When word about the proposed construction of the Panama Canal reached San Diego, the news created tremendous excitement and anticipation. As the closest West Coast port of call to the canal, San Diego sought to become the principal shipping port for the western United States. The canal, combined with the already prosperous and growing agricultural market, and proposed “Impossible Railroad,” would undoubtedly bring the commerce that generations of San Diegans had sought. Elated over this turn of events, San Diegans began, in 1909, to plan for a great exposition that would celebrate the opening of the canal and promote San Diego.
San Diegans immediately launched a national marketing campaign they hoped would attract thousands to the city for the fair. Colorful promotional ads appeared in local and national publications. Brochures, souvenir booklets and postcards lavishly illustrated San Diego’s scenic attractions, its climate and potential for agricultural and commercial development.
The 1915 Panama-California Exposition gave San Diegans the opportunity to showcase the city to the outside world. During this time, San Diegans began to view their city, not as a reflection of other American cities, but as a unique place, possessing a character indicative of its early history. The Spanish Revival buildings designed for the fair introduced a new architectural style. The exposition’s overall emphasis on San Diego’s romantic ties to a Spanish and Mexican past marked a radical departure from the city’s former aim to be just like other cities in the east. Ironically, San Diego had created a new identity for itself — celebrating a past it had only a short time before chosen to ignore.
The 1915 Panama-California Exposition brought fame and recognition to the city. It also brought several million visitors to the San Diego area. Thanks, in part, to the fair, the city’s population nearly doubled from 40,000 to 75,000 between 1910 and 1920. The fair also established an identity for San Diego — one that would bloom in the next generation.