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Happy 75th to a bridge that almost wasn’t built

Pedestrian day pass from opening day (Photo: courtesy of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, www.goldengate.org)

Bridging Us All is the theme for the Golden Gate Bridge’s 75th anniversary celebration, featuring a yearlong schedule of public events.

A highlight of the celebration is the waterfront festival on Sunday, May 27, with event venues from Fort Point to Pier 39. The Golden Gate Highway and Transportation District and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, in partnership with the National Park Service, the Presidio Trust, and the City and County of San Francisco, are working to provide a memorable anniversary party for the legendary bridge — a monument that almost wasn’t built.

In his informative book, Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge, noted California historian Kevin Starr poetically compares the bridge “… with the final note of Beethoven’s ‘Ninth,’ the thoughts of Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, and other transcendentalists.”

But thoughts of a bridge uniting the northern and southern Bay Area were not in the minds of the early Spanish, Mexican and American settlers who came to California starting in the 1700s. The Spanish established the Presidio in 1776 while numerous explorers were discovering straits, bays and harbors that they generally named after themselves.

John Charles Fremont, with the help of his wife, Jesse Benton Fremont, published his geographical memoirs in 1848. He described how he studied and mapped the Bay Area and ultimately named the entrance to San Francisco Bay “Chrysopylae,” Greek for “golden gate.” Soon the Gold Rush was bringing thousands of people to the Bay Area, which translated into hundreds of boats sailing into the bay.

In 1869, a man named Joshua Norton, who proclaimed himself emperor of the United States, campaigned for a bridge across the Golden Gate. It was during the 1920s, however, that Joseph Strauss, an Ohio bridge builder and visionary with serious credibility, proposed the creation of just such a bridge. In pre-Depression America, plans were drawn up for the structure.

To Span or Not to Span

As is true of most public works, the political scene determined the fate of any future bridge.

The Southern Pacific Company did not want a bridge, because it owned the Southern Pacific Ferry operations and obviously would lose business. The Navy vetoed it, because it felt a bridge would be a target during wartime. Environmentalists of the time saw it as “an intrusion on nature,” according to Starr; the Sierra Club felt the span would “profane the site.” Ansel Adams, for similar reasons, was an opponent; but when the bridge was ultimately built, he and other photographers took pictures from beginning to end during the building process and of the final product.

In favor of building the bridge were the established counties to the south and north of the bay, all the way to the Oregon border. The envisioned growth of population would be a benefit to all and would connect the urbanism of San Francisco and its southern neighbors to the more rural northern cities. The northern counties knew they would no longer be isolated. Also, for obvious reasons, the California Automobile Association was a strong advocate for the bridge.

Troubled Waters

Even in the 1920s, the process of erecting a bridge meant the collaboration of numerous governmental agencies. Construction required a Bridge and Highway Act, which was approved by the California Assembly in 1923. The War Department also had to be on board, which occurred in December 1924. Because of the ever-present threat of earthquakes, a geological study was required. The chief engineer of the U.S. Army commissioned a study to determine under-bridge clearance requirements; a 220-foot high-tide clearance was agreed upon, which allowed taller ships to pass at low tide, if necessary.

It took until 1930 for the War Department to issue the final approval for the bridge. But construction could commence only if bridge advocates found the money.

Joseph Strauss was instrumental in gathering the most talented professionals to plan the construction. He had submitted a rendering for consideration, but everyone (and eventually even Strauss himself) judged it to be so ugly that the other planners came up with the final design. Strauss may not have been an artist, but he was a visionary and an effective, imposing planner.

First, of course, the group needed to hammer out a proposal to fund the project. With the Great Depression growing and millions out of work, the idea of building the Golden Gate Bridge met with enormous disapproval. It took litigation, lobbying, bond issues, and the support of A.P. Giannini, founder of the Bank of Italy (which later became the Bank of America), to succeed.

Though voters approved bonds to finance construction of the bridge, the Southern Pacific and Golden Gate ferry companies fought the pro-bridge coalition in court. For three years, litigation delayed the sale of voter-approved bonds and the possibility of acquiring federal loans from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. The deal was finalized when Strauss appealed to Giannini, who agreed to finance the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge.

According to records, the builders used New York’s George Washington Bridge, built in1927, as a gauge to estimate that the total cost for the Golden Gate Bridge would be $32,685,000. Those millions were a princely sum in the 1930s. From the vantage point of today, it seems an amazing feat to accomplish during the Great Depression.

On May 28, 1937, after four years of construction, what emerged from the minds, hearts and perseverance of skilled craftsmen was the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. The 4,200-foot-long roadway was the longest suspension bridge at the time. Two towers rose 746 feet, making them 191 feet taller than the Washington Monument.

The name Golden Gate Bridge often puzzles tourists and others who expect the great expanse to be painted gold. The color, called International Orange, was chosen to blend into the landscape’s sun-splashed colors visible most afternoons after the fog and mist disappear, and because it could be seen easily by boats coming through the strait.

This feat of modern engineering actually helped to preserve the past as well. “The construction of the Golden Gate Bridge … had a significant impact on the Presidio. It famously contributed to historic preservation by arcing over, and protecting, old Fort Point,” says Stephen Haller of the National Park Service.

One day before the official opening of the bridge to automobiles in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge Fiesta’s “Pedestrian Walk” enabled thousands to walk across the bridge. A similar event at the 50th anniversary celebration was dangerously overcrowded, so there are no plans for the bridge to close for pedestrian-only access this year.

There are a multitude of other activities you can participate in to commemorate this anniversary. Visit www.goldengatebridge75.org for events through the end of the year.

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