The Golden Gate Bridge, when built, was the longest single-span bridge in the world. Once considered impossible to build, it is now a major tourist attraction as well as a regular conduit for traffic between San Francisco and counties to the north.
Public Information Director
Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District
P.O. Box 9000, Presidio Station
San Francisco, CA 94129-0601
ph.: (415) 541-2000
Web site: www.goldengatebridge.org
The Golden Gate Bridge was a project that most people thought could not be completed. However, the determination and commitment of the people in nearby counties and the confidence and skill of its designer and chief engineer, Joseph Baermann Strauss, made the dream of spanning the Golden Gate Strait into a reality in 1937.
The entrance to San Francisco Bay, called the Golden Gate Strait, is a narrow strait about one mile wide, with currents from 4.5 to 7.5 knots. Often shrouded in fog and regularly subject to high winds of up to sixty miles per hour and strong ocean currents, the strait divides the peninsula of San Francisco from areas north. The strait was first given its name by Army captain John C. Frémont about 1846. Surrounded by water except to the south, San Francisco was isolated from areas across the bay to the east and the north until the building of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Oakland Bridge made motor traffic possible in these directions.
It was not until 1872 that a serious proposal was made to bridge the strait, by railroad entrepreneur Charles Crocker. Because of the seeming impossibility of the task, however, it was 1916 before the idea was seriously raised again, this time by James Wilkins, editor of the San Francisco Call Bulletin. He began an editorial campaign to build a bridge, and he was joined in his crusade by City Engineer Michael M. O’Shaughnessy, who polled engineers about the feasibility and cost of such a venture. Most said it could not be built, predicting costs of well over $100 million.
One man, however, an engineer who had many bridges to his credit, believed in the project and ultimately submitted a bid of $27 million. This was Strauss, who joined in the campaign to build the bridge. Because he was a respected and tested bridge-builder, his confidence in the project was taken seriously, and from that point on the idea of building a bridge across the Golden Gate Strait began to take shape.
On June 28, 1921, Strauss submitted preliminary sketches and his estimate, and he then proceeded to convince San Francisco’s civic leaders not only that the bridge was feasible but also that it would pay for itself through tolls. In 1922, O’Shaughnessy, Strauss, and the secretary to San Francisco’s mayor, Edward Rainey, proposed that a special district be formed to make construction of the bridge possible. Public response was positive, and on May 25, 1923, the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District Act of California was enacted into law by the California legislature. This act allowed the six counties to borrow money, issue bonds, construct the bridge, and collect tolls. One hurdle remained. Only the War Department could authorize construction, since it had jurisdiction over all harbor construction that might affect shipping traffic or military logistics, and it also owned the land on both sides of the strait. Application was made and on December 20, 1924, Secretary of War John Weeks issued a permit.
It was not until four years later, however, that the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District was incorporated to design, construct, and finance the bridge. The board of directors first met in 1929, and Strauss was chosen as chief engineer. He submitted his final plans on August 27, 1930, and in November voters approved a thirty-five million dollar bond issue and also pledged the property of the six counties as security. This bridge, then, was the result not only of the dreams of a few men but also of the faith and confidence of the ordinary people of six counties in Northern California.
Work on the bridge began on January 5, 1933, and the project took four and a half years to complete. Strauss insisted on the most rigorous safety precautions in the history of bridge building, which included a prototype of today’s hard hat for all workers to protect their heads, glarefree goggles, special hand and face cream to protect against the wind, and even special diets that would fight against dizziness. Probably the most dramatic precaution was an enormous safety net suspended under the bridge, a precaution that ended up saving the lives of nineteen men who would otherwise have fallen to their deaths in the water. These men became known as the “Halfway-to-Hell Club.” During the first four years, only one man died in constructing the bridge, but on February 17, 1937, ten others were killed when a section of scaffolding fell through the net. Nevertheless, the low number of casualties was a major accomplishment; at that time, the norm was that one worker would die for every million dollars spent on a construction project.
In May, 1937, the bridge was opened, ahead of schedule and under budget. When his work was finished, Strauss penned an ode titled “The Mighty Task Is Done.” It was to be his last mighty task, as he died the following year.
On May 27, the Golden Gate Bridge was opened to pedestrians, and 200,000 people walked across the bridge. A dedication ceremony was held the following morning, and then the first vehicular traffic crossed, a cavalcade of official cars. The rest of the day was again devoted to pedestrian traffic. It was not until the third day, May 29, that regular vehicular traffic began, paying tolls of fifty cents each way with a five-cent charge for more than three passengers.
The total length including the approaches is 1.7 miles, with the suspension span including both the main and side spans at 1.2 miles. The main suspension span, at 4,200 feet, was, when built, the longest in the world. This was surpassed in 1964 by New York City’s Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and now there are others of greater length. However, the statistics about the bridge are still impressive.
