Interesting and Educational Information Concerning the Golden Gate Bridge
When we joined the company in 2016, we began to learn more about the history of the Golden Gate Bridge, the people who designed it, the workers who built it, and those who maintain it. Our informational journey led us down diverse paths, including the engineering evolution of suspension bridges, advances in steel manufacturing, the various bridge proposals to span the Golden Gate Strait, Union workers, and of course, politics. We hope you enjoy this collection of stories and will share others with us.
THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE
Construction on the Golden Gate Bridge commenced January 5, 1933. The golden rivet commemorating the completion of the Bridge was driven in on April 27, 1937. For over 80 years the Golden Gate Bridge has been revered as a commanding engineering accomplishment. To some people the Golden Gate Bridge is a thoughtfully designed piece of functional art; a symbol of unity joining an unfathomable geographic span. However you may view the Bridge, it is a dramatic testimony to the people who designed it, built it, and even gave their lives to create it. The Golden Gate Bridge is an iconic symbol of San Francisco. However, it also represents California for many people, and pays homage to the great suspension bridges that predated it, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, and the George Washington Bridge.
What makes the Golden Gate Bridge so special? Maybe it’s because, contrary to critics’ fears, it enhanced rather than defaced a mesmerizing vista. Few people alive today can remember the Golden Gate Strait without the iconic twin 746 foot tall towers, its two main cables each with diameters of 36 3/8 inches, and its 250 pairs of vertical suspender ropes, all painted international orange.
THOSE WHO BUILT THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE
In the book “Building the Golden Gate Bridge: A Workers’ Oral History” by Harvey Schwartz, historian Kevin Starr provides the following quote: “An army cannot consist of officers alone, however talented; and a great bridge – while it owes so much to its designers and construction supervisors – owes an equal, if not superior, debt of gratitude to the workers who built it.” Unique for its time, the Golden Gate Bridge project was a 100% Union job and all of the men working on the project were skilled laborers. Part of the labor force were aboriginal workers from the Six Nations of the Grand River and the Mohawk community of Akwesasne.
Perhaps some of the least celebrated bridge workers were the divers working on the piers. The men had as little as an hour and 15 minutes to dive down to depths up to 100 feet, set the explosive charges (which required connecting wire leads from detonators on a barge to the bomb heads underwater), and return to the surface. The strong currents came in so fast that the divers often didn’t have time to naturally decompress by surfacing slowly. These men were rushed to a decompression chamber at the end of the dock.
The Golden Gate Bridge project was the first major engineering job to fire or fine workers for failing to follow safety protocols. Workers had to wear glare-free goggles, use hand and face cream to protect their skin from the high winds, and safety belts with tie-off lines. Workers were given sauerkraut juice if they came to work with a hangover and ate special diets to help fight dizziness caused by working at such extreme heights. Additional provisions were made so that hands could be kept clean to prevent hand-to-mouth infections.
A local safety equipment manufacturer, Edward W. Bullard, modified their mining helmet design specifically for the Golden Gate Bridge project. The improved hats were made of hard leather and canvas, and effectively protected the men from falling rivets and other heavy pieces of equipment.
The men tasked with working inside the towers soon began losing their hair and teeth, and couldn’t take a deep breath. The men were being exposed to toxic lead fumes whenever hot rivets came in contact with the Bridge’s lead paint. Once the cause of the problem was identified, workers were required to wear filtration masks in the towers and company doctors kept bone phosphate pills on hand.
The structure was often wet from the frequent fog. That combined with huge gusts of wind made falling a likely possibility. Strauss, the project’s chief engineer, invested more than $130,000 in a giant safety net that stretched below the entire emerging bridge structure and out 10 feet on each side. The net saved the lives of 19 men who called themselves the “Halfway-to-Hell Club”. Sadly, the net couldn’t save everyone.
By February 1937, over four years into the project and just three months from completion, only one worker had died during the Golden Gate Bridge construction. The rule of thumb at the time was that for every million dollars spent on a project, one person would die. The safety record to date had been very impressive for a 35 million dollar project. On February 17, 1937 however, a heavy section of scaffolding and its crew crashed into the safety net and shredded it. Twelve men plunged into the cold Bay; two were rescued, but 10 died. Those 10 men and the one man who died the year before are commemorated with a plaque on the Bridge’s western sidewalk. Of the hundreds of men who helped to build the Golden Gate Bridge, the last worker passed away in April, 2012.
REPLACING THE ORIGINAL SUSPENDER ROPES
During a scheduled inspection of the Golden Gate Bridge from 1967 to 1969, advancing corrosion was discovered at the connection point between the suspender ropes and the roadway. There was no way to repair the damage, replacement of the suspender ropes was the only option. Replacement of suspender ropes on a suspension bridge to the extent contemplated had never before been attempted. There had been pilot programs with a few ropes removed for testing or replacement, but never a full-scale, complete replacement. Efforts to establish the lengths for the replacement suspender ropes by field measurements were unsuccessful.
