By Kathleen Elliott
Kathleen received the CCHS award for best
paper on a California subject in the 2001 History Day state competition.
For some wonderful photos of the
bridge -- old and new -- visit their website at
The Golden Gate Bridge-the unmistakable
symbol of a city and a region is known as the most spectacular bridge in the
world. One of man's most powerful creations, the bridge is located in one of
nature's most beautiful settings, spanning the mile-wide bay from Fort Point
in San Francisco to the Marin County shore.
Opened in 1937, the bridge has remained
undamaged. It has been able to withstand ferocious winds, mammoth loads,
temperatures that expand and contract every piece of steel in it and
enormous earthquakes (Gronquist 27). The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake caused
The construction of this bridge is a
frontier in history which changed the lives of millions living in San
Francisco ... and the thinking of civil engineers and architects throughout
the world. The way architects think and contractors work was revolutionized
and the bridge continues to make designers think differently (Bilings
47-52). All involved with the enormous construction of this single project
crossed multiple frontiers that others before had never even considered
The idea of spanning the Golden Gate
thought to be impossible by virtually everyone when the
notion was brought up in the 19th century.
The concept of bridging the strait was
"commanded" as early as 1869 by an ex-millionaire, Joshua Abraham Norton,
who believed he was Norton I, Emperor of the United States (Cassady
261-264). Norton was a man from the Gold Rush era who lost his money in a
bad investment in the rice market and coped with his loss through insanity.(1)
So his idea of constructing a bridge across the mile-wide gap was written
off as ludicrous. Norton may have been seen as crazy but he saw the future
in linking the growing city of San Francisco on the south and the wide open
lands of Marin County to the north (Van der Zee 117-18) and the Redwood
In the late 1800s and the early 1900s
residents of San Francisco saw the ferry system as the only way to get from
one side of the strait to the other.(2)
Many problems arose from the ferry system in the early 1910s due to a
growing population and society's need to cross the Golden Gate
Strait-ferries could not keep up with the accelerating demand for
transportation (Saunders 21). As the necessity for a more efficient way to
travel increased, building a bridge seemed to be the only answer.
Because of the ferry congestion, James
Wilkins, an editor for the San Francisco Call Bulletin, revived the idea of
building a bridge in 1916. Wilkins began an editorial campaign for a bridge
which caught the attention of San Francisco City Engineer Michael M.
O'Shaughnessy (Brandt 2). O' Shaughnessy began a national inquiry among
engineers regarding the feasibility and the cost of such a project.
The majority of engineers said a bridge
of such great magnitude could not be built (Horton 78). Even if it was
possible, some speculated it would cost over 100 million dollars to
However, one man defied all the laws of engineering and crossed an
architectural frontier with his almost miraculous vision of spanning the
Joseph Baermann Strauss, Ohio-born
engineer specializing in bridge building, designer of nearly 400 spanning
bridges, argued that a bridge across the Golden Gate Strait was not only
feasible but could be built for only 20 to 30 million dollars.
Strauss submitted preliminary sketches to
O'Shaughnessy with a cost estimate of 27 million dollars on June 28, 1921.
Then he took on his biggest task yet... convincing civic leaders and
residents that the span was not only feasible but affordable as well
because... it would pay for itself over time through tolls (Chester 49-53).
Luckily besides being a skilled engineer,
Strauss was also a great salesman (Chester 50). He dedicated himself to
becoming the chief promoter, organizing the political, financial and
marketing efforts to build the bridge that would span the strait and THE
TIME WAS RIGHT. In 1921 the population centers around the bay were at an
all-time high and rising and traffic congestion at the ferry docks was
Strauss ran into a critical funding
problem when he asked for federal and state moneys to build the bridge. The
limited funds available at the time had already been given to the San
Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge project, which was being promoted during the
same time period (Brown 63). So, due to lack of funding, the Golden Gate
Bridge project was brought to a standstill ... until a unique idea was
The idea of forming a special district to
construct the Golden Gate bridge was proposed in 1922 by O'Shaughnessy,
Strauss and Edward Rainey, secretary to Mayor James Rolph of San Francisco
(Strauss 20). This was the first idea of its kind. Surmounting one enormous
frontier is like climbing a staircase made up of many steps ... it's done
one at a time. The trio who originated the idea believed a district was
necessary to oversee the financing, designing and construction. In this way
all counties affected would have a voice in the proceedings which could, in
turn, result in more community support (Cassady 47).