The width of the bridge is 90 feet, and its height at midspan is 220 feet above the water. The bridge was designed to sway 27 feet in order to withstand winds up to one hundred miles per hour. The two great cables holding the bridge each contain enough strands of steel wire (eighty thousand miles) to circle the equator three times. Each cable is 36.5 inches in diameter, the largest bridge cables ever made. Each is 7,659 feet long and contains 27,572 individual wires, spun together using a loom-type shuttle. Each cable can hold 200 million pounds.
The two towers supporting the cables, at 746 feet, are the tallest bridge towers in the world. Although it is sometimes thought that the Golden Gate Bridge is named for its color, in fact it is named for the strait over which it passes. The color of the bridge is “International Orange,” chosen to blend with its natural surroundings. The bridge has about nine million visitors each year, and as of November 1, 1998, the vehicles traveling across it numbered 1,578,652,981.
In 1969, the state legislature authorized the Bridge and Highway District to formulate a plan for a mass transportation program in the Golden Gate Corridor, including ferry travel. This led to a change in the district’s name to include the word “Transportation.”
True to Strauss’s promise and the belief of the people who supported it, by 1972 the debt for construction of the bridge had been retired, including thirty-five million dollars in principal and thirty-nine million dollars in interest, paid for entirely by tolls.
On May 24, 1987, in celebration of fifty years of existence, the first pedestrian walk was commemorated with “Bridgewalk 87,” a parade of vintage cars, and suspension of toll collection for that day. That same year, tower lights, designed originally by consulting architect Irving F. Morrow but never implemented because of lack of sufficient funds, were installed on the bridge.
In 1994, the American Society of Civil Engineers named the Golden Gate Bridge one of the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World.” In 1999, it was ranked second in the Top Ten Construction Achievements of the Twentieth Century.
Construction never ends, however. The bridge is undergoing a seismic retrofit to make it even more able to withstand earthquakes. Painting and maintenance are ongoing tasks. Seventeen ironworkers and thirty-eight painters work on maintenance on an ongoing basis.
Since the Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District cannot levy taxes, bridge tolls are the only way to finance the district, now including the public transportation section, the bus and ferry programs. In 2000, the toll was $3.00, collected only one way, upon entering San Francisco.
Driving across the bridge is spectacular, but slower and more relaxed ways to enjoy it are also possible. Pedestrian sidewalks allow sightseers to enjoy the bridge on foot, and bicyclists are also allowed to use these walkways. However, rollerblades, skateboards, or skates are prohibited. Walkers are warned that the weather, even in the summer, can be windy, foggy, and cold, and warm clothing, in addition to comfortable shoes, is suggested. A walk across the bridge takes about an hour.
Near the San Francisco entrance to the bridge are a gift shop and a café, and nearby is a statue of Chief Engineer Joseph Baermann Strauss. Also on the grounds is a sample cross section of one of the main cables so visitors can see the strength that holds the bridge together.
The Golden Gate Bridge has been called the Colossus of the Pacific. Surrounded both to the north and to the south by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the largest urban park in the world, and leading directly to one of the most fascinating cities in the world, the Golden Gate Bridge has the reputation as the world’s most spectacular bridge and one of the world’s most visited sites.
Doherty, Craig A., Katherine M. Doherty, and Bruce S. Glassman. The Golden Gate Bridge. Woodbridge, Conn.: Blackbirch Press, 1995. Written for young people, this book documents the building of the Golden Gate Bridge from inception to completion. Includes photographs. “Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Construction, 1934-1936.” www.sfmu seum.org/assoc/bridge00.html. Historical documents about the building of the bridge, including photographs from various stages of construction. “Golden Gate Bridge.” www.goldengatebridge.org. This comprehensive site maintained by the Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District is detailed and helpful, both for those wanting just to know more about the bridge and for those wishing to visit it. Golden Gate Bridge: Chief Engineer’s Report. San Francisco: Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District, 1970. Reprint of report number 456 of Chief Engineer Strauss to the board of directors. First published in September, 1937, this book presents the details of this engineering feat by the one who knew it best. Includes photographs. Horton, Tom, and Baron Wolman. Superspan: The Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1998. Describes the history of the bridge, as well as information about the bridge today. Pelta, Kathy. Bridging the Gate. Minneapolis: Lerner, 1987. Details the story of the bridge’s construction. Rigler, James. San Francisco Moon: A Collection of Photography. Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 1998. Night photographs of many San Francisco scenes, including the spectacularly photogenic Golden Gate Bridge. Schock, James W. The Bridge, a Celebration. San Francisco: MacAdam/Cage, 1997. This large-scale book, filled with color photographs, tells the story of the bridge from the perspective of the people actually involved in its construction.