It must have been harrowing for those construction workers building the Golden Gate Bridge working hundreds of feet above the water in the fog, cold and wind. One misstep would be disaster.
Despite all the danger, the men were no doubt just happy to have a job. It was the middle of the Great Depression and there were bread lines across the nation. But in San Francisco they at least had a job.
The City-by-the-Bay weathered the Depression better than most cities across America. No banks closed and most survived those tough times.
But not Kermit Moore working on the Golden Gate.
The 23-year-old worker was killed instantly on Oct. 21, 1936, when a pin broke on a crane, dropping a heavy girder on him. He was the bridge’s first fatality.
Then about four months later, with the bridge almost finished, a scaffolding beam crashed through a safety net, taking 10 men down to their doom in the chilly waters below, with two others surviving.
That was a better safety record than during construction of the Bay Bridge, completed six months earlier than the Golden Gate, where 24 men perished.
Building the Brooklyn Bridge cost 27 lives.
Joseph B. Strauss, a 5-foot-tall engineer and poet from New York was appointed chief engineer for the mammoth project. He was a stickler for safety and fired workers on the spot who were showing off being daredevils.
He installed a safety net under the bridge that stretched more than 4,000 feet from one side of the channel to the other, and it saved lives.
A report in the Sausalito News read:
“Myles Green 35, of Mill Valley, was thrown unhurt into the safety net. On last Friday the safety net saved the first victim, George B Murray, carpenter, thrown off in a heavy wind when a steel conveyor car got out of control.
“Murray, together with Ulysses S. Brown, suffered painful injuries.
“On Monday Alfer Zampa, fell into a net stretched loosely over the ground on the Marin end, but owing to the fact that it was not far enough off the ground to check the fall, he hit the rocks, fracturing three spinal vertebrae and injuring his pelvis. He is in a serious condition at St. Luke’s Hospital.”
The idea of building a bridge across the mouth of San Francisco Bay became a serious topic of discussion about the time of the 1849 Gold Rush. Land north of San Francisco was going to become very valuable as San Francisco was growing, but it needed access — so how about a bridge across the channel to Marin County?
Before the bridge was built, ferry service first established in 1820 provided transportation across the gap.
U.S. Army topographer and explorer John C. Frémont named the entrance to the bay “Chrysophylae” meaning “Golden Gate” because it reminded him of a harbor in Istanbul named Chrysoceras, or “Golden Horn.”
In 1916, James Wilkins, a former engineering student working as a journalist with the San Francisco Bulletin suggested a suspension bridge.
San Francisco city engineer Michael M. O’Shaughnessy and project chief Strauss estimated a 4,000-foot span could be built for $25 to 35 million ($514 million in 2018 dollars).
A bond issue attracted little interest during those Depression times, but after numerous delays and burdensome litigation, Bank of America jumped in and bought all the bonds and kept the project going — envisioning the long-term prospects.
Construction began on Jan. 5, 1933. Strauss had little understanding or experience with cable-suspension designs, but relied on a team of experts, including Leon Moisseiff, who engineered the Manhattan Bridge in New York City linking Manhattan with Brooklyn across the East River; Irving Morrow, a relatively unknown architect who ended up designing most of the bridge — including the towers, decorations, street lights and Art Deco features — and Charles Alton Ellis, a professor, structural engineer and mathematician who created most of the structural design.
Strauss contributed some innovations of his own — among them, the installation of movable safety netting that saved many lives.
Updated safety netting is currently being installed and scheduled for completion in 2021 — at a cost of $211 million.
The netting will weigh 600 tons and hang 20 feet below the public walkway, and it will be painted gray — blending in with San Francisco’s famous fog.
Morrow chose the distinctive International Orange (orange vermilion) color. The U.S. Navy wanted the bridge painted with black and yellow stripes for high visibility.
In addition to expected financial, legal and construction problems on a project that size, the management team had their squabbles.
Ellis was fired by Strauss, who accused him of taking too much time and spending too much money exchanging telegrams with Moisseiff.
Then “Ellis, obsessed with the project and unable to find work elsewhere during the Depression, continued working 70 hours per week on an unpaid basis, eventually turning in 10 volumes of hand calculations,” according to a PBS report.
“With an eye toward self-promotion and posterity, Strauss downplayed the contributions of his collaborators who, despite receiving little recognition or compensation, are largely responsible for the final form of the bridge.”
It wasn’t until 2007 that the Golden Gate Bridge District issued a formal report on 70 years of bridge stewardship that also gave Ellis the credit he deserved for the design of the bridge.
The bridge was completed in four years and came in under budget — a remarkable achievement.