Because of temperature variations, wind conditions, and passing loads the measurements proved to be inaccurate and not reproducible. Therefore, engineers decided to use the lengths calculated on the original shop drawings from John A. Roebling’s Sons Company from the mid-1930’s. Starting in 1973, two unique traveling platforms were suspended above the roadway, spanning the two main cables, to start the effort to replace all 250 pairs of suspender ropes. The project was performed in three phases, with the last rope replaced on May 4, 1976.
FATE OF THE ORIGINAL SUSPENDER ROPES
The Golden Gate Bridge District originally saved 11 miles for testing and for temporary use in the event of an emergency. Most of the ropes from the first phase of the project were intended to be sent for scrap steel but the contractor started a company (Cablecraft) to make 3-inch souvenir pieces that were sold through the Fisherman’s Wharf Association and a limited mail-order campaign. These 3-inch pieces periodically show up on eBay; some are painted and others are bare steel.
In 1976, a second group, The San Francisco Bridge Company, formed a partnership with the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District to make 4-inch souvenirs with steel bands painted international orange, “nickel” plated, or “gold” plated. These pieces were advertised across America in newspapers and periodicals. Longer samples were sent to museums in Chicago, Munich, and Sydney. These souvenirs also periodically still show up on eBay.
GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE TRIVIA
• The Sierra Club, including Ansel Adams, opposed the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge fearing that it would cause environmental damage.
• The Southern Pacific Railroad owned 51% of the Golden Gate Ferries monopoly. The railroad funded, and was the lead plaintiff in, a lawsuit ostensibly brought on behalf of 91 taxpayers. The supporters of the Bridge project rallied behind it with a compelling job creation argument. The newspapers, the Auto Dealers’ Association, citizen groups, and the unions all threw their weight into the battle, and even called for a boycott of Southern Pacific’s ferry and rail lines.
• January 5, 1933: Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge began as workers began excavating 3.25 million cubic feet of dirt for the structure’s huge anchorages.
• May 27, 1937: The Golden Gate Bridge opened to pedestrian traffic, and opened to vehicular traffic the following day.
• July 1, 1971: Last of the $35,000,000 construction bonds retired; interest payments totaled nearly $39,000,000.
• The steel to construct the bridge towers and deck was made by Bethlehem Steel in plants in Trenton, New Jersey, in Sparrows Point, Maryland, and in Bethlehem, Pottstown, and Steelton, Pennsylvania. It was transported to San Francisco via the Panama Canal and stored in Alameda.
• The cement piers were ground to a true plane within 1/32 of an inch.
• The trusses for the roadway were built simultaneously in north and south directions from each tower to maintain equal loads.
• In 1933, three disasters struck: First, a steamship (Sidney M. Hauptman) on its way to Portland, Oregon, crashed in heavy fog into the just-finished access trestle to the south pier, which extended 1,100 feet into the Golden Gate Strait. Then high seas destroyed 3 of the 5 completed fender sections of the San Francisco tower, the access trestle, and construction equipment. And lastly, another storm battered the construction site, wrecking 800 feet of access trestle.
• The first earthquake hit the Bridge in 1935. The construction elevator broke, leaving a dozen workers stuck on one of the main towers while it swayed.
• The only women who worked at the Golden Gate Bridge construction site were two nurses, Sister Mary Zita Felciano and Patricia DeWeese, who took care of those that were sick or injured.
• There were three chains that stretched across the Bridge on opening day, one made of gold, one of silver, and one of bronze. Officials thought they’d just built a monument to steel, so cutting metal was only proper.
• On opening day, approximately 400 Navy biplanes from three aircraft carriers thundered overhead, a parade of official cars, flags flying, crossed the span, and a huge fleet of 19 battleships and heavy cruisers, plus three carriers and hundreds of other ships, sailed beneath the Bridge into San Francisco Bay.
• The Golden Gate Bridge has been closed three times due to high winds:
o 69 mph winds on December 1, 1951 (3 hours)
o 70 mph winds on December 23, 1982 (2 hours)
o 75 mph winds on December 3, 1983 (3 hours and 27 minutes)
The Bridge suffered no structural damage.
• There have been full closures of the Bridge for anniversaries and construction work, and brief closures – on two separate occasions – for visiting dignitaries Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charles de Gaulle.
• On a hot day the Bridge gets longer; conversely, it gets shorter when it’s colder. In the course of a day, the Bridge can rise five feet and drop 11 feet.
- A full length documentary about the Golden Gate Bridge: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/introduction/goldengate-introduction/
- This site provides a map of the places and the times sunset can be viewed between the two bridge towers: http://sunsetsundial.org