Palomar telescope


From Popular Science magazine, December 1938 .


Forest service fire truck


Image: from ebay auction; probably a U.S. Forest Service photo.

US Forest Service Truck, Angeles National Forest, California in 1939.

All-American Canal


Image: United States Bureau of Reclamation photo from Library of Congress

1939 view of the Imperial Dam at the headwaters of the All-American Canal. The dam was completed in 1938 and the first water was delivered in 1940.

Excerpt from

The All-American Canal System, located in the southeastern corner of California, consists of the Imperial Diversion Dam and Desilting Works, the 80-mile All-American Canal, the 123-mile Coachella Canal, and appurtenant structures. The system has the capacity, through water diversions from the Colorado River at Imperial Dam, to irrigate about 530,000 acres of fertile land in the Imperial Valley and about 78,530 acres in the Coachella Valley.

July 20, 1939

In the vein of the gag plaque that some people display in front of a seemingly historical location, “On July 20, 1939 absolutely nothing happened here” might be applicable to southern California. It was just another day.

Thirty years before this seems to be the most significant event:

On July 20, 1909, at 11:15 a.m. Paul “Daredevil” Derkum checked in at Temecula during a timed 320 mile roundtrip race between Los Angeles and San Diego. He was determined to lower J. Howard Shafer’s June 30, 1909 record of 16 hours and 50 minutes. In a cloud of dust, Derkum raced his Indian [motorcycle] north out of town and into the record books. His finishing time was 10 hours, 59 minutes, and 30 seconds.

Excerpt from

Derkum would have averaged about 29 miles per hour on less-than-ideal roads.

But, thirty years later, holy mackerel!*

Man first set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969.

Try to imagine life in 1939. You might have flown in an airplane but it wasn’t very likely that you had. At the time, the world’s aircraft record for altitude was about ten miles. The moon is an average of 238,855 miles from earth. A few astronauts were born in 1939 but the first to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong, was born in 1930 (not in California, though). Could you imagine telling a nine-year-old Armstrong in 1939 what he would be doing thirty years later?


*an exclamation of surprise heard in 1939





Image: apparently a snapshot with no information.

The famous Hollywood sign was to be sometime in the future. In 1939 it was showing the full name of the real estate development. This photo was probably shot from the parking lot of the Griffith Park observatory.

Street scene


Image: source not given; may be UCLA digital collection at .

Downtown Los Angeles facing north on South Broadway between West Second Street and West Third Street, 1939.

Sometimes it is nice to see a plain ol’ street scene showing how a particular place used to look. Notice how the then-late-model automobile at the lower right looks so futuristic when compared with the boxy styling of the other cars in the photo.