Consequently, less than a year after the
first proposal was made, a historic mass meeting took place at Santa Rosa in
Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. On January 13, 1923 Mayor Rolph ran
the mass meeting of representatives from 21 counties to consider ways and
means of carrying the project forward (Chester 71).
At this meeting the "Association of
Bridging the Gate" was formed.
With the help of Assemblyman Frank
Coombs, Napa, and Marin County Attorney George H. Harlan, legislation was
drafted creating the district. The "Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District
Act" was passed by the State Legislature on May 25, 1923. This gave counties
the right to organize as a bridge district and borrow money, issue bonds,
construct a bridge and collect tolls. (Knapp 26).
However, progress on the bridge had
already been delayed for a year from the time the preliminary sketches had
been submitted and Strauss still had many battles to fight to achieve his
ultimate goal (Strauss 92).
The future of the bridge was now in the
hands of the U.S. War Department. Only it could authorize construction as it
had jurisdiction over all harbor construction that might affect shipping
traffic or military logistics, and it owned the land on either side of the
strait (Brown 72).
In the spring of 1924, San Francisco and
Marin counties made joint application for a permit to build the bridge.(5)
At the War Department hearing on May 16, 1924, two issues were discussed ...
would the bridge hinder navigation and was adequate financing available
(Brown 79-83). Overwhelming testimony in favor of the bridge caused
Secretary of War John W. Weeks to issue a provisional permit on December 20,
Of course, not everyone was in favor of
the bridge. Strong opposition to spanning the strait emerged from
well-financed special interest groups, especially ferry companies (van der
Zee 147). An aggressive and extremely negative campaign was launched to stop
the construction and the formation of the district. Main argument was that
the 30-minute ferry ride across the strait was a time for people to mingle
and receive a break in their day. The campaign swayed the opinion of an
enormous group of people and was quite successful for a short period of
time. However, as congestion worsened, the ferry ride no longer was a
relaxing trip across the water but simply an over-stuffed journey that left
riders annoyed and frustrated (van der Zee 85).
So, the proponents of the bridge
prevailed and on December 4, 1928, the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway
District was formed to design, construct and finance the Golden Gate Bridge.
The district consisted of San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, Del Norte and parts
of Mendocino and Napa counties. The boards of supervisors of member counties
appointed directors to the Bridge Board and they held their first meeting on
January 23, 1929.
Building the Bridge: A Triumph in
Eleven of the nation's leading bridge
engineering firms submitted proposals for construction of the historic span
(Horton 31-33). Joseph B. Strauss was selected on August 15, 1929 as chief
Leon S. Moisseiff, A. H. Amman and
Charles Derleth, Jr., were named consulting engineers. These three men
studied Strauss' original plans from 1921 ... calling for a hybrid
cantilever and suspension structure across the strait. This plan was
regarded as unsightly ... a far cry from the elegant, understated lines that
define the great bridge today (Horton 37). Moisseiff theorized that a
long-span suspension bridge could cross the strait.
Not only was it popularly believed that
it would be impossible to construct any bridge linking San Francisco and
Marin but a suspension span would be even more difficult. However, if it
could be done, its construction would stand as a greater achievement in
history. A suspension bridge relies on the force of gravity to stand (Horton
31). Even after Moisseiff and Strauss began to refine the design, it wasn't
until consulting architects Irving F. Morrow and his wife, Gertrude C.
Morrow, were brought on to the designing team, that the artistic design
which is today known and admired the world over began to take shape.(6)
On August 11, 1930, the War Department issued its final permit for the
construction of a 4,200-foot main span. On August 27, 1930, Strauss
submitted final plans for the Golden Gate Bridge to the District Board of
Directors (van der Zee 109). All that was needed now was to get his
historically monumental project financed.
On November 4, 1930 voters within the
district went to the polls and put their homes, farms, and business
properties up for collateral to support a 35 million dollar bond issue to
finance the bridge (Golden Gate Bridge: History of the World and People).
