Most visitors to Balboa Park don’t realize the history all around them. Many San Diegans know there was an expo in the park, but few realize there were two — one in 1915-16 then again in 1935-36.
The first expo turned the empty expanse of what was originally City Park into an ornate fantasyland of gardens and architecture. The second expo refurbished those buildings while adding more. Both brought world attention to our city while making San Diegans proud of their hometown.
As most things, it all began with an idea. G. Aubrey Davidson, president of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, formed a committee on July 9, 1909, to consider his proposal of celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal (and at the same time attract more business to our little city).
San Francisco wanted to be the only West Coast venue, but had a setback following the Great Earthquake of 1906. The disaster also drove businessman John Spreckels (and his money) south, and San Diego was never the same. Spreckels donated $100,000 toward the local expo and much, much more. At the opening of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition he and brother Adolph also bestowed the great organ pavilion to the city with the stipulation that free concerts always continue.
City fathers decided a more exciting name was needed, and “Balboa” Park was chosen. The famous landscaping brothers John and Frederick Olmsted were hired along with their friend, architect Bertram Goodhue. Although first planned on 37 acres north of SD high school, Colonel “Charlie” Collier (Director-General from 1909-1912) lead the move to 167 acres on the central Vizcaino Mesa in the heart of the park to the chagrin of many including the committee’s first chairman George Marston. The Olmstead brothers promptly resigned stating, “our professional responsibility as park designers will not permit us to assist in ruining Balboa Park.”
But the little town with its big dream was underway, and San Diego buzzed with excitement. Unfortunately, the Exposition Board was reluctant to allow female participation. This inspired Alice Klauber to form the SD County Women’s Association. The group notified the boys that if provisions weren’t made, they would advertise that fact to every woman’s club in the nation. Not surprisingly, the board changed its mind.
Following five years of unrelenting effort, at the first stroke of 1915, President Woodrow Wilson pressed a telegraph button in the nation’s capitol that turned on the power at the exposition. Simultaneously a balloon 1,500 feet overhead illuminated the midnight sky over a three-mile area. Missiles and 7,000 sticks of red carbide left smoky trails as eight powerful searchlights from a cruiser in the bay threw beams of light onto the California Tower. Bonfires atop hills all over San Diego County burst into flames. 1,000 mines on the exposition grounds exploded as guns at Fort Rosecrans and on the USS San Diego, nine torpedo destroyers, two submarines and a repair ship in the harbor saluted. As confetti, sirens, whistles and ringing cowbells filled the air, a stream of over 30,000 wildly cheering participants began crossing the newly built Cabrillo Bridge.
They were the first of more than 2,000,000 visitors who paid 50¢ admission (25¢ for kids). For a dollar an hour one could rent an electric-powered wicker chair — the 3.5mph electriquettes were the only transportation option on the grounds. The yellow and red theme was seen everywhere as fairgoers marveled at the transformation of the barren plateau into a heavenly vision. People flocked to the Isthmus fun zone to pay an additional 50¢ be amazed by a sundry of attractions including performing cows, an underground opium den with wax figures showing the horrors of addiction, ostriches inside a pyramid, a Hawaiian village, racing coasters and a War of the Worlds fantasy that replicated New York City being destroyed in 2000 by attacking Asians and Africans in battleships and planes. The first expo was wacky, educational and a great success, but soon it was over. Opera singer Madame Schumann-Heink whose voice had opened the exposition also brought it to an end. With the last notes of “Auld Lang Syne” fireworks lit the sky over the organ pavilion spelling out “World Peace 1917.”
Now the question arose: what will happen to the buildings? Before an answer could be decided, World War I and the Great Depression shifted the city’s attention away from the park.
Twenty years later the economy began slowing rebounding. In hopes of bringing tourists and more money into San Diego, a second fair was planned. The California Pacific International Exposition ran from May 29-November 11, 1935 then reopened with a toned-downed version from February 12-September 9, 1936. Opening night drew nearly one-third of the city’s entire population (smart burglars knowing the homes were unoccupied robbed virtually every house on Richmond Street). The new expo added the Spanish Village, the art-deco Ford Building (now the Aerospace Museum) and the adjacent outside theatre (now Starlight). Attractions featured Dillinger’s armored car, log rollers, fan-dancer Sally Rand, a nudist colony, Gold Gulch Gertie and Midget City, which the Union-Tribune described as “a modern community of more than 100 Lilliputians…designed to accommodate the stride and reach of this clan of little people” many who later found employment as munchkins in Oz.
We all owe a great thanks to the determined men and women who planned and participated in these great expositions. Besides bringing San Diego to the attention of the world and bolstering community pride, the city realized that once united…we could make dreams come true.
— first printed in HillQuest Urban Guide #4, 2006