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Around America Tour: 1939

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We just celebrated Mother’s Day and I’ve recently gone through my Dad’s things.  He was a pretty detailed guy.  Now I think Mom took some lessons from him.  I took some time and picked up a scrapbook of hers.  I’ve seen it before but this time I went over it again slowly and with a new purpose, to really see it!  

The year was 1939.  The Great Depression is ending.  America has not yet begun to enter WWII.  FDR is finishing his second term in office.  Hitler was planning to invade Poland.  He would do so in September 1939.  FDR was hoping to keep us out of war.  We all know that didn’t happen.  The average annual household income was $1,730.  Those who lived through the tough years of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s would be hesitant to spend their hard earned money.  So what does all this have to do with my Mom?

Mom was born in Chicago in 1916.  She spent her childhood and early adult years living through the depression in Illinois. She graduated high school in 1934 from Harrison High.  She was in many clubs and activities.  From there I’m not sure what she did after school.  I don’t catch up to her life until later in the 1940’s when she meets my Dad.  Meanwhile, it’s 1939.  One day a stack of brochures showed up at the Berwyn National Bank in her neighborhood.  They advertised a travel adventure.  It was for the Powers Around America Tour—a 14 day rail excursion across the United States and part of Canada.  The cost was $174 for a single upper berth.  That was at least a month’s wages!  The tour offered a round-trip excursion by rail in air conditioned comfort.  A special chartered train.  No travel dust or hot rail cars!  The price was all inclusive.  A sleeper car of your own for the whole trip.  Your fee covered meals, stays at any hotels, baggage handling, taxis, tours, and tips. Everything!  Just $10 down.  The balance was due 10 days prior to departure.  And if unable to make the trip—a full refund!  I can imagine my Mom thinking long and hard.  In the end she would spend the money.  She was 23 years old and would make what was back then a the trip of a lifetime.  It would start on July 16th 1939.  Three girlfriends would come along.

Her trip started in Chicago. They would pick up other passengers that afternoon in Minneapolis/ St. Paul.  Then moving north and west overnight—Day 2 would already put them in Winnipeg Canada.  Day 3 would be a visit to the beautiful mountain resort of Banff.  Alberta, Canada.  Did she take a dip in one of their 92 degree sulphur pools?  Maybe.  She posed out on their patio in a stylish hat with the mountains for a backdrop.  Dinner that night was at the majestic Banff Springs Hotel.   Day 4 brought them to Lake Louise in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.  There’s a photo of Mom on the lake in a row boat.  Lake Louise is called “the lake in the clouds” and rightly so.  Day 5 takes in sights around Vancouver –a last stop in Canada–before the tour heads down toward Seattle.  Day 6 is more of Seattle, Portland, and the scenic Columbia River Highway.

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Other days and sights include Los Angeles, the Redwoods, Beverly Hills, Hollywood and the movie studios.  On Day 11 she would take a steamer over to Catalina Island off California’s southern coast.  Think romantic getaway for the day with a beautiful beach and island breezes.  Day 12 took her to Pasadena (City of the Rose Bowl), and a visit to one of California’s oldest Spanish missions.  The final full day of sight-seeing would include a stop in El Paso and a trip across the Rio Grande to Old Mexico. A side trip could be had to Carlsbad Caverns.  Day 14 you head back to Chicago.  Quite an itinerary.  But my attention is drawn to Days 7, 8, and 9.  Mom would visit the San Francisco World Fair.    

1939 was a year for World’s Fairs.  One was held in New York City starting in April 1939.  It would commemorate the 150th inauguration of George Washington—and be held in what was once our former nation’s capital.  Then there would be this sister fair in San Francisco.  It would run for two thirds of 1939 and again for several months in 1940.  It was started as an idea to celebrate the completion of the 2 largest bridges in the world.  They were right there in California.  The San Francisco Bay Bridge was completed in 1936 and a year later so was the Golden Gate.  Modern engineering marvels.  Can you imagine that Mom was able to see them when they were practically brand new?  

 The San Francisco World’s Fair was a big undertaking.  It provided much needed jobs for a recovering economy.  After much discussion on a location, they created a man made island halfway between Oakland and San Francisco.  They dumped boulders next to Yerba Buena Island.  They added a seawall, mud, and sand.  The end result was 400 acres of use-able land.  It was called Treasure Island.  Yes, Robert Louis Stevenson lived briefly in California in the 1800’s.  Imagine an area a little larger than the size of Epcot.  There were pavilions, theaters, and shops.  Food from all over the world.  A strange mix of other exhibits filled some “40 acres of fun”, or the Gayway.  Much like a carnival midway.  

Then there was a Far East exhibit.  An Australian exhibit.  A Chinese Village.  Representations from over 30 countries. And, paying homage to California and the gold rush days, they created a Cavalcade of the Golden West.  5 shows per day complete with covered wagons and teams of horses.  There was also beautiful art, expensive flowers ($2 million worth), and magnificent fountains.  Visible from all sides of the exhibition was the centerpiece—a 392 ft. “Tower of the Sun” created by Arthur Brown Jr.  Mom took some photos of it.  At night it is even more impressive. The theme of the exhibition was “Pageant of the Pacific”. There would be top line entertainment.  Bing Crosby and Count Basie.   Eddie Duchin on his piano.  Benny Goodman led his band and played the clarinet.  And Esther Williams swam in the Billy Rose Aquacade–synchronized swimming– before the World’s Fair came to a close in 1940.  The entertainment lineup was astounding!  I wonder what Mom was able to see.  The cost of an adult ticket was 50 cents. 

In all some 17 million people would visit the San Francisco World’s Fair and take in all the wonder of the Golden Gate International Exposition.  Treasure Island still exists.  It was taken over by the US Navy and used by them from 1942 until 1997.  Now it is a tourist attraction with a museum dedicated to the World’s Fair. It is noted as a place to get a great view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.  

Mom saved memorabilia from the trip—-menus, matchbook covers, postcards, and stationery.  A menu from Lake Louise contained prices for the A La Carte Luncheon.  Complete steak dinners for $2.  There are long lost items like kidney and mushroom omelette or lamb cutlets.  Things you just don’t see anymore.  Their tour scheduled many lunch or dinner stops at the finest hotels.  

They stayed overnight at the Empire Hotel in San Francisco, which was just 10 minutes by ferry from the World’s Fair.   This hotel has the distinction of having its Sutter Street exterior in the movie Vertigo in 1958.  It has since been renamed Hotel Vertigo.   They also stayed at Los Angeles Biltmore.  Upon its grand opening in 1923 it was considered the largest hotel west of Chicago in all the US.  It was home to the Biltmore Bowl, world’s largest hotel supper club with dinner, dancing, and two floor shows nightly. 

At the end of the scrap book are some photos taken back at home.  The adventure has to end.  Life goes on.  Girlfriends get married and men go off to war.  I close the scrapbook carefully.  But just for a few minutes I wanted to remember that summer of 1939 and my Mom. 

Note:  There are several YouTube clips of the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair online.  


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