fair had an enormous lighting scheme, which had thousands of hidden lights to illuminate the buildings at night. An enormous barge nicknamed the “Scintillator” had forty-eight searchlights that projected several different colors and fog to replicate the northern lights.

The architectural centerpiece of the fair was the Tower of Jewels. The 43-story tower was at the entrance of the fairgrounds. At the completion of the tower, it was the tallest standing structure in San Francisco. The Tower of Jewels was covered with 100,000 pieces of nova gems and colored glass. The gems glistened in the sunlight giving off a rainbow. At night the tower was lit by over fifty spotlights.

A postcard featuring The Tower of Jewels from The 1915 Panama-Pacific World’s Fair.
A postcard featuring The Tower of Jewels from The 1915 Panama-Pacific World’s Fair.

The Palace of Machinery was another architectural masterpiece. The palace which was the largest structure in the world at the time, was the first building to have a plane fly through. Pilot Lincoln Beachey, “The Man Who Owns the Sky,” flew his monoplane through the building. Beachey also took off and landed inside the enormous building.

One day, Beachey was attempting to perform an inverted loop in front of over 5,000 people. As he was pulling out of the inverted loop, the stress on the rear wings caused the plane to crash into the bay. It took almost two hours to recover Beachey’s body.

The Horticulture Palace, which featured the newest advances in horticulture and agriculture, had an enormous glass dome larger than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The Court of Universe, Court of the Four Seasons, and the Court of Abundance all formed the primary location for exhibits.

For everyone that attended the fair, there were plenty of souvenirs to satisfy their needs. Many souvenirs were official items that were sold on the fairgrounds, while many non-official souvenirs were sold all throughout California and San Francisco. The U.S. Post Office created a set of four postage stamps to commemorate the fair; designs included Vasco Núñez de Balboa, the Pedro Miguel locks of the Panama Canal, the Golden Gate, and the discovery of the San Francisco Bay. The San Francisco Mint issued five commemorative coins for the fair.

Obverse and reverse of one of the Panama Pacific Exposition Silver Coins.
Obverse and reverse of one of the Panama Pacific Exposition Silver Coins.

After the fair was completed, jewels from the Tower of Jewels were sold as souvenirs for one dollar (over $20 today). Some of the jewels from the tower had a brass tag with certification from the creator of the nova gems, Walter Ryan. One of the most prized souvenirs were The Panama Pacific coins.

Almost all of the fair is gone, with the only remnant still visitable today—The Palace of Fine Arts—gently overlooking a lake where birds lunch and swim daily. But it is still a reminder to San Franciscans that they can always build something bigger and better.