The Wonder of the Golden Gate Bridge
compiled from www.history.com and various other internet sources
If anyone is going to San Francisco this summer, here’s a story that will help you see the Golden Gate Bridge with new eyes . . .
“No one can bridge the Golden Gate (the name of the strait that the bridge spans) because of insurmountable difficulties which are apparent to all who give thought to the idea” was the feeling of the day back in the 1930s. Swift currents, deep water and strong winds were the most obvious of the “insurmountable difficulties” – all overcome by bridge engineer and poet Joseph Baerman Strauss at a cost of a mere $35 million.
Construction began in January, 1933 – at the height of the Great Depression – with the excavation of 3.25 million cubic feet of dirt for the bridge’s huge anchorages. Strauss and his workers overcame many difficulties: strong tides, frequent storms and fogs, and the problem of blasting rock 65 feet below the water to plant earthquake-proof foundations in the 400-foot deep strait. (How did they DO that in 1933???) With all the danger facing the construction workers, this bridge set a new safety record with only 11 killed during its 4-year construction.
In the 1930s, a rule of thumb on high-steel bridge construction projects was to expect one fatality for every $1 million of cost. By those standards, the bridge builders projected a fatality rate of 35 workers. (By contrast, 28 laborers died building the neighboring San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which opened six months prior.) Joseph Strauss made safety a high priority on the treacherous project. He was the first chief engineer in the country to require workers to wear hard hats, and he spent $130,000 on an innovative safety net that was suspended under the bridge deck. The safety net saved the lives of 19 men during construction who called themselves the “Halfway to Hell Club”. Ten of the 11 fatalities occurred in a single accident when a 5-ton work platform broke apart from the bridge and plunged through the safety net.
On May 27, 1937, a foghorn blared into the California dawn at 6 a.m. to signal the official opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, a stunning technological and artistic achievement. On opening day (“Pedestrian Day”), 200,000 bridge walkers walked, ran, tap-danced and roller-skated across the longest suspension bridge in the world – a symbol of great progress and an engineering marvel – at a time of economic crisis. The next day, it opened to automotive traffic.
The Golden Gate Bridge’s 4,200 foot-long main suspension span was a world record that stood for 27 year and remains the second longest in the United States after the bridge linking Staten Island to Brooklyn, NY, only 60 feet longer, opened in 1964.
The Golden Gate Bridge’s signature color was not intended to be permanent. The steel that arrived in San Francisco to build the bridge was coated in a burnt red and orange shade of primer to protect it from corrosive elements. The US War Department wanted it painted in black and grey stripes so it wouldn’t be such an easy target to enemies because it feared that Navy ships could be trapped in San Francisco Bay if the span was bombed and collapsed. It was eventually decided to keep the “international orange” hue because not only was it visible in the ever-present fog, but it complemented the natural topography of the surrounding hills and contrasted well with the cool blues of the bay and the sky.
Ominously, the Golden Gate Bridge is also the top suicide location in the world. In August, 1937, three months after the bridge opened, H.B. Wobber strolled the span alongside a tourist he had just met on a bus . Wobber suddenly turned to his companion and said, “This is where I get off. I’m going to jump.” Despite the tourist’s attempt to stop him, Wobber threw himself over the side. Four seconds later, he hit the surface of San Francisco Bay at 75 miles per hour and became the first of more than 1,500 people to commit suicide by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. There are now 11 crisis counseling telephones on the bridge that connect to trained suicide-prevention counselors, and plans to build a net under the span as a suicide deterrent are being considered.
The Golden Gate Bridge, interestingly, was built before the era of Big Government we have today. Little Federal or state money was used to build the bridge. Despite being in the midst of the Great Depression, voters in the district’s six counties in 1930 approved the $35 million bond issue that required them to put their homes, farms and businesses up as collateral. The resounding approval by a 3-to-1 margin reflects the faith of local citizens in the long-term economic benefit of the project. It’s one of very few national monuments and wonders of the world paid for directly by local citizens. The construction bonds were retired in 1971.