The Panama and San Francisco Connection

Visiting The City By The Bay today, it is hard to appreciate the great significance of the Panama Canal for San Francisco. There always was a connection. When gold was discovered in California and the gold rush was on there were three ways to get to California. The “Plains Across” was the long, arduous and dangerous journey across the continental US.  The “Horn Around” route took one by clipper ship all the way around the southern tip of South America.  The shortest, and most expensive route was the “Isthmus Over,” generally taking a clipper to Panama, or in some cases Nicaragua, slogging cross the jungle, and boarding a boat on the other side to San Francisco.  The Isthmus Over was the most expensive, but also the quickest way, and it was, after all, a gold RUSH.

San Francisco quickly became jammed with abandoned sailing vessels, abandoned when their crews jumped ship to go find gold.  The city was the main jumping off point and provisioning center for the gold seekers.  And, thankfully, as a result we can all today enjoy our Levi 501s.

The city grew and expanded and prospered until 1906 when an earthquake and the resulting fire destroyed 80% of the city.  Less than ten years later the city had recovered and was anxious to show off and in order to do this mounted an extravaganza celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal and what it hoped would be its role in the resulting trade.

On February 20, 1915, the city of San Francisco intended to show the world it had emerged from its greatest catastrophe stronger than ever.

That was the date of the grand opening of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which occurred not quite a full decade after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The resulting fires had destroyed nearly 80 percent of the city and killed thousands, and San Francisco was eager to rid itself of its image as a city destroyed. Through the exposition, it got exactly that.

Nearly 19 million people over the course of nine months were treated to a spectacle of technology, commerce, and culture on former marshland now known as the Marina District.

The event, as its name suggests, was primarily intended to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal, an engineering feat that opened up new trade opportunities between cities along the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. With the canal open and San Francisco rebuilt, the city could now promote itself as a trade gateway between Europe and Asia.

Perham Nahl’s lithograph for the expo, The Thirteenth Labor of Hercules, depicts the son of Jupiter parting the earth as San Francisco sits far off in the distance. Other promotional materials for the event used the California grizzly trekking through the city’s rubble and its newest buildings to symbolize a fearless recovery from the events of 1906.

The expo, as Laura Ackley explains on the California Historical Society’s website, “attempted to curate the planet.'” Visitors could jump between dozens of international and U.S. state pavilions, see jeans and cars being made or watch stunt pilots fly (sometimes with tragic results). They could navigate a five-acre model of the Panama Canal or visit the Liberty Bell, which was put on a train from Philadelphia, touring the country on its way to the exhibition.

A silent film highlighting event footage from the exposition.
Like many other World’s Fairs of the era, this came with an unintentional dark side. Ackley points out that “prurient shows and racist material were on display” while the lethal element radium was billed “as a source of bountiful clean power.”

The temporary, 635-acre “Jewel City” closed its doors on December 4, later that year. Many of the buildings were taken down immediately, while a few others were relocated (see a map of the remaining artifacts here).

Only the Palace of Fine Arts remains on its original grounds. Standing for decades longer than intended thanks to widespread popularity, the building was eventually stripped to its steel core and completely rebuilt in 1964. Today it serves as one of the Bay Area’s most treasured spaces—a great place to escape the city without leaving the city. Not to mention a great place to contemplate how much San Francisco has changed in 100 years.