Up there with the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, Hoover Dam and the St. Louis Arch, the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most recognized of American landmarks. Spanning the strait that flows from California’s San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean, two magnificent red cables draped from two majestic towers, announcing the western edge of the continent in graceful sweeps. She makes it look easy, being the lovely suspension bridge that she is, but her task is really quite difficult, and she’d love to tell you a bit more about her life and her work.
If she could talk, she’d let you know that she carries about 110,000 vehicles each day across the 1,280m/4,200ft channel. She’d tell you that her initial detractors thought her price tag too hefty, and that many doubted her original design’s strength and capabilities. Overcoming all the obstacles with the help of a few key players, construction began Jan. 5, 1933, and was completed just four years later, $1.3 million under budget and on time, April 19, 1937.
With great anticipation, the public awaited the opening day, May 27, 1937, as pedestrians were invited to make the first crossing. On the 50th anniversary, 300,000 people gathered on the bridge to celebrate, noticeably flattening the cables’ curves. An extravagant fireworks display and musical extravaganza marked the 75th anniversary with a celebration that included a full year of tributes.
The bridge was the architectural wonder of its time in the mid-1900s, using the most advanced materials and construction methods available. Time marched forward, and cars continued to roll across the span, each and every one stopping to pay tolls in the northbound lanes, with the southbound lanes getting a free pass. Eventually, technology dictated that the toll booths, and the workers who manned them, were scheduled for replacement by an electronic payment system. In poignant interviews, many of the bridge’s customers paid a nostalgic farewell to the interactions they’d had with friendly toll booth agents. Likewise, those who had spent years, even decades, in the toll booths, had happy, sad, outrageous and memorable tales to tell. Improvements for both structural and aesthetic reasons have continued, employing the best and the brightest in engineering and technology to keep the bridge both beautiful and functional.
The Golden Gate Bridge wasn’t always a popular project, however. When young architectural student Joseph Strauss first proposed it as an alternative to the transport provided by the Sausalito Land and Ferry Company, folks were not just skeptical but downright opposed. The ferry company, for obvious reasons, feared the competition. Others felt a bridge would ruin the view. The Department of War was concerned about it becoming an enemy target and shipping companies were concerned it would make navigating the channel too difficult. If you think that seems like enough trouble, consider her timing.
Strauss worked for a decade to gain support. Eventually he found favor with many groups who wanted to make the city more competitive with Los Angeles, believing the bridge would help San Francisco grow. Finally, in 1923, the plans moved ahead after a request for federal land was approved and the state legislature passed the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District Act.
In 1928 the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District was incorporated and assigned the duties of designing, constructing and financing the bridge. Unfortunately, the stock market crash in 1929 (and the resulting depression) caused funding problems until 1932, when the Golden Gate Bridge project found a friend in the form of Amadeo Giannini, founder of Bank of America. Construction of the $35 million bridge began January 5, 1933, with Strauss overseeing the massive undertaking.
Strauss engaged the talents of Manhattan Bridge designer Leon Moisseiff, chief engineer Charles Alton Ellis, and residential architect Irving Morrow, who all spent innumerable hours hashing out the physics and engineering details to ensure the bridge would be sound. Safety was a big concern, addressed by safety nets installed below workmen to save them from falls and hard hats to protect them from debris. To help workers get back on track Monday mornings, they received free sauerkraut juice as a hangover helper (worth a shot on your next Monday morning). As a result, the project had a good safety record, taking very few lives during its construction.
Upon completion, the bridge opened to pedestrians who were all wanting to be the first to walk, skate, bicycle, play a harmonica or push a pram across this modern marvel. That first day, an estimated 200,000 people participated in the walk across the bay. The next day the bridge was opened to automobiles and commemorated with a celebration that brought a military fleet of 42 vessels, a flyover by 500 planes and a grand fireworks display. It also brought a reading of an unfortunately bad poem entitled “The Mighty Task is Done,” penned by Strauss.
With the harsh elements the bridge endures, it is truly a wonder it has only been closed a handful of times. Three times for high winds, approaching more than 70 mph, and a few presidential and dignitary visits mark the closures. Construction was a remarkable challenge, considering the channel is 372ft deep, and about a mile from point to point of the structure, with strong tides four times a day, two in and two out.
The Golden Gate Bridge, its cables swaying above the thin ribbon of highway to the beat of the city, continues to provide convenient passage across the channel. It has served as the inspiration for countless musicians and has starred in dozens of films, television programs, documentaries and video games. And, not surprisingly, it has become a favorite photo-op for just about every trip to San Francisco, including yours. Smile!