Sunset
Beacon
 
TitleDecember 2004
 

 

Judith Kahn: San Francisco's Midwinter Fair

Golden Gate Park was the site of the first American-sponsored world exposition held west of the Mississippi River. The 1894 event was an unprecedented success.

Michael de Young was inspired by the World's Columbian Exposition held in the midwest in 1893. He was convinced that, if Chicago could successfully host such an event in frigid weather, San Francisco, with milder winters, could too. De Young's convictions proved to be correct. On opening day, Jan. 27, 1894, the exposition attracted some 72,000 people. During its six-month run, more than 2 million people attended San Francisco's Midwinter Exposition.

When he first conceived the idea, de Young foresaw a local commercial fair that would last possibly a month and occupy no more then 60 acres of land. What occurred, however, was far more spectacular. The California Midwinter International Exposition stayed open six months, spread out over almost 200 acres. It hosted exhibits from every county in California, almost every state in the Union and 37 foreign countries. At the time, everyone got caught up in the excitement.

Through his enthusiasm and sound reasoning, de Young raised the funds necessary for the fair in 30 days. Because San Francisco was in a economic slump in the late 1800s, a California exposition would be certain to create jobs and promote the state's industries and agriculture.

The event would be inexpensive to produce: The exhibits were already in the U.S. and the rent would be free since it would be held on undeveloped land in Golden Gate Park. As well, San Francisco had a transportation system which was up and running.

The fact that funding was gained through private individuals and businesses - not local government bonds and loans - illustrates the public's great enthusiasm for the exposition.

The Overland Monthly described the buildings in the fair as follows: "No element of utility has been sacrificed to those of beauty, symmetry or color. Blue domes, dark red tiles, pearl-white marbles and time-stained yellows are in harmony with sea, sky and Earth."

The Mechanics Building, east Indian in style, was the second largest building at the fair. The Fine Arts Building housed an impressive collection of decorative arts, watercolors, oil paintings and sculptures.

The structures in the exposition were varied and grand. The tallest structure was Bonnet's Tower, which stood 272 feet tall in the center of the Court of Honor. It was referred to as "la petite Tour Eiffel de San Francisco." The tower had a search light, one of the first electric lights in operation, that could be seen from all over the City. An elevator took spectators to a height of 210 feet, with stops along the way.

Many of the exhibits were constructed to remind visitors that California was truly the "land of sunshine, fruit and flowers." Los Angeles county displayed an elephant comprised of hundreds of pounds of walnuts, which stood under an arch of oranges. Other California products, including citrus fruits, peanuts and corn were also on display. The Porterville Wheel exhibit was a Ferris wheel whose passengers were raisins, walnuts, peanuts and lemons.

Cultures from all around the world were represented at the fair.

"The Midway is an educator, in its way. It affords peeps into the lands and customs that have hitherto been myths as far away and impalpable as the man-in-the-moon," the Overland Monthly wrote.

There was the Esquimaux Village, which had dog teams, papier-mache igloos and a miniature lake. As for food, fairgoers could experience a taste of Cairo and booths were set up so visitors could purchase items from around the world, including beads from Bethlehem, olives from the Mount of Olives and fish nets from Gethsemane. The adventurous could ride a camel or watch sword fights.

One of the most popular attractions was the Ferris wheel, designed by J.K. Firth. It was driven by a 40 horsepower engine and advertised itself as a "beautiful view and novel ride." Visitors could take a 20-minute ride and enjoy a view of the Golden Gate, Marin Headlands and Pacific Ocean.

Six months after the fair began, exhibitors and vendors packed up their goods and left the premises as a Mexican band played background music.

The grounds remained open to the public with a few of the attractions still operating. But by July 8, all of the visitors had gone and the lights went out across the entire fairgrounds - the fair had officially closed.

Although the exposition was over, the memory would live on as one of San Francisco's most amazing events, exemplifying San Franciscans' spirit, energy, vision and ingenuity at its best.

Today, many of the 1894 exposition's features are still visible, including Stow Lake, the Japanese Tea Garden and the remnants of Sweeney's Observatory at the top of Strawberry Hill. The observatory was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

Editor's note: Information for this article was compiled from "Images of America: San Francisco's Midwinter Exposition," by Dr. William Lipsky (published by Arcadia)