Fact Check

Henry Ford - My Trip to San Francisco in 1940

Photographs purportedly illustrate a trip to San Francisco in 1940 as described in a letter by Henry Ford.

Published Aug. 6, 2014

Photographs illustrate a trip to San Francisco in 1940 as described in a letter by Henry Ford.

The familiar maxim holds that "a picture is worth a thousand words," but sometimes images can carry much more emotional resonance when paired with just a little bit of added commentary. Such is the case with these vintage photographs of San Francisco which, while quite interesting in themselves, have enchanted many viewers all the more due to the folksy, travelogue-like letter (presumably written by the photographer) to family back home that accompanies them.

Even more remarkable is the revelation that the author of that charming letter was one of most famous personages of his time, American automobile pioneer Henry Ford.

Today's photographs come from another time — 1940 to be exact. The photographs were taken while this famous figure was on vacation in San Francisco and included in a letter to the person's family back home. It is so fascinating to see San Francisco as it existed over 70 years ago — what has changed and what hasn't. Be sure to scroll all the way to the bottom to find out who is behind these delightful musings!

1. The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge

Dear Friend,

Arrived in Oakland a few hours ago and finally we're on our way to San Francisco.

We paid 25 cents at the Toll Plaza to enter this wonderful bridge that was opened four years ago. It took me awhile to get used to the traffic.

The bridge has two decks. The top deck is for automobiles and the bottom deck for trucks and electric trains. You can see the tracks at left. The trains are run by the Key System and Southern Pacific. They can take you all over the East Bay to wonderful places like Neptune Beach in Alameda.

2. The Yerba Buena Tunnel

We have just passed through the Yerba Buena Tunnel and can finally see San Francisco in the distance. Notice that the traffic has thinned out. Many of the cars got off the bridge at the island to go to the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island. The fair opened last year and will close for good later in 1940. I'm going to try and go there.

Right now we're heading for the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill for cocktails. It's a great place to see San Francisco.

3. Top of the Mark

Isn't this a great view of San Francisco? We're at the lounge called the Top of the Mark. The Mark Hopkins Hotel is one of the city's great hotels.

The Russ Building, by the bridge tower, is the biggest office building on the Pacific Coast. It's 31 stories high.

Near the Ferry Building is the Produce District made up of small beautiful, old brick buildings. You can go there early in the morning and watch the grocers come in to pick out all kinds of vegetables.

4. Chinatown

After leaving the Mark we walked down California to Grant Avenue. Here is San Francisco's world famous Chinatown. There are wonderful shops and the best Chinese food anywhere ... and so reasonable. You can get a large bowl of pork noodles for 35 cents.

Do you see the Shriner's Flags at the top of the picture? They are having a convention in San Francisco. There is a Shriners Hospitals for Crippled Children on Nineteenth Avenue. It provides treatment for many children ever year without charge.

Every New Years Day the famous Shrine East West football game is held in Kezar Stadium.

5. Flower Stands on Powell

After leaving Chinatown we walked down to Powell Street. Around Geary Street there are wonderful flower stands. San Francisco is sure a different place.

6. The Cable Cars

We're at Powell and Market where the cable cars get turned around to go to Fisherman's Wharf. There is a great cafeteria just a few feet from the turntable. It's called Clinton's and I hear the food is great.. but we plan to have dinner at Fisherman's Wharf and that's where we are heading.

7. Fisherman's Wharf

We walked along the docks to look at hundreds of fishing boats. The one coming in here is a crab fisher. They are all painted wonderful colors and the fisherman are all Italian. They are very friendly, and we watched them sitting on the docks mending their nets and singing.

8. Dinner at Fisherman's Wharf

Fisherman's Wharf has to be one of my favorite places in San Francisco. The men who do the fishing bring them back to the restaurants and outdoor stalls. People can pick out a crab and it's cooked right there for you to take home.

One night we went to a great restaurant a man told me about. It's called San Remo's, near Fisherman's Wharf. You can get a wonderful Italian dinner for $1.00 from soup to dessert. Another dollar gets a bottle of house wine. You go into the bar to pick it up.

Our waiter was very friendly.. I think he had been sampling the house wine.

9. Playland at the Beach

San Franciscans love the beach. The water is too cold to swim in but Playland at the Beach has everything else; a wonderful roller coaster, the Fun House, Shoot the Chutes, and great food. A favorite is Topsy's Roost for delicious fried chicken and dancing. If you're eating on the balcony you go down to the dance floor on a slide!

My favorite was the Pie Shop ... the best chicken and beef turnovers imaginable ... fantastic crust and a wonderful gravy. San Franciscans take them home for dinner.

10. The Golden Gate Bridge

We left Playland and drove through the Presidio to the Golden Gate Bridge. The Presidio is still an important Army Base and has been on active duty since Spain built a fort there in 1776.

The Golden Gate is my favorite bridge. We parked the car near the Toll Plaza and walked across the bridge for 25 cents. You can't walk on the Bay Bridge.

Our trip to San Francisco is over too soon. I hate to say goodbye to this beautiful city. The people who live here are sure lucky.

Hope you enjoyed my letter and the photographs.

Say hello to everybody.

~ Henry Ford
July 12, 1940

Sadly, although these photographs are genuine, the friendly missive and the identity of its author are fabrications.

Back around the year 2000, a fellow named Bill Roddy took a folder of
old photographs of San Francisco, merged them with an engaging letter he crafted describing the various scenes shown in those images, and posted the results on his americahurrah.com web site under the title "My Trip to San Francisco in 1940."

Other sites picked up and replicated the photo/letter combination (believing them to be real), and since most historical things seem more significant to people when associated with famous people, somewhere along the way someone added a made-up "signature" to the letter identifying the author as auto magnate Henry Ford.

As an aside, we note that not only does this travelogue sound nothing like what Henry Ford would have written, but Ford was nearly 77 years old in July 1940. Even if he had visited San Francisco then, it would not have been his first trip to the City by the Bay (although the letter is written from the perspective of someone new to those sights), and it's hard to imagine Ford, given his fame, personality, and advanced age, enjoying the pleasures of Playland at the Beach or walking around San Francisco unrecognized at that time.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.