In the midst of the Great Depression the city of San Francisco transformed a shallow, useless sandbar two miles out in the bay into a man-made island and then built a beautiful glittering fairyland on top of it. But the story of the 1939 World’s Fair actually begins seventy years before the exhibition opened.
In May of 1869 the transcontinental railroad connected East to West when the golden spike was struck at Promontory Point, Utah. Its westernmost terminus was on the San Francisco Bay in Oakland, California. It would not be long before it became clear that the arrival of this modern mode of transportation had left the bustling city of San Francisco on the wrong side of the bay. The desire for a bridge across that wide stretch of water began being discussed as early as the 1870s. However, it would
be sixty years later in the late 1920s, when the automobile started gaining in popularity, before any real action would be taken. In 1929, the California Toll Bridge Department of Public Works, tasked with building a bridge between San Francisco and Alameda County, was created. Two years later, in 1931, the United States Navy that controlled Yerba Buena Island located in the middle of the bay agreed to allow the proposed bridge to pass through that island, simplifying the engineering demands and reducing the materials that would be required. That same year California Governor James Rolph Jr. signed an act that provided funding via sale of revenue bonds and another act creating the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Division of the State Department of Public Works.
Meanwhile, demand for a bridge linking Marin County with San Francisco was also heating up. The original design for a bridge spanning the Golden Gate was created in 1917. But opposition was legion. The Department of War and the United States Navy were concerned that a bridge spanning the entrance to the bay would interfere with ship traffic. They argued that the bridge could be sabotaged, resulting in debris that would block the harbor entrance. The Southern Pacific Railroad did not want competition for their ferry which at that time was the only way to reach San Francisco from Marin County. But as the automobile industry gained strength in the 1920s, this bridge also gained a champion. In May 1924 the federal government transferred ownership of the land needed for the bridge to San Francisco and Marin counties. In 1930 a bond measure to fund the bridge was approved by voters, but by that time the country had been plunged into the Great Depression and the state was not able to sell the bonds. It did not look as if the project would ever get off the ground. Finally, in 1932 in an effort to boost the local economy, A. Giannini, owner of the Bank of Italy, on behalf of the bank, purchased the entire $30 million issue and the project was ready to go.
A REASON TO CELEBRATE
Construction on both the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge began in 1933, in the heart of the Great Depression, putting thousands of unemployed construction workers back on the payroll. The work was dangerous, but the pay was good.
Even as the work was just beginning on the two bridges, the idea of holding a World’s Fair to commemorate their completion was floated in a letter written to The San Francisco News in February 1933. The idea caught on immediately and the debate over location began. Some favored repurposing the Presidio, site of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, others preferred Golden Gate Park or Candlestick Point. But ultimately, in 1935 it was decided that a man-made island would be built on the Yerba Buena Shoals to be named “Treasure Island” in honor of the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, who had lived on Bush Street in San Francisco for a short time.
The proposal submitted in August 1936, incorporating the idea first put forth in 1931 of converting the island into a municipal airport after the fair was concluded, requested $10 million in WPA funds to complete construction. President Roosevelt approved the funding in October and on February 11, 1936 the Army Corp of Engineers began dredging operations.
The San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge opened November 12, 1936 with what the San Francisco Chronicle described as “the city’s greatest parade of autos.” Six months later on May 17, the longest suspension bridge in the world, the Golden Gate Bridge, opened to a week-long celebration. And construction of Treasure Island in the middle of the Bay continued.
On February 18, 1939 the San Francisco World’s Fair, officially named the Golden Gate International Exposition, opened to great fanfare. Projected attendance was 20 million people. The only way to get onto Treasure Island was via ferry from either Oakland or San Francisco. To encourage visitors from outside the area, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad added trains between Bakersfield and Oakland. A consortium of several other railroad companies added the “Exposition Flyer” to provide passenger service between Chicago and Oakland to bring tourists from the East. Bus lines in the East Bay added special service to the ferry that would bring eager passengers to the newly constructed piers on Treasure Island.
Sonoma County was represented at the fair by a $2,000 exhibit in the exposition building that had been built by the state of California. Local members of the Future Farmers of America and 4-H Clubs participated in the Junior Livestock show held on the island in April 1939. That same month the 60-member Santa Rosa Junior College symphonic band appeared in a special concert held during the State Junior College Scholarship Society convention.
