Construction Begins on the Golden Gate Bridge

United States - Scott #567 (1923)
United States – Scott #567 (1923)

Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in California on January 5, 1933. The suspension bridge would be completed on April 19, 1937, and opened on May 27, 1937, spanning the Golden Gate — a one-mile-wide (1.6 km) strait connecting San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The structure links the city of San Francisco at the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula to Marin County, carrying both U.S. Route 101 and California State Route 1 across the strait. The bridge is one of the most internationally recognized symbols of San Francisco, California, and the United States. It has been declared one of the Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The Frommer‘s travel guide describes the Golden Gate Bridge as “possibly the most beautiful, certainly the most photographed, bridge in the world.” At the time of its opening, it was both the longest and the tallest suspension bridge in the world, with a main span of 4,200 feet (1,280 m) and a total height of 746 feet (227 m). Today, the Golden Gate Bridge is neither the longest nor the tallest in the world, but remains the tallest bridge in the United States. The Golden Gate is often shrouded in fog, especially during the summer. Heat generated in the California Central Valley causes air there to rise, creating a low pressure area that pulls in cool, moist air from over the Pacific Ocean. The strait forms the largest break in the hills of the California Coast Range, allowing a persistent, dense stream of fog to enter the bay there.

The Golden Gate in California, as seen from the Marin Headlands looking south.
The Golden Gate in California, as seen from the Marin Headlands looking south.

Before the bridge was built, the only practical short route between San Francisco and what is now Marin County was by boat across a section of San Francisco Bay. The pre-bridge Golden Gate was portrayed on two stamp designs released by the United States Post Office Department, one initially released in 1913 as part of a commemorative set for the Panama Pacific Exposition and the second in Fourth Bureau Issue of 1922. Scott #567 was the lowest value stamp in the Series of 1922 to use a horizontally-oriented frame. The 20-cent stamp depicts San Francisco’s harbor. It was the last stamp approved by President Harding’s outgoing postmaster general, Hubert Work. Postmaster General Harry S. New approved the die proof on April 11, 1923. In the image, San Francisco lies to the south and Marin County lies to the north. A painting by W.A. Coulter inspired the vignette. The full-rigged ship depicted in the painting and on the stamp was reportedly the USS W.F. Babcock, which served in the United States Navy from 1917 to 1919.

Louis S. Schofield engraved the vignette for the 20-cent Golden Gate stamp. Edward E. Meyers engraved the variable lettering in the ribbon Edward M. Hall and Joachim C. Benzing engraved the frame. The stamp was issued both at Washington, D.C., and San Francisco on May 14, 1923. Initially printed on the flat plate press, the stamp was subsequently printed on the Stickney rotary press as well. The stamp is sometimes encountered on airmail and registered mailings.

During the last Ice Age, when sea level was several hundred feet lower, the waters of the glacier-fed Sacramento River and the San Joaquin River scoured a deep channel through the bedrock on their way to the ocean. A similar process created the undersea Hudson Canyon off the coast of New York and New Jersey. The strait is well known today for its depth and powerful tidal currents from the Pacific Ocean. Many small whirlpools and eddies can form in its waters. With its strong currents, rocky reefs and fog, the Golden Gate is the site of over 100 shipwrecks.

Before the Europeans arrived in the 18th century, the area around the strait and the bay was inhabited by the Ohlone to the south and Coast Miwok people to the north. Descendants of both tribes remain in the area.

Golden Gate, circa 1891. The photo was first published in Shepp's Photographs of the World by James W. and Daniel B. Shepp (Globe Bible Publishing Co. Philadelphia, 1891). The original caption reads:
Golden Gate, circa 1891. The photo was first published in Shepp’s Photographs of the World by James W. and Daniel B. Shepp (Globe Bible Publishing Co. Philadelphia, 1891). The original caption reads: “GOLDEN GATE, California.—This forms the entrance to San Francisco Bay, which is about seventy miles long and from ten to fifteen wide, and is narrowed into a channel only about one mile wide; here the waters escape in a current as the tide ebbs and flows to and from the ocean. As one approaches from the ocean towards the bay, the south side of the Golden Gate exhibits a shelving point of land which terminates in a long fortification called Fort Point. The portion of the strait between the light house on the north and the fort on the south, is termed “The Golden Gate,” or “Chrysopylæ.””

