“Our world of today revolves completely around things which at one time couldn’t be done because they were supposedly beyond the limits of human endeavor. Don’t be afraid to dream.” –Joseph B. Strauss, father of the Golden Gate Bridge
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The Incredible History of the Golden Gate Bridge
The naysayers couldn’t envision the success of one of modern history’s greatest marvels. They claimed, “It can’t be done. It won’t survive the winds and earthquakes. No one can build a safe bridge there. Impossible.” Fortunately, Joseph B. Strauss dreamed bigger than expected from his diminutive 5′ 3″ frame.
Through his perseverance, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge became a realized dream and a boon to the San Francisco region. After years of dangerous and difficult engineering and construction, the Gateway to the Pacific opened to the public. It stands much the same today, so let’s look at the history of the Golden Gate Bridge to better understand how marvelous it is.
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The Presidio Era
Author Kevin Starr explains the early history of the region in great detail in his book Golden Gate. The early Spanish explorers and monks created local regions called “missions” throughout the lower part of the United States, and California was no exception. The historic El Camino Real route connected San Francisco to San Diego.
However, if anyone needed to get to missions beyond the bay, they had to circumnavigate miles around the east side or take the ferry across the bay—weather permitting. The Spaniards also build fortified garrisons called Presidios along the entrance to the bay.
U.S. Army captain and mapmaker John Charles Fremont arrived in San Francisco in 1846. According to author Brent D. Glass, Fremont was so awed by the beauty of the entrance of the bay that he officially named it “Chrysophylae” which means “Golden Gate” in Greek. He also saw the incredible strategic value of the bay and peninsulas from a military perspective.
The Presidio region on the southern peninsula grew to become a major military outpost for the U.S. From there, the military monitored Alcatraz Island and Angel Island, orchestrated efforts for the Spanish American War, the conflict with the Philippines, defenses during the World Wars, then housed missiles during the Cold War.
Since then, all active military equipment has been removed. In 1972, the government protected 1,500 acres as the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Today, over 10 million visitors explore hiking trails and view historical, cultural, and archeological exhibits.
Quick Facts About The Golden Gate Bridge
Here are several key facts about the construction and history of the Golden Gate Bridge.
- Construction occurred from January 1933 to May 1937.
- Total cost to construction the bridge was $35 million (approximately $666 million today according to US Inflation Calculator).
- Only 11 people died during construction.
- It held the record for the longest suspension bridge in the U.S. until the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was built in NYC in 1964.
- The original weight of the bridge averaged 894,500 tons or 1,789,000,000 pounds (about 2.5 times heavier than the Empire State Building).
- Length of the main span is 4,200 feet, and it’s 90 feet wide.
- Total bridge length is 8,981 feet or 1.7 miles (long enough to land a Boeing 737).
- The bridge averages 220 feet above sea level.
- The two primary cables are the largest cables ever strung.
- The cables are made of 80,000 miles (about 1/3 of the distance to the moon) of over 55,000 spliced wires to span 7,650 feet.
- More than one million tons of concrete were used.
- The north pier anchorage weighs 60,000 tons (about 2.21 times as heavy as the Statue of Liberty).
- The first paint job required 10,000 gallons of paint (about 3.4 full-sized concrete mixing trucks).
- The towers reach 746 feet above sea level.
- The towers taper from 33 by 54 feet at the base to 11 by 25 feet at the top.
- Each 45-ton tower has 404 steel cells with 600,000 rivets in each tower.
- The bridge withstands 2.3 million cubic feet of water per second at high tide (almost twice the size of the U.S. Capitol Rotunda).
- 3.25 million cubic feet of earth were moved to build the anchorages.
- Laborers earned an average of $5.50 per day.
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The Need And The Vision For A Bridge
As early as the 1850s, people envisioned building a bridge to cross the bay more quickly. Dangerous weather made ferry crossings challenging. Those rough crossings experienced dense fog, strong tides, and heavy winds even on sunny days. It was easy to get seasick on your expensive ride across the San Francisco Bay.
Author Kathy Pelta noted the changing times. With the explosion of population after the 1849 gold rush, real estate salesmen encouraged people to move to the less-populated areas outside of San Francisco. Commuting into the city had quickly become a normal event by the turn of the century.