On May 27, 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge officially opened. At that time, it was the longest bridge span in the world at 4,200 feet, and also the tallest at 746 feet.
The day before the opening, 200,000 people walked, ran and even roller-skated across the bridge.
“This bridge needs neither praise, eulogy nor encomium. It speaks for itself,” Joseph Strauss said. “We who have labored long are grateful. What Nature rent asunder long ago, man has joined today.”
Architect Irving Morrow commented, “The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the greatest monuments of all time. Its unprecedented size and scale, along with its grace of form and independence of conception, all call for unique and unconventional treatment from every point of view.”
On the following day at noon, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed a button in Washington, D.C., officially opening up the bridge to vehicle traffic.
Today, about 42 million cars cross the Golden Gate every year.
In the 1989 Loma Prieta 6.9 earthquake, 63 were killed and 3,757 injured, property damage was estimated at more than $6 billion, power went out, the World Series was suspended and a section of the Bay Bridge collapsed.
The Golden Gate Bridge withstood the quake undamaged.
An unwanted distinction is that the Golden Gate Bridge is the top suicide location in the world, according to A&E Television. Other reports say that No. 1 today is the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge in China.
First to jump off the Golden Gate was World War I veteran Harold B. Wobber, 47, in August 1937, while walking the bridge with a tourist he’d just met on a bus. “This is where I get off. I’m going to jump,” he said suddenly. And jump he did, hitting the water 245 feet below at 75 m.p.h.
More than 1,500 have done it since — with about 35 surviving.
There are now crisis counseling phones and warning signs along the bridge, and bridge workers and volunteer Bridgewatch Angels watch for potential jumpers.
When the Golden Gate Bridge was completed, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world, but today the 1.24-mile long Akashi Kaikyo Bridge in Japan is the longest.
The American Society of Civil Engineers declares the Golden Gate Bridge among “Wonders of the Modern World,” and Frommer’s travel guide says it’s “possibly the most beautiful (and) certainly the most photographed bridge in the world.”
Harvard and Claremont University professor and author Simeon Wade wrote. “Don’t you think the Golden Gate Bridge looks to the East in the same way the Statue of Liberty faces Europe — the Old World?…The Bridge and the Statue face in opposite directions; the Bridge is the end whereas the Statue is the beginning.”
Changing the lyrics to “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” —
In all its glory standing
Above the blue and windy sea
When I come home to you, San Francisco
Your Golden Gate will shine for me.”
• • •
Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• • •
The “Nay” sayers…
“The bridge faced opposition, including litigation, from many sources. The Department of War was concerned that the bridge would interfere with ship traffic. The US Navy feared that a ship collision or sabotage to the bridge could block the entrance to one of its main harbors. Unions demanded guarantees that local workers would be favored for construction jobs. Southern Pacific Railroad, one of the most powerful business interests in California, opposed the bridge as competition to its ferry fleet and filed a lawsuit against the project, leading to a mass boycott of the ferry service.”
— U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration
The Mighty Task is Done…
At last the mighty task is done;
Resplendent in the western sun
The Bridge looms mountain high;
Its titan piers grip ocean floor,
Its great steel arms link shore with shore,
Its towers pierce the sky.
— Joseph B. Strauss, chief engineer, Golden Gate Bridge
The sum of many parts…
The Golden Gate Bridge’s main cables are 36 inches in diameter and contain 27,572 individual galvanized steel wires. The cables are anchored in concrete at either end, running 7,650 feet over the top of the two towers. Each tower 746 feet high and weighing 44,000 tons is held together by some 600,000 rivets.
“No” to the Golden Gate…
There was strong opposition to building the Golden Gate Bridge. By 1930, there were already 2,300 lawsuits against it. Among the complainant heavyweights were the Southern Pacific Railroad that owned 51 percent of the ferry service across the channel, and noted nature photographer Ansel Adams and the Sierra Club saying the bridge would spoil “the natural beauty of the strait.”
“Emperor” calls for bridge…
“Joshua Norton arrived in San Francisco in 1849. He is the son of an industrious London merchant and is determined to build a fortune in San Francisco. By 1869, a gone mad and bankrupted Gold Rush merchant, he declares himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States, and begins issuing decrees. San Franciscans tolerate him. He is the first to call publicly for the construction of bridges across the San Francisco Bay. He reigned as Emperor Norton until his death in 1880.”
• • •
Invitation to readers…
Everyone has a story. Press readers are invited to submit their Popcorn History stories (“Tasty little morsels of personal history”) for possible publication. Keep them 600 words or less. The stories may be edited if required. Submission of stories automatically grants permission to publish. Send to Syd Albright at email@example.com.
‘Look for History Popcorn every Wednesday brought to you by Ziggy’s.’