Golden Gate Bridge Opens

In the years immediately following World War I, the number of commuters crossing into San Francisco became so great that the existing ferry system could no longer accommodate the traffic without long delays. The Golden Gate Bridge, built to relieve the problem, was the longest suspension bridge constructed up to that time.

Summary of Event

In the post-World War I era, San Francisco was beginning to feel the need to expand northward. Unfortunately, the Golden Gate, the scenic entrance to San Francisco Bay, prevented easy travel to and from the city. Regular ferry service was available, but it was operating at near capacity and passengers had to wait for several hours on heavy travel days. Dreams of a bridge across the Golden Gate had been periodically discussed since the latter half of the nineteenth century, but no one considered it feasible or affordable. In 1917, San Francisco’s chief engineer, Michael O’Shaughnessy, began contacting engineers around the country about the possibility of building a bridge, but many of the engineers estimated the cost of such a bridge at more than $100 million. Joseph B. Strauss, a Chicago engineer who had made his name designing drawbridges, stood out from the other engineers: He estimated that the bridge could be built for less than $30 million. [kw]Golden Gate Bridge Opens (May 27, 1937)
[kw]Bridge Opens, Golden Gate (May 27, 1937)
Bridges;Golden Gate
Golden Gate Bridge
[g]United States;May 27, 1937: Golden Gate Bridge Opens[09480]
[c]Engineering;May 27, 1937: Golden Gate Bridge Opens[09480]
[c]Transportation;May 27, 1937: Golden Gate Bridge Opens[09480]
Strauss, Joseph B.
Ellis, Charles A.
Moisseiff, Leon

In 1921, Strauss submitted preliminary plans for a hybrid bridge with a 2,640-foot suspension span flanked on each end by 685-foot cantilevered-truss spans. Most people disliked the aesthetics of his original design, which probably would have been structurally sound but would have ruined the view of the San Francisco Bay. A greater source of initial concern, however, was that many feared that the cost would be too great and would likely be significantly above Strauss’s estimate. The city felt it would be unable to cover the cost, and the counties to the north were even less able to help. The ferry operators were also opposed; they saw the bridge as direct competition that would endanger their business. In spite of clear opposition, Strauss became a crusader for the project, traveling throughout the counties north of San Francisco to convince them that they stood to gain if the bridge was built. In spite of his best efforts, however, Strauss made little progress on finding approval for the bridge until 1929, when he decided to get help in redesigning his proposed structure.

With the assistance of the engineers Charles A. Ellis and Leon Moisseiff, the bridge’s design was extended to a suspension span of 4,000 feet. Instead of the clunky hybrid design originally proposed, the new design was more sweeping, and it promised to be the world’s largest suspension bridge. Once the new design was unveiled, preliminary approval was given, and Strauss was appointed chief engineer. For final approval, however, the engineers needed a completed design, including all the engineering calculations. Strauss relentlessly pushed Ellis to get him to finish the calculations, and finally, on August 30, 1930, the completed report and plans were presented to the city. Even though Ellis had done the majority of the design work, he was simply listed as “chief assistant” and received only secondary credit. Rivalry between Ellis and Strauss soon led to Ellis’s dismissal.

By 1930, the U.S. War Department determined that the bridge would not cause navigational problems and gave its approval. While the design was being finished, the search for funding also continued, although it was made more difficult by the onset of the Great Depression. After finding no interest in the project at the state or federal levels, full attention was turned to local sources. Convinced of the bridge’s economic benefits and after heavy lobbying efforts by Strauss and his supporters, the northern counties decided to join a bridge district that would issue bonds to raise the estimated $35 million needed for construction. In November of 1930, the voters overwhelmingly approved the bonds, but no bond house or bank would agree to take them. The bonds remained in limbo until 1932, when A. P. Gianini, whose bank later became the Bank of America, agreed to lend the needed money.

Construction on the Golden Gate Bridge began in 1933. The first major project was to build the two towers that would support the suspension span. Because the length of the span was so great—4,200 feet in the final design—they had to bear tremendous forces. Each tower was to extend 746 feet above the water. The north tower was relatively easy to construct as it was in shallow water, but the south tower was to be built in deep water 1,100 feet from shore, where wave action from the open ocean would leave it very exposed. To provide adequate anchorage, 1.6 million cubic yards of rock had to be blasted and dredged from the south tower’s site. Much of the blasting work required that divers enter the water to place the charges, but strong currents meant that there were only small windows of time in which diving was possible.

After excavation was complete, a protective bumper was built around the spot where the caisson for the base of the tower was to be placed. Wave action was so intense that the first attempt failed, and the caisson shifted. After further engineering calculations, a sturdier method was designed, and the tower began to take shape. The Art Deco design of the towers was the work of architect Irving F. Morrow. Morrow, Irving F.

Once the towers were complete, in the fall of 1935, the Roebling company was hired to spin the cables that would support the road bed. The contract with the Roebling company specified that Roebling would complete the cables in one year; after the year had passed, the company would lose money for each additional day needed. The bridge required 80,000 miles of wire, enough to span the equator more than three times. Thousands of strands were laboriously spun together to produce the largest suspension cable of that time, which was 36.5 inches in diameter. The towers and cables were designed to withstand a broadside wind of 100 miles per hour; at this speed, the bridge would be able to sway as much as 27 feet at midspan. The cables were completed on May 20, 1936, well ahead of schedule and four times faster than predicted.

The final part of the project was to complete the road bed, the most dangerous part of the job. At the time, the rule of thumb was one fatality for each $1 million in cost. Strauss, who was obsessed with safety, spent $130,000 for a safety net to be placed beneath the developing road bed. In spite of this precaution, one major accident left ten fatalities, but the overall fatality figures were well below the typical rate. By 1937, the bridge was completed, sixteen years after Strauss first submitted plans. The official opening day was May 27, 1937. More than two hundred thousand people turned out for the celebration and were given the chance to be the first pedestrians to cross the bridge. Joseph B. Strauss gave one of the speeches that day, but he died within a year after the bridge’s opening.


When the Golden Gate Bridge was opened to traffic, drivers had to pay a toll that was intended to pay off the bonds used to build the bridge. Drivers of passenger cars were charged fifty cents, with an additional five cents for each passenger. The bridge remained in operation and tolls continued to be charged, not to pay off the bonds, which were retired, but to pay for the continuing maintenance required to keep the bridge safe. After 1997, the bridge began a three-phase seismic retrofit, a significant portion of which was funded by bridge tolls. Bridges;Golden Gate
Golden Gate Bridge

Further Reading

  • Dillon, Richard H., Don Denevi, and Thomas Moulin. High Steel: Building the Bridges Across San Francisco Bay. Berkeley, Calif.: Celestial Arts, 1980. Recounts the history of the two largest bridges in the San Francisco Bay: the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges.
  • Schock, James W. The Bridge: A Celebration. Sherman Oaks, Calif.: Shock Ink, 1997. Considered by many to be a definitive account of the history of the Golden Gate Bridge.
  • Van Der Zee, John. The Gate: The True Story of the Design and Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987. Delves into the personalities involved in the building of the Golden Gate Bridge.
  • Wells, Matthew. Thirty Bridges. New York: Watson-Guptill, 2002. As the title suggests, this book looks at thirty different bridges worldwide, including the Golden Gate Bridge. Gives a nice perspective on how the Golden Gate fits into history.

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