In most cases, the ferry ride was an enjoyable way to start and end your day, eating and conversing with friends. However, as more people demanded ferry rides, the wait times to cross the bay soared from minutes to hours. The situation became dire by the early 1920s. Still, the idea of building a bridge seemed impossible. But not to Joseph B. Strauss.
Having built over 400 bridges around the world already, Joseph Strauss saw bridging the San Francisco Bay as his most important work. Fueled by a dream, he spent a dozen years gathering support from locals and government officials, even changing his bridge plans over time as he studied the region.
People feared several aspects: how to build a bridge in constantly turbulent water and wind, how to make it withstand an earthquake and hurricane-force winds, what if a ship hits it, what if it’s ugly, how much will it cost, and who would build and control it.
The earthquake concern played a major role since the memory of the 1906 earthquake was fresh in the residents’ minds. Strauss felt certain that a flexible suspension bridge could solve the physical challenges.
According to Kevin Starr, Strauss really wanted to solve the transportation problem, too. Approximately 300,000 cars out of the 1.8 million cars from Bay Area traffic crossed the ferry in 1922. On Labor Day weekend of 1930, nearly 86,000 cars practically brought the ferry system to a halt. Ultimately, a bridge was the only solution.
The Santa Rosa meeting on January 13, 1923, became the first formal step to authorizing legislation and locating financing. Then, over the next several years as men lost work due to the Great Depression, Strauss promised he could put them back to work. He would need men to work on concrete, wood, metal, and cables, while also transporting supplies to the site.
His bridge design incorporated both cantilevers and suspension techniques to account for the unique, difficult challenges of the Bay Area. The braces on each end would be strong enough to hold the bridge as it swayed in the wind or an earthquake. The cables could shrink and expand in the weather, changing the height of the bridge.
To ensure stability, Strauss asked experts of every kind to conduct studies of the land, seafloor, and weather patterns. Finally, Strauss beat the competition and won the contract to build the bridge, and construction began on January 5, 1933.
Golden Gate Bridge Color
Residents feared the construction of an ugly gray or brown behemoth bridge that would darken the magnificent views of the San Francisco Bay. So, Strauss adjusted his original plans to make it a more aesthetically pleasing bridge.
Many people also believed (and were later disappointed) that the bridge should literally be made a golden color to reflect the name. A shiny golden color wasn’t practical for passing ships and residents who didn’t want to be blinded by the sun’s reflection. Black would have been drab and out of place with the natural elements around it. Gray would have been deadly as it blended into the fog. A striped bridge would also look out of place with the sweeping design of the bridge and natural background.
Thus, International Orange became the preferred choice after much research. It worked with the changing vegetation and would easily stand out in the dense fog.
Building The Foundations
The complexity of building the Golden Gate Bridge can’t be emphasized enough. Awarding contracts, hiring and training men, scheduling tasks, acquiring materials, building in foul weather, working at dangerous heights, construction challenges, and overcoming setbacks. All of these took monumental effort.
Kevin Starr notes that the north pier tower was easier to construct than the south tower. Workers cleared the land-based site to the bedrock and leveled it before driving the steel foundation into the ten-story pit.
Next, they constructed reusable wooden forms to hold 23,500 cubic yards of concrete. This would become the anchorage which sits an additional six stories above the ground. To make sure the concrete was exactly the quality he needed, Strauss built his own concrete plant nearby.
The challenge of the south pier tower was that it sat 1,125 feet offshore. Tides constantly bashed the rocks and brought in debris that made the water impossibly black. Divers could spend only 20 minutes working at the 65-foot depth as they surveyed the proper location to dynamite the wells for the foundation.
Kathy Pelta explains in her book Building the Golden Gate that six bombs with 200 pounds of dynamite blasted the foundation holes once the locations were chosen. Then water hoses pushed 500 pounds of pressure to clean them out for the concrete.
To protect workers from the winds and waves, the team built a 130,000-ton concrete circle or fender around the worksite, about the size of a football field. Dubbed “the giant bathtub,” workers pumped out millions of gallons of water to work on the exposed bedrock.
The flopping fish left behind made for a great fish fry that night. By January 1935, the biggest challenge of the project had been completed.
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Towers And Cables
Unionized ironworkers took on the difficult task of unloading, lifting, and riveting the steel beams into place. Starting on the ground, they built hundreds of open steel boxes to create flexible but durable towers that would withstand winds and the weight of traffic.