In March 1939, The Healdsburg Tribune, Enterprise and Scimitar ran a lighthearted “bird’s eye view” of the fair to entice locals to motor down to the City for the event. Visitors from Healdsburg included 19 year-old Maria Buchignani, who attended with her Aunt Catherine Poulson Giorgi and her cousin “Little Catherine” Giorgi who lived in San Francisco. Maria, who was working as bookkeeper for Rosenberg’s Department Store in Healdsburg, brought along her brand new Brownie camera and two rolls of film to take photos of the lovely sites that would greet her there.
The theme of the Golden Gate International Exposition was “A Pageant of the Pacific” intended to showcase the products and cultures of the nations surrounding the Pacific Ocean, with San Francisco serving as the gateway. Among the beautiful installations completed by formerly out-of-work architects, engineers, craftsmen, and artists who found employment and commissions for the fair were “The Tower of the Sun” 80-ft statue of Pacifica (goddess of the Pacific Ocean) and the Chinese village. There were also areas devoted to exhibits from many Central and South American countries, as well as from Europe. A selection of the photos that Maria Buchignani took with her simple camera are featured below.
In addition to the wondrous displays and exhibits, a 40-acre section housed the midway, dubbed the “Gayway,” the winning entry in a 1938 contest to name the Amusement Zone. There visitors could enjoy typical carnival rides like a Ferris wheel and a carousal, as well as various shows and performances. But there were also more exotic and unusual offerings including “Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch,” a troupe of little people performing in a Western setting, and a racetrack for automobile driving monkeys.
Another visitor from Healdsburg in 1939 was local farmer John Taeuffer, who attended with close family friend Dorothy “Dot” Harboe. Dot, who had been a frequent guest at the Magnolia Drive ranch throughout the 1910s, ‘20s, and 30s, was a career gal who lived by herself in a San Francisco apartment. Around the turn of the twentieth century her name could be found in the society pages of the San Francisco newspapers attending numerous galas and parties. The exact path she took from there to becoming a close friend of John and Mae Taeuffer in Healdsburg is yet to be discovered.
The Golden Gate International Exposition closed on October 29, 1939 for the winter. John Taeuffer must have enjoyed his first visit there because when it re-opened in May 1940, he and pal Dot Harboe returned. One change they would have noticed was in the Hall of Fine and Decorative Arts, which in 1939 held the art collections of European and Pacific cultures. For the 1940 season, however, it was transformed into the “Art in Action” program. The working art exhibit showcased sculptors, painters, muralists, weavers, stained glass artists, printmakers, potters, and engravers all creating art while the public watched. Spectators even had the opportunity to experience the renowned Diego Rivera painting a magnificent fresco that year.
The fabulous World’s Fair closed forever at the end of September 1940. A total of seventeen million visitors attended the fair over the two years it was open, falling a bit short of the planners’ optimistic projection of twenty million. But, like many world’s fairs, the $7.8 million Golden Gate International Exposition did not break even. Additionally, the grand plan to convert Treasure Island into an airport was abandoned when, due to demands created by the outbreak of World War II, it was taken over by the United States Navy. But in the midst of the Great Depression, the fair provided badly needed jobs for a great many architects, engineers, construction workers, artists, and artisans. It also offered a welcome diversion from the difficult times that the people of the country were experiencing.
- 1920 Census
- 1930 Census
- Library of Congress
- Healdsburg Tribune, Enterprise and Scimitar: 6 May 1915, 4 Oct 1934, 23 December 1937, 15 December 1938, 23 February 1939, 02 March 1939
- Healdsburg Enterprise: 24 April 1915, 1 May 1915
- San Francisco Call: 7 May 1894, 23 August 1902, 14 August 1910
- San Francisco Chronicle: 13 November 1936
- Bay Area News Group: 9 August 2013
- www.sfgate.com: The ’39 world’s fair: and island of joyous excess, 17 August 2013
- www.foundsf.org: Treasure Island Fair: Golden Gate International Exposition
4 thoughts on “San Francisco World’s Fair 1939 – A Pageant of the Pacific”
Another wonderful story incorporating family that would have been lost to history if not for you.
Thank you, Frank! I really learned a lot while researching this one.
Having just finished the Cotter book. (Arcadia Publishing) I am so disappointed that for some reason there is a shortage of Pictures. Having done a minimal study of the expositions, it looks like the art work in itself blew all the rest away. and color pictures of night would be a joy to see.
Having gone to Electronics Technician “A” school on Treasure Island, in 1962, I explored all that was left there and always enjoyed the tranquiity of stopping at the fountain. It wasn’t operating, but the sculpture was all there, and one could but imagine the splendor. Yes, there’s nothing I’d enjoy more than a full photograph (or video) feature of the fair as my parents saw it… yep, I’m a native!