San Francisco, 1940

After their visit to Yosemite National Park, my relatives apparently found the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco to be something of a let-down.

My father only took eight photos (that I know of) in San Francisco, and these were all from a boat ride that they took around San Francisco Bay. I imagine he only had eight pictures left on his last roll of film, and didn’t feel like buying a new roll.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, there were eight people on this train trip from Chicago to San Francisco and back: my grandparents, my parents, two of my aunts and two of my uncles. (I was six months old at the time, and had been left behind in the care of a nurse.)

Treasure Island with The Tower of the Sun

The Golden Gate International Exposition (popularly known as the San Francisco World’s Fair) was held in the summer months of 1939 and 1940 on Treasure Island, an artificial island made by dumping rocks and other landfill on a shallow place in the middle of the bay called Yerba Buena Shoals. The landfill came from a tunnel that had been dug on nearby Yerba Buena Island, to connect the two spans of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Golden Gate International Exposition (from the boat)

The original intention of the Exposition was to celebrate the building of the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, both of which were completed during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Later, the Exposition added a slogan “Pageant of the Pacific” and expanded its themes to include trade and travel among all the nations bordering the Pacific Ocean.

“Pirate Ship” at Treasure Island

My father labeled this as a “Pirate Ship” but I don’t know if that was just his idea or if it really had some connection to pirates.

Another view of the Exposition (also from the boat)

The Exposition attracted 17 million visitors, which sounds like a lot, but the organizers would have needed 20 million to break even. They had to close earlier than planned in 1939, and decided at one point to cancel the 1940 season. But then they finally decided to re-open in 1940 with a shorter season than originally planned.

Public reaction to the Exposition was mixed, but my relatives do not seem to have been particularly impressed.

Alcatraz Island in the fog, 1940

In 1940, my relatives could not visit Alcatraz Island, because it was still being used as a high-security federal prison.

The prison closed in 1963 and the island stood empty until 1969, when it was occupied by a group of nearly 80 Native Americans, led by Richard Oakes of the Mohawk Nation. They called  themselves the “Indians of All Tribes” and had plans to build a school and cultural center on the island.

In 1970, I went over to Alcatraz on a boat with some colleagues from the radio station where I was working. We set up a small transmitter so the Indians could broadcast live reports from the island on our station.

In June 1971, federal troops cleared the island and the occupation was over. (By this time, I was no longer living in the United States. I don’t know if the radio station ever got its transmitter back.)

In 1972, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area was established, bringing Alcatraz under the control of the National Park Service (NPS). Now, they say more than a million people visit Alcatraz Island every year, making it one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States. I was pleased to see that the NPS website calls the occupation of Alcatraz by the Indians of All Tribes, “a key event in the history of Alcatraz Island, the Native American civil rights movement, and our nation.”

My father’s photos in this post are from 1940. I wrote the text in 2023.

See also: Royal Gorge, Colorado, 1940 and Yosemite National Park, 1940.

21 thoughts on “San Francisco, 1940”

  1. They say that we can never stop the passage of time, but through the lens of a camera you can steal a 2d moment and lock it down on film. Those images when released can sometimes be powerful, like releasing a genie from a bottle.

  2. After Yosemite, even San Francisco is a let down. We forget how expensive film and developing were but now we pay with the time to delete photos….if we get around to it!

  3. In all my travels I’ve never been to San Francisco. Go figure.

    I too love the vintage photos you always include. It reminds me how the country reinvents itself over and over again. 🙂

  4. Fun post. We cross Treasure Island on our way home from the San Francisco Airport but have never visited Alcatraz. We’ve seen it from the ferry when crossing to San Francisco when we take the ferry over. Somehow visiting a prison has never been at the top of my priority list.

    My folks went to the 1939 World’s Fair in NYC and their souvenir was a card table with scenes printed on it. I have no idea how they hauled a card table home although they were living in New Jersey at the time. I wasn’t around yet. Ed visited another World’s Fair in NYC in 1964 to see the Pieta from Rome. He was in the US Coast Guard at the time so got in free. I stayed home and got to hear about it. I don’t know if he went with the band or on his own. He was in the USCG Band at the time.

  5. I was especially interested to see these old photos of the World’s Fair / International Exposition in San Francisco, having heard a lot about the one in Chicago when I was there last month.

    1. The Chicago World’s Fair was in 1933-1934. It had well over twice the number of visitors as the one in San Francisco. Unlike SF, the fair in Chicago turned a profit for its organizers.

  6. I so greatly appreciate your California-adjacent posts and images. It’s not just that it’s close to home, for me; it’s something about the wonder in seeing someone I know to be so “far(like)” distant in physical space showing a different kind of proximity. It warms me, and I’m grateful.

  7. Thank you for sharing your family trip posts. I enjoy reading about them, especially the black and white photos. There is something very nostalgic and appealing about them. My family and I visited San Francisco in the 90s and took a boat trip, but we didn’t visit Alcatraz. I wish I had more photos of my parents!

  8. Thanks for an interesting post. It’s mind boggling that 17 million visitors wasn’t enough to break even and I previously knew nothing of the occupation of Alcatraz.

  9. I lived in San Francisco in the early 1960s and remember when Alcatraz was still used as a prison! These pictures … the place had changed a lot by 1960, and I’m sure has changed much more by now … I was last there in 1970 for a visit with an old friend. Thanks for sharing these, Don!

    1. Before moving to Germany, I packed up the old photo albums in cardboard boxes, and later some good friends mailed them to me by surface mail.

  10. ‘I imagine he only had eight pictures left on his last roll of film, and didn’t feel like buying a new roll.” I suspect you are correct. How different to today when we sit and click to our heart’s content, though I try not to as I never look at them again if I have too many pictures.

    1. In those pre-internet times, we seldom looked at all our old photos. My father and I later took 8 mm movies, which we looked at even less often, since it was a hassle to set up the screen and projector.

  11. I like the photos your father took on Treasure Island. Have you seen the FoundSF.org website? They have videos of the Golden Gate International Exposition 1939-40. They may have more information or images of the pirate ship.

    1. Yes, I happened onto FoundSF just yesterday, while writing this post. I started watching one of the old newsreels, but was put off by the strident narration, which reminded me of the old Nazi newsreels here in Germany. (I suppose newsreels sounded the same all over the world in those years, also in France.)
      Also I was put off by the huge traffic jam of 1930s cars at the entrance to the fair, all looking like my father’s old 1936 Oldsmobile.
      They did show that sailing ship, but with no further explanation.

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