“Until you cross the bridge of your insecurities, you can’t begin to explore your possibilities.” Tim Fargo
Many people thought it couldn’t be done; it was impossible to build a bridge that would span over a mile-wide strait of turbulent, churning waves whipped up from the Pacific Ocean. Dreams and ingenuity have a way of overcoming fears and doubts however, and the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge speaks to such an accomplishment.
San Francisco had become the commercial and banking center of the west by the early 20th century. Gaining easy access to this commercial hub meant engineering a way to break through San Francisco Bay’s encircling water barrier. The largest land-locked harbor in the world, the Bay is a 463 square mile salt-water flooded basin. The opening to the Bay, the Golden Gate is a strait with a channel more than 300 feet deep and 5357 feet wide at its narrowest part. The site is subject to fog, high prevailing winds, and a strong twice daily tidal current that reaches the velocity of seven knots.
The first transcontinental railroad came to the Oakland waterfront in 1869. Ferry services multiplied with the coming of the railroads. Following the arrival of the transcontinental railroad, some began to dream about bridging the main bay and its tributaries. The Southern Pacific’s Dumbarton rail crossing over the narrows of the lower bay was built in 1910. This allowed freight to be routed to San Francisco.
While the population of San Francisco grew dramatically with the gold rush, its rapid industrial growth dates from the opening of the Panama Canal in 1915. Just five years later, the automobile became a factor to be reckoned with as a means of transportation. At the end of World War I, two ferry lines operated out of San Francisco, one to Sausalito and the other to Oakland. By 1921, ferry service was provided by diesel-powered boats exclusively designed to ferry automobiles; by 1929 motor vehicle ferry service had increased seven-fold. The total capacity of all of the ferry services combined was little more than 1000 cars per hour, however, during heavy holiday periods demand on the Marin ferry would reach upwards of 3000 vehicles per hour. Ferry trips were long (27 minutes trip across the strait), the wait for a ferry could be three hours, and the service didn’t provide reliable connections with nearby regions due to weather or labor strikes.
The driving public wanted a permanent bridge connection between the city of San Francisco and Marin County. While the idea to span the Golden Gate was popular, it still had opposition. The proposed site lay entirely within two military establishments, the Presidio on the south, and Fort Baker on the north. The bridge approach would interfere with military works, buildings, and roads. However, the most vehement opposition came from the well-organized and well-funded Bay Region Transportation, and the owners of the ferry service, Southern Pacific Railroad. The propaganda opposing the bridge included Sausalito being overrun by weekend picnickers, an enemy fleet with well-directed gunfire could demolish the bridge and bottle up our fleet, Marin was a sparsely settled territory which would not support sufficient traffic to permit a toll bridge to meet its financial obligation, then there was the earthquake hazard and the Sierra Club saying a bridge would deface such a beautiful, natural setting.
Most architects of that era claimed it wasn’t feasible to design such a span because of the geographic location and the anticipated astronomical cost. The unprecedented size of the various components, the vast quantities of materials needed to be assembled and routed to their rather inaccessible location, the challenge to devise new and untested methods of construction to build a structure of such great magnitude in virtually open sea, and finally, the question of doing all of this within the practical limits of a project budget, were perceived as significant challenges to building the Golden Gate Bridge.
The preliminary sketch for a bridge designed by Joseph B. Strauss, an engineer and poet from Chicago, was submitted on June 28, 1921; the estimate cost was $27,000,000. The proposed bridge was a symmetrical cantilever suspension design with 800-foot towers, four traffic lanes, and two 7-foot sidewalks. Visually unattractive, it struggled to gain supporters and fed the opposition to the project.