For some, the timing of the bond election
was considered economically reckless as this would create bonded
indebtedness during the Great Depression.(7)
Others saw that the bridge construction
could represent the economic relief needed from the Great Depression (Cassady
131). This concept was a significant factor in pulling several counties out
of economic depression; another frontier the great Golden Gate Bridge
crossed. After the vote, it was clear the people believed in Strauss',
vision. Voting for the bond issue were 145,697 people, while only 47,005
were opposed. (8)
This bridge was the first of such
magnitude and controversy to be completely financed by private citizens (Gronquist
128-129). All who did contribute money were promised restitution at four and
three-fourths percent interest rate within a maximum of 40 years.
It is amazing how successful this way of
financing was, considering the effects of the Great Depression. The people
who lived in the counties which were involved in the district displayed an
unprecedented sense of community pride by trusting in the bridge bonds. In
November 1932, contracts totaling $23,843,905 were awarded for the
construction of the bridge which commenced on January 5, 1933 ... after
nearly 13 years of negotiations.
During construction, Strauss insisted on
the use of the most rigorous safety precautions in the history of bridge
building (Knapp 18). Edward W. Bullard, a local manufacturer of safety
equipment, designed protective headgear that Strauss insisted be worn on the
job. This was the prototype of the hard hat, worn for the first time in
history, along with glare-free goggles. Special hand and face cream
protected the workers against the wind and sun, while special diets helped
fight dizziness due primarily to alcohol abuse (Thoma).
The most conspicuous precaution was the
safety net, suspended under the bridge from end to end. During construction,
the net saved the lives of 19 men who became known as the "HalfWay-to-Hell
Club." Until February 17, 1937 there had been only one fatality, setting a
new all-time record in a field where "one life lost for every million
dollars spent..." was the norm (Brown 153-161). Tragically, on the 17th of
February, 10 men lost their lives when a section of a scaffold, used to spin
wire into cable, carrying 12 men fell through the safety net.(9)
The safety standards put into effect by Strauss on the Golden Gate Bridge
project are now an accepted part of the nation's construction regulations (Schock
The Golden Gate Bridge was completed a
little more than four years after its commencement at a final cost of
$35,500,000. On May 27, 1937 the Golden Gate Bridge Fiesta was held on the
bridge making the first time pedestrians were allowed on the monumental span
(Schock 47). The following day the bridge opened to vehicular traffic at
noon, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressed a telegraph key in the
White House to announce the event to the world (Cassady 192).
The already famous bridge had opened
ahead of schedule and under budget (van der Zee 107). The last of the
construction bonds were retired in 1971, 34 years after its completion, with
$35 million in principal and nearly $39 million in interest being paid ...
entirely from bridge tolls.
Chief Engineer Joseph B. Strauss,
Consulting Engineers A. H. Amman, Charles Derleth, Jr., and Leon S.
Moisseiff, Consulting Architects Irving F. Morrow and Gertrude C. Morrow,
along with hundreds of dedicated workers, oversaw creation of a structure
which can truly be referred to as a "FRONTIER IN HISTORY INVOLVING PEOPLE,
PLACES AND IDEAS." This great structure has become world-renowned as the
world's most spectacular and recognizable bridge and one of the most visited
sites in the world.
Construction of the Golden Gate bridge
was the most eminent structural feat in history that man has ever made,(10)
because of its innovative triumph of civil engineering and technology. The
bridge builders defied the known laws of physics. Many new standards were
set which aided in other Bibliography engineering breakthroughs. In 1964,
the Golden Gate bridge ceded its mid-span length record to the Verrazano-Narrows
bridge in New York Harbor between Brooklyn and Staten Island, an example of
a feat accomplished because the Golden Gate had shown the way into that
Although Golden Gate is no longer the
longest bridge in the world, it still remains the tallest suspension bridge
erected to date. Hanging from its two 746-foot-high towers, its cables each
a yard thick, are the highest ever to support a bridge (Owens 52).
The magnificent bridge subdues its harsh
setting. The waters rock from Pacific swells, 70-mile-per-hour gale force
winds howl, temperatures swing drastically and fog blankets the site in
minutes. The ocean harbor gap of 8,981 feet was historically leaped in a
tremendous achievement in a little more than four years. The bridge's
effortless grace belies its strength. It survived the 1989 Loma Prieta
earthquake undamaged. The erratic weather has shut it to traffic only three
time in the past 60 years (Schock 59).
