‘The Bridge That Couldn’t Be Built’: How the Golden Gate Bridge Was Constructed | History Hit

‘The Bridge That Couldn’t Be Built’: How the Golden Gate Bridge Was Constructed

Harry Sherrin

05 Jan 2020
The construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930s.
Image Credit: US National Park Service / Public Domain

The Golden Gate Bridge in California is one of the most iconic crossings in the world. At some 4,200 feet long, the structure links San Francisco to Marin County across the Golden Gate Strait.

When completed in 1937, it was the longest bridge in the world – an accolade it held for more than 30 years. Unsurprisingly, building a structure of that size was no mean feat.

The project was the brainchild of civil engineer Joseph Baermann Strauss, who masterminded the bridge’s design and execution. All in all, the structure took some 4 years to complete, and cost the lives of 11 men. It finally opened to pedestrians on 27 May 1937. 

Here’s the story of the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The impossible challenge

Until the 20th century, building a bridge across America’s Golden Gate Strait seemed impossible. As such, the Golden Gate Bridge became known as ‘the bridge that couldn’t be built’.

This was due to the complex challenges presented by the strait: strong tides, wind, fog and the San Andreas Fault located just 7 miles offshore. But improvements in long-span bridge design led to the hope that it could eventually be accomplished.

Initial reports estimated that a bridge would cost over $100 million and was probably unfeasible. But one engineer came forward with a plan that he claimed could be built for $25 to $30 million. His name was Joseph Baermann Strauss.

Statue of Joseph Strauss in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Forming a plan

Strauss studied civil engineering at the University of Cincinnati, where he developed a fascination for bridges. His senior thesis was a design proposal for a rail bridge spanning the Bering Strait.

Strauss went on to design countless bridges after he graduated in 1892, and when he heard about the plan to span the Golden Gate Strait, he set about drafting his own proposal.

Strauss’ initial design was for a symmetrical cantilever-suspension hybrid bridge. However, he later changed his design to a suspension span concept. His proposed structure was successful, and construction began on the Golden Gate Bridge on 5 January 1933.

Safety first

At a time when bridge-building generally cost the life of one workman for every million dollars spent, Strauss insisted on the highest safety precautions possible.

Workers were provided with hard hats which they were obliged to wear. The hats were adapted by the E.D. Bullard Company from headgear designed for miners. Additionally, workers were issued with glare-free goggles, cream to protect their face and hands from the wind and even special dietary supplements to help them combat dizziness.

Perhaps the most famous of Strauss’s safety precautions was the safety net that he insisted be slung beneath the bridge. It cost $130,000 but succeeded in saving the lives of 19 men. Together these lucky souls became known as the ‘Halfway-to-Hell Club’.

Despite Strauss’s efforts, though, 11 men died during the construction process. The first, Kermit Moore, died on 21 October 1936. On 17 February 1937, 10 men were killed when a section of scaffold fell through the safety net.

A section of suspension cable used in the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in California, USA. 70,000 miles of wire were used in the finished cables. Photograph taken c. 1935.

Finished at last

The bridge opened for the first time to pedestrians on 27 May 1937. The bridge opened at 6 am, by which time an estimated 18,000 people were waiting for their chance to test it out. Over the course of the day, about 15,000 people an hour crossed the bridge, paying 25 cents each for the privilege.

But not everyone was content just to be among the first to walk across the bridge. Carmen Perez and her sister Minnie became the first people to roller-skate across and Florentine Calegeri crossed on stilts.

The next day, 28 May 1937, the bridge was officially opened to automobiles. Strauss was in attendance and read a poem that he had written for the occasion entitled The Mighty Task is Done. Various celebrations took place to mark the bridge’s opening, including a firework display and a fly-past by 500 US Navy aircraft.

Accidentally orange

Today, the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most iconic and easily recognisable landmarks in the world. But the bridge was never meant to appear as it does today. During construction, the steel was coated in an orange primer to protect it from the weather.

However, Irving Morrow, an architect on the project, felt the warm tone suited the bridge’s location and suggested that the colour, called ‘International Orange’, be kept. 

Tags: OTD

Harry Sherrin