In January 1923, the “Bridging the Golden Gate Association” was formed with the primary purpose to promote the “Bridge-the-Gate” idea amongst the north coastal counties and to secure suitable legislation to carry out the project. In pursuance of this purpose the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District Act was drafted and became law on May 25, 1923. The Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District consisted of San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, Del Norte, and parts of Mendocino and Napa counties. The Act basically stated that the District had the right of eminent domain, could borrow money and issue bonds, and could cause taxes to be levied and collected. This Act became a major target for the project’s opposition. Litigation against the building of the Golden Gate Bridge made it all the way to the California Supreme Court, where the last appeal was finally rejected in July 1932.
Planning for a bridge continued during the various legal battles. Plans were drawn up and construction costs were estimated at $27 million. After carefully evaluating ten proposals from leading engineers, the District appointed Joseph B. Strauss as Chief Engineer on August 15, 1929. O.H. Ammann and Leon S. Moisseiff were consulting engineers, Charles A. Ellis, principal engineer, Clifford Paine, Assistant Engineer, and Irving Morrow, consulting architect. The graceful suspension design of the Golden Gate Bridge was conceived and championed by Moisseiff, one of the designers of the Manhattan Bridge. Morrow designed the overall shape of the bridge towers, the lighting scheme, and Art Deco elements, such as the tower decorations, streetlights, railing, and walkways. Ellis’s work included performing thousands of engineering calculations for the bridge and assisting with the overall design. Because of a later dispute with Strauss, Ellis’ name does not appear on the commemorative plaque nor did he receive credit when the Bridge opened, yet without his remarkable contributions the bridge may never have been built.
Unfortunately, the Great Depression and stock market crash of 1929 significantly affected obtaining the financing to build the bridge. The District’s Board of Directors felt it prudent to raise additional funds to cover administration and other potentially unknown fees. Ultimately, financing was arranged via a $35 million municipal bond issue, which was approved by voters in counties affected by the bridge. Forty-year bonds paying 5% interest were issued to construct the bridge and render it operational. Despite the abysmal economic conditions plaguing the nation, locals were willing to offer up their homes, farms, and businesses as collateral, having faith that the bonds would be repaid with revenues collected from tolls. Bank of America, a San Francisco institution, agreed to initially purchase $6 million worth of bonds, allowing the construction of the bridge to begin. A. P. Giannini, the bank president at the time, was dedicated to the economic development of San Francisco and advocated the practice of banks serving as proponents of social development.
Construction finally began on January 5, 1933 and finished on April 19,1937 at a cost of $27 million. They were five months past the promised finish date but $1.3 million under budget. .
There were thousands of detailed calculations involving the suspension ropes, decks, floor beams, towers and more. More than one million tons of concrete were used to build the anchors that grip the bridge’s supporting main cables. Each main cable is made up of over 27,000 strands of wire, equal to about 80,000 miles and capable of supporting up to 61,000 tons of bridge and vehicles. The pier on the southern San Francisco side had to be built in open-ocean, 100 feet below the surface. In 1937, standing at 746 feet high, this 8,981-foot long engineering marvel was the longest and tallest suspension bridge in the world.
A famous American landmark, recognized as one of the seven modern wonders of the world, the Golden Gate Bridge officially opened on May 27, 1937 with one week long festivities and a crossing of 200,000 pedestrian visitors. People were walking, running and even roller-skating across the engineered marvel. On May 28, 1937 President Roosevelt signaled from Washington and automobile traffic began crossing the bridge.
It’s hard to imagine this breathtaking icon that spans the Golden Gate might never have happened but for the innovative thinking and determination of a handful of people. Today the Golden Gate Bridge carries approximately 112,00 cars a day and attracts more than 10 million visitors a year. The bridge employs about 200 workers who toil around the clock to maintain it for daily commuters and visitors.
The last of the construction bonds was retired in 1971, with $35 million in principal and nearly $39 million in interest being paid entirely from bridge tolls. With the exception of the Sausalito Lateral approach road (Alexander Avenue today) which was built as a federal WPA project, there was no state or federal funds involved in building the Golden Gate Bridge.
We count ourselves as bridge enthusiasts here at Strands of History, and certainly couldn’t imagine San Francisco or even California without this beautiful bridge.