Today the span is undergoing a seismic
retrofit to withstand a 90-second earthquake that could measure 8.3 on the
Richter scale (Current Projects). However, these reinforcements will not mar
the beauty of its architecture. After all, it is a bridge that draws
millions of people yearly, not to cross, but just to visit. Countless
critics said such a momentous bridge could never be built. Think of the many
other frontiers that would not have been crossed if the few had listened.
1. Norton created his own currency and
military-like uniform for clothing and thus was deemed insane (Knapp 52).
2. Residents of Marin County were able to find better work in San Francisco
so commuters relied on the 30-minute ferry ride for transportation (Thoma
3. One hundred million dollars is equivalent to approximately one billion
dollars today (Laird 5).
4. The unemployed population was also rising and the construction of a
bridge would employ thousands of unskilled laborers (Strauss 214).
5. Both Marin and San Francisco had to apply for the permit because the
bridge would affect both counties (Brandt).
6. Although Strauss received credit for the Golden Gate Bridge's artistic
marvels, the Morrows deserve recognition for it was their ingenious vision
which is today world renowned.
7. Bonds of any kind were thought to be worthless and fraudulent due to the
impact of the Great Depression (Schock 129).
8. To show support of the bond issue, a citizen voted not only for the
approval of the bridge but also promised money for the project (Brown 63).
9. Two of the 12 men were fortunate enough to grab on to a section of the
safety net that did not tear (Saunders).
10. The Golden Gate bridge was ranked as the second most important feat of
the 20th century by Time Magazine ("The Golden Gate Bridge" video).
(Some of these links may no longer be active.)
Strauss, Joseph B. "Here's Your Bridge,
Mr. O'Shaughnessy." The Saturday Evening Post. Editorial. May 29,
1937, pp. 20, 90, 92-94.
Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District. The Golden Gate Bridge. San
Francisco, Ca.: Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District. 1938.
Saunders, Edwin. "The World's Greatest Suspension Bridge." Travel. New York.
April 18, 1937. pp. 18-21.
"Golden Gate Bridge to Aid Business." Editorial. Business Week. May 22,
1937. pp. 30-32.
Brandt, R. "Bridging the Bay." Golden Gate.
The Museum of San Francisco.
(Some of these links may no longer be active.)
Bilings, Henry. Bridges. The Viking
Press: New York, 1956.
Brown, Allen. Golden Gate: Biography of a Bridge.
Press, Inc. New York, 1965.
Cassady, Stephen. Spanning the Gate: The Golden Gate Bridge.
Square Books. Mill Valley, CA, 1986.
Chester, Michael. Joseph Strauss. Putnam, New York, 1965.
Seismic Restoration." Golden Gate
Bridge. San Francisco, 2000
Gift Center. Golden Gate Bridge: San Francisco, CA. Golden
Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District. 2000.
ABC News Production. The Golden Gate Bridge. MPI Home
Research Library. "Golden Gate Bridge: About the Bridge." San
Francisco, CA. Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District,
BCIT Civil and Structural Technology. The Golden Gate
California Online Highways. "Golden Gate Bridge." San Fran
cisco CA. www.caohwy.com
Golden Gate Bridge: History of the World and People. Sausalito,
CA. video, 1991.
Goldwater, Daniel. Bridges and How They Are Built. Young Scotts Books, New
Gronquist, C. H. Golden Gate Bridge. Steinman, Boynton,
Gronquist. New York and London, 1961.
Horton, Tom. Superspan: The Golden Gate Bridge. Chronicle
Books, San Francisco, CA, 1983.
Knapp, Edward John. The Golden Gate Bridge Trivia Book.
Chronicle Books, San Francisco, CA, 1987.
Laird, Donald. "Golden Gate Bridge #974." Historic Landmarks, 1996.
Owens, Tom. The Golden Gate Bridge. PowerKid Press, New
Schock, Jim. The Bridge a Celebration: The Golden Gate Bridge.
Golden Gate International, Inc. Mill Valley, CA. 1997.
Thoma, Michael Paul. "Golden Gate Bridge Facts" Mike Thoma's
San Francisco. Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, 1995
van der Zee, John. The Gate. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1986.