Party Like It’s 1915!

1915 sign Ferry Building lowres

One hundred years ago this month, San Francisco launched perhaps its greatest party ever. Officially, the nearly year-long fair at Harbor View (now the Marina District) — the Panama-Pacific International Exposition — celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal.  To city leaders and residents, though, it was really a celebration of the city’s own resurrection from the devastating earthquake and fire of 1906.

To build excitement about the forthcoming fair, the city installed lights in 1914 that outlined the Ferry Building tower at night, along with a lighted “1915” above the famous clock. On the Bay side, ferryboat riders all saw the big neon sign running the length of the building: “California Welcomes the World — Panama-Pacific Exposition.” The lights signs stayed up through the end of the fair.

Thanks to a great idea by San Francisco historian and civic leader Donna Ewald Huggins, the lights and “1915” sign are coming back next month, expected to be dedicated March 3. Carl Nolte’s Chronicle story this morning has the details (but note that the content is behind the on-again Chron paywall, so the link may not work for everyone).

The signs and lights cost $80,000, the biggest single chunk coming at the last minute from Bay Area philanthropist Tad Taube.  We thank Tad, Donna, and all the others involved in this great project.

The photo above, from our archives, shows the 1915 sign on the Ferry Building amid a cluster of streetcars operated by Muni and its competitor United Railroads. The banner strung above the Ferry Building entrance — “The Panama Canal is Open”, the “Ball Park” dash sign on the A-Geary streetcar, center, (Ewing Field was a couple of blocks off the line, on Masonic), and the automobile license plate tell us its late summer 1914.

At our San Francisco Railway Museum through October, see our exhibit “Fair, Please!” on how Muni came of age by serving the 1915 fair. At the museum or on our online store, you can also buy a wonderful new book by Laura Ackley on the fair.


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