The strait was surprisingly elusive for early European explorers, presumably due to this persistent summer fog. The strait is not recorded in the voyages of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo nor Francis Drake, both of whom may have explored the nearby coast in the 16th century in search of the fabled Northwest Passage. The strait is also unrecorded in observations by Spanish galleons returning from the Philippines that laid up in nearby Drakes Bay to the north. These galleons rarely passed east of the Farallon Islands, 27 miles (43 km) west of the Golden Gate, fearing the possibility of rocks between the islands and the mainland.

The first recorded observation of the strait occurred nearly two hundred years later than the earliest European explorations of the coast. In 1769, Sgt José Francisco Ortega, the leader of a scouting party sent north along the San Francisco Peninsula by Don Gaspar de Portolá from their expedition encampment in San Pedro Valley to locate the Point Reyes headlands, reported back to Portolá that he could not reach the location because of his encounter with the strait.

On August 5, 1775, Juan de Ayala and the crew of his ship San Carlos became the first Europeans known to have passed through the strait, anchoring in a cove behind Angel Island, the cove now named in Ayala’s honor. A ferry service operating between San Francisco and what is now Marin County began as early as 1820, with a regularly scheduled service beginning in the 1840s for the purpose of transporting water to San Francisco. Until the 1840s, the strait was called the Boca del Puerto de San Francisco (“Mouth of the Port of San Francisco”). On July 1, 1846, before the discovery of gold in California, the entrance acquired a new name. In his memoirs, John C. Frémont wrote, “To this Gate I gave the name of ‘Chrysopylae’, or ‘Golden Gate’; for the same reasons that the harbor of Byzantium was called Chrysoceras, or Golden Horn.” He went on to comment that the strait was “a golden gate to trade with the Orient.”

Following the Gold Rush boom that began in 1849, speculators realized the land north of San Francisco Bay would increase in value in direct proportion to its accessibility to the city. Soon, a plan was hatched to build a bridge that would span the narrow, 400-foot deep strait that serves as the mouth of the San Francisco Bay. The idea wouldn’t really take root until 1916.

The Sausalito Land and Ferry Company service, launched in 1867, eventually became the Golden Gate Ferry Company, a Southern Pacific Railroad subsidiary, the largest ferry operation in the world by the late 1920s. Once for railroad passengers and customers only, Southern Pacific’s automobile ferries became very profitable and important to the regional economy. The ferry crossing between the Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco and Sausalito in Marin County took approximately 20 minutes and cost US$1.00 per vehicle, a price later reduced to compete with the new bridge. The trip from the San Francisco Ferry Building took 27 minutes.

At the beginning of the 20th century, San Francisco was the largest American city still served primarily by ferry boats. Because it did not have a permanent link with communities around the bay, the city’s growth rate was below the national average. Many experts said that a bridge could not be built across the 6,700-foot (2,042 m) strait, which had strong, swirling tides and currents, with water 372 feet (113 m) deep at the center of the channel, and frequent strong winds. Experts said that ferocious winds and blinding fogs would prevent construction and op

Golden Gate from_Lands End, San Francisco, circa 1895
Golden Gate from_Lands End, San Francisco, circa 1895

Although the idea of a bridge spanning the Golden Gate was not new, the proposal that eventually took hold was made in a 1916 San Francisco Bulletin article by former engineering student James Wilkins. San Francisco’s City Engineer estimated the cost at $100 million, which would have been $2.12 billion in 2009, and impractical for the time. He asked bridge engineers whether it could be built for less. One who responded, Joseph Strauss, was an ambitious engineer and poet who had, for his graduate thesis, designed a 55-mile-long (89 km) railroad bridge across the Bering Strait. At the time, Strauss had completed some 400 drawbridges — most of which were inland — and nothing on the scale of the new project. Strauss’s initial drawings were for a massive cantilever on each side of the strait, connected by a central suspension segment, which Strauss promised could be built for $17 million.

Local authorities agreed to proceed only on the assurance that Strauss would alter the design and accept input from several consulting project experts. A suspension-bridge design was considered the most practical, because of recent advances in metallurgy.

Strauss spent more than a decade drumming up support in Northern California. The bridge faced opposition, including litigation, from many sources. The Department of War was concerned that the bridge would interfere with ship traffic. The 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.

