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Opening the Midwinter Fair

by Woody LaBounty

The official opening day of the California Midwinter International Exposition came after a rainy night. A heavy fog hung over the city at daybreak on January 27, 1894, but by 9:00 a.m. the clouds were clearing and a parade was forming at Van Ness and Golden Gate Avenues.

The San Francisco Examiner played up the international flavor of the fair at the parade's starting point: “Early upon the streets were people in strange garb and garments unusual even in so cosmopolitan a town. The Orientals befezzed and bespangled all the place. Cossacks and Singalese, men from Maine and Manchuria, went up and down, evidently getting themselves in readiness for something out of the common.”1

When San Francisco Chronicle publisher Michael de Young began promoting the idea of recycling exhibits and attractions from Chicago’s 1893 World Columbian Exposition for a fair in San Francisco, his planned opening date was January 1, 1894. Despite a mere four months of time to pull it off after the August 24, 1893 groundbreaking, a January 1st dedication remained the plan. After all, a fair opening on New Year’s Day would offer the best proof to the world that California was the land of sunshine. But, ironically, weather delayed trains delivering many of the concessions exhibits and heavy rain in San Francisco slowed construction.

The exposition did have a “soft opening” on January 1, 1894, and indeed, once the fences around the grounds had been erected in mid-December 1893, a twenty-five admission fee had been charged to the thousands of locals who paid to watch workmen hammering and early entertainers perform. Now, on Sunday, January 27th, while still not complete, the California Midwinter International Exposition would open with a parade.

Consisting mostly of military companies, bands, and dignitaries in carriages, the parade to the park began a little after ten o’clock. After the VIPs, bands, and military ranks came men dressed as prospecting 49ers on pack mules, habitués of the “Cairo Street” exhibit riding donkeys (their promised camels were a no-show), and 200 “wheelmen” on bicycles. Dahomey villagers from Africa who were such a hit at the Columbian Exposition were still en route to California, so an African-American vaudevillian stood in with his own version of Dahomey dress.

View east on Golden Gate Ave. to parade with Midwinter Fair participants, the Dahomey Villagers. St. Boniface Church in background., 1894 -

De Young had promoted the fair as a panacea to economic depression and joblessness, and his San Francisco Chronicle toed the company line in describing the parade: “Everybody was well dressed; all looked prosperous. The jingle of money was heard at every step in and around the Exposition.”2

The parade headed west on Golden Gate to Divisadero Street, turned left to the park panhandle and continued through the main fair site now the park’s Music Concourse to the parade grounds in what is today the Big Rec baseball fields. More than 7,000 filled the grandstand and many thousands more spread out on the field before them for commencement ceremonies, which consisted of band music and lots of speeches.

Elevated view east over crowd and opening day parade of California Midwinter International Exposition. Bonet's Electric Tower, Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, Mechanical Arts Building on right with crowd of people standing on near tower platform. [8037 Opening Day of the Cal. Mid. Inter. Exp. Jan. 27, 1894], Jan 27, 1894 - Isaiah West Taber

Speakers included the California governor, de Young in his capacity as the exposition’s Director-General, and future mayor and U.S. senator James D. Phelan. Members of the Park Commission and park superintendent John McLaren were against having the fair in the park and likely didn’t enjoy hearing Phelan’s description of what was called “Concert Valley” before 1894: “Four months ago this site was a barren waste, but with an energy unprecedented and with the labor of love, the work of the Executive Committee, these Exposition buildings have sprung up, as it were, in a night, to house the representatives of the world.”3

Phelan’s racial outlook on the world also came through in his speech, with an assertion that the fair’s existence represented some kind of apex for western civilization—“[h]aving sprung in the remote East and pursued its destined course”— and in addressing the European consuls and commissioners in the grandstand as bygone relics: “The past is yours, representatives of other nations, and we gratefully accept it as our heritage; but the future is our own.”4

De Young stayed away from geopolitical talk in his speech, staying focused on the economic promise of the exposition: “There is a complete restoration of confidence, business is progressing as of yore, our streets are crowded and the general community is in a better frame of mind. Thousands of men have been given employment within these grounds to assist in the erection of these magnificent buildings and of the building up of this great Exposition. Thousands of men have been employed in the improvements adjacent to the Park. Hundreds have been employed in the extension of your city railroads.”5

Finally, after hours of speeches, a key and electrical button on a plush cushion was produced and Mrs. de Young applied one of her gloved fingers to start the great dynamos inside the Mechanical Arts Building. Black smoke began emitting from the chimneys, electrical power flowed through the fair grounds, and the crowd cheered.

Michael de Young signaling to Mrs. de Young to press the electric button starting the generators for the 1894 Midwinter Fair. - San Francisco Examiner

While de Young and his VIPs had lunch in the banquet hall on the third floor of the Administration Building, the multitude spread out over the exposition grounds to enjoy themselves. Not everything was ready. The Electric Tower was still a skeleton of steel; the Electric Fountain barely had its concrete forms finished. Many of the county and state buildings were still under construction, and scaffolding covered the dome of the Horticulture and Agriculture Building. Like the Dahomeys, many of the popular exhibits and entertainers from the Chicago fair were still en route. But the Firth Wheel (a Ferris Wheel knock-off) and Scenic Railway roller coaster were immediately packed and busy all day. In the hokey wild west 49 Mining Camp, “Everything, from the dance house to the faro game, was running in full blast, and untimely deaths were of frequent occurrence.”6

The Examiner noted most restaurants in the fair grounds ran short of food and “after 6:30 o’clock it was practically impossible to get a whole meal in any one place.” The Ceylon Tea and Cocoa stand in the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building had a two-hour line.7

Ceylon Tea Coffee and Cocoa bar inside Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building at California Midwinter International Exposition. [8360 Ceylon Tea Court], 1894 - Isaiah West Taber

Night brought a fireworks show, supposedly the greatest pyrotechnic display ever witnessed on the western half of the continent. With the Iowa State Band accompanying the program, 44 mortars went off for each U.S. state. On wooden frames, letters spelled “Welcome” in sparklers and fireworks displayed a recognizable outline of de Young’s face with “Our Director-General” written out in combustible color above. The finale was a 100-foot long fireworks representation of Niagara Falls.8

Opening day had a recorded 72,248 people passed through the turnstiles, with an additional 4,500 getting in as part of the parade and an estimated 10,000 sneaking in over the fences. Receipts equaled $30,000. A few pickpockets, rowdy drunks, and hoodlums throwing rocks were arrested. No one was injured. The only death was a performing goat that passed too close by the cage of “Parnell,” the lion in the animal act arena. Parnell lazily clouted the creature though his bars.9

Even rival newspapers had to admit it: opening day of the California Midwinter International Exposition was a success.


1. “The Fair Open,” San Francisco Examiner, January 28, 1894, pg. 1.

2. “The Opening of the Midwinter Fair,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 28, 1894, pg. 1.

3. “The Fair Dedicated,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 28, 1894, pg. 2.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. “Wonders of the Midway,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 28, 1894, pg. 8

7. “Glimpses of the Throng,” San Francisco Examiner, January 28, 1894, pg. 4.

8. “Glorious Fireworks,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 28, 1894, pg. 10.

9. “Within the Gates,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 28, 1894, pg. 10.

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