Pelta states that these cells were about the size of a telephone booth but 35 feet high. They weren’t built in straight lines, which made them a labyrinth where workers often got lost and had to spend a chilly night in the tower. Climbing the towers on the 23 miles of ladders could take half an hour—until the block-and-tackle elevators were built.
On May 4, 1943, the north tower stood 746 feet above the water—190 feet taller than the Washington Monument. Construction of the south tower went much faster, since they were now experienced.
The next month, a small earthquake struck. As the towers swayed several feet, seasick workers threw up their breakfasts into the Bay. But Strauss’s towers held their positions without a single problem, proving his idea would work.
The Roebling Company that built the cables for the Brooklyn Bridge also spun the cables for the Golden Gate Bridge. Since no derricks were strong enough to hold the massive cables, the cables had to be strung onsite.
Author Kevin Starr mentioned that they would be built to hold 400 millions pounds. The 150-ton saddles that would hold the cables could allow for up to 5.5 feet of adjustment if needed. The cables were made of 80,000 million miles of spliced wire measuring barely 0.196 inches in diameter.
Working on catwalks, skilled workers used spinning wheels to lay 173 tons of wire each day. When the cables were in place, 250 vertical steel cables were added to connect the roadway being built.
Despite the dangerous conditions, Strauss made safety paramount and refused to believe the idea that a bridge cost one life per one million dollars spent. Strauss’s hardhat requirement became the standard for the construction industry. He also had the first bridge safety nets constructed under the bridge in 1936 before the roadway construction got under way. A total of 19 men fell into it—likely with overwhelming gratitude.
Any man who worked at the highest or most dangerous areas needed to have a tie-line attached to them. Additionally, anyone who worked above the dense fog received a special pair of aviator goggles to prevent snow blindness from the reflected sun.
Strauss encouraged handwashing to prevent spreading infections and bacteria, and he had a hospital onsite to deal with any workplace accidents, too. Pelta also mentions that he fired anyone caught drinking on the job, and if they came to work with a hangover, they were given sauerkraut juice to sober them up.
One big scare happened in 1934. A number of employees working on the towers began losing hair and teeth and experienced shortness of breath. Doctors soon realized that the hot rivets hitting the painted steel were putting off poisonous gas—not just a foul smell. The steel had been covered in lead paint. Strauss ordered the steel company to change the paint, men were given respirator masks, and fresh air was pumped into the cells.
In all, only 11 workers died over the 42 months of construction. The first death occurred when a derrick toppled and crushed a worker. Ten workers died in a single accident when the stripping platform that the net was attached to ripped away from its moorings. All in all, Strauss’s safety precautions defeated the belief that bridgework was inherently, excessively deadly.
Golden Gate Bridge Celebrations
The magnificent and “impossible” bridge finished on May 26, 1937. The next day, 200,000 people crossed the bridge on foot (for a nickel each way) to celebrate and marvel at its construction. Many people even brought a picnic lunch and ate right on the road. Since the safety nets were still in place, officers easily retrieved the hundreds of dropped cameras, hats, and purses that day.
Pelta also mentions that a moment of silence came over the crowd in midafternoon. The bridge had its own sound: a deep roar from below with shrill harp sounds from above. The residents fell in love with their singing bridge.
The next day, more celebrations took place with champion log sawing and Fiesta Queen parades. Then at high noon, the bridge opened for motor traffic. 500 navy planes flew overhead while ships of every kind sounded their bells and horns below. It’s estimated that 32,300 cars crossed the Golden Gate Bridge that day for 50 cents each.
By 1971, the tolls from motorists repaid the original loan of $35 million. In 1985, the one billionth car crossed the bridge. That wouldn’t have surprised Strauss who planned for his bridge to last forever. According to Jennifer Fandel, the bridge has only been closed a handful of times due to weather. And it was upgraded after the 1989 earthquakes to withstand an 8.3 earthquake.
In 1987, a 50-year celebration was held on the bridge. Once again, the bridge closed for pedestrian travel only and hundreds of thousands of people crossed the bridge in commemoration. Many of those pedestrians also crossed the bridge the first time in 1937.
To this day, the Golden Gate Bridge remains the iconic feature of the Bay Area, treasured by residents whose families helped to build this engineering wonder.
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