Judith Kahn: San Francisco's Midwinter
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 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
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
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)