In May 1924, Colonel Herbert Deakyne held the second hearing on the Bridge on behalf of the Secretary of War in a request to use federal land for construction. Deakyne, on behalf of the Secretary of War, approved the transfer of land needed for the bridge structure and leading roads to the “Bridging the Golden Gate Association” and both San Francisco County and Marin County, pending further bridge plans by Strauss. Another ally was the fledgling automobile industry, which supported the development of roads and bridges to increase demand for automobiles.

The bridge’s name was first used when the project was initially discussed in 1917 by M.M. O’Shaughnessy, city engineer of San Francisco, and Strauss. The name became official with the passage of the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District Act by the state legislature in 1923, creating a special district to design, build and finance the bridge. San Francisco and most of the counties along the North Coast of California joined the Golden Gate Bridge District, with the exception being Humboldt County, whose residents opposed the bridge’s construction and the traffic it would generate.

The height, depth, and length of the span from end to end, looking west.
The height, depth, and length of the span from end to end, looking west.

Strauss was chief engineer in charge of overall design and construction of the bridge project. However, because he had little understanding or experience with cable-suspension design, responsibility for much of the engineering and architecture fell on other experts. Strauss’s initial design proposal (two double cantilever spans linked by a central suspension segment) was unacceptable from a visual standpoint. The final graceful suspension design was conceived and championed by Leon Moisseiff, the engineer of the Manhattan Bridge in New York City.

Irving Morrow, a relatively unknown residential architect, designed the overall shape of the bridge towers, the lighting scheme, and Art Deco elements, such as the tower decorations, streetlights, railing, and walkways. The famous International Orange color was originally used as a sealant for the bridge. The U.S. Navy had wanted it to be painted with black and yellow stripes to ensure visibility by passing ships.

Senior engineer Charles Alton Ellis, collaborating remotely with Moisseiff, was the principal engineer of the project. Moisseiff produced the basic structural design, introducing his “deflection theory” by which a thin, flexible roadway would flex in the wind, greatly reducing stress by transmitting forces via suspension cables to the bridge towers. Although the Golden Gate Bridge design has proved sound, a later Moisseiff design, the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge, collapsed in a strong windstorm soon after it was completed, because of an unexpected aeroelastic flutter. Ellis was also tasked with designing a “bridge within a bridge” in the southern abutment, to avoid the need to demolish Fort Point, a pre–Civil War masonry fortification viewed, even then, as worthy of historic preservation. He penned a graceful steel arch spanning the fort and carrying the roadway to the bridge’s southern anchorage.

Below the Golden Gate Bridge
Below the Golden Gate Bridge

Ellis was a Greek scholar and mathematician who at one time was a University of Illinois professor of engineering despite having no engineering degree. He eventually earned a degree in civil engineering from the University of Illinois prior to designing the Golden Gate Bridge and spent the last twelve years of his career as a professor at Purdue University. He became an expert in structural design, writing the standard textbook of the time. Ellis did much of the technical and theoretical work that built the bridge, but he received none of the credit in his lifetime. In November 1931, Strauss fired Ellis and replaced him with a former subordinate, Clifford Paine, ostensibly for wasting too much money sending telegrams back and forth to Moisseiff. 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 ten volumes of hand calculations.

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. He succeeded in having himself credited as the person most responsible for the design and vision of the bridge. Only much later were the contributions of the others on the design team properly appreciated. In May 2007, the Golden Gate Bridge District issued a formal report on 70 years of stewardship of the famous bridge and decided to give Ellis major credit for the design of the bridge.

The Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District, authorized by an act of the California Legislature, was incorporated in 1928 as the official entity to design, construct, and finance the Golden Gate Bridge. However, after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the District was unable to raise the construction funds, so it lobbied for a $30 million bond measure. The bonds were approved in November 1930, by votes in the counties affected by the bridge. The construction budget at the time of approval was $27 million. However, the District was unable to sell the bonds until 1932, when Amadeo Giannini, the founder of San Francisco–based Bank of America, agreed on behalf of his bank to buy the entire issue in order to help the local economy.

A view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands on a foggy morning at sunrise.
A view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands on a foggy morning at sunrise.

Construction began on January 5, 1933. The Golden Gate Bridge officially opened on May 27, 1937, the longest bridge span in the world at the time. The first public crossing had taken place the day before, when 200,000 people walked, ran and even roller skated over the new bridge. With its tall towers and famous red paint job, the bridge quickly became a famous American landmark, and a symbol of San Francisco. I will write more about the bridge later this year to mark the 81st anniversary of the completion of its construction and the grand opening.

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