‘The Bridge That Couldn’t be Built’. How the Golden Gate Bridge Came into Being | History Hit

‘The Bridge That Couldn’t be Built’. How the Golden Gate Bridge Came into Being

History Hit

05 Jan 2016
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The Golden Gate Bridge links the city of San Francisco to Marin County, spanning the Golden Gate Strait that separates San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean. Construction of the bridge began on 5 January 1933. It opened to pedestrians on 27 May 1937 and to automobile traffic the following day.

On May 31, 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma, was torn apart by one of the worst instances of racialised violence in American history. In a period of great racial tension, the white population in Tulsa went on a rampage through the black neighbourhoods in the city killing innocent people, looting African American businesses and burning whole blocks to the ground. They had been stirred up by a fake news story that wrongly accused a local black man of assaulting a young white woman in a lift. This wave of violence left many homeless, more than a thousand people were injured and over three hundred people were killed. However, this event has been little known as it was covered up with attempts being made to expunge it from the historical record. Thankfully, those attempts failed, and knowledge of this horrific incident has been kept alive by the community, journalists and historians. One of those historians is Scott Elsworth who joins Dan in this episode to shed light on what happened in Tulsa on that terrible day and the ongoing work to deal with the painful legacy of these events.
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The impossible challenge

Until the twentieth century, a bridge across the Golden Gate Strait seemed an impossibility. It was 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.

Joseph Strauss was the father of the Golden Gate Bridge. Credit: Chetiya Sahabandu

Strauss’s plan

Strauss was born in Ohio and attended the University of Cincinnati. He developed a fascination for bridges, to the extent that his senior thesis took the form of a proposed rail bridge spanning the Bering Strait!

Strauss went on to design countless bridges but yearned to take on a great challenge. When he heard about the plan to span the Golden Gate Strait, Strauss was hooked.

Strauss’ initial design was for a symmetrical cantilever-suspension hybrid bridge. However the design was eventually changed to a suspension span concept.

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 compelled 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 diets to help them combat dizziness.

Perhaps the most famous of Strauss’s safety precautions was the safety net that was slung beneath the bridge. It cost $130,000 but succeeded in saving the lives of nineteen men. Together they became known as the “Halfway-to-Hell Club.”

Strauss was keen to safeguard his workers’ safety, and insisted upon installing this safety net during construction. Credit: Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District

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

Finished at last

The bridge opened for the first time to pedestrians only on 27 May 1937. The bridge opened at 6am, 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!

Max Hastings wrote a bestseller on Vietnam, and Dan met him to discuss Domino theory, whether it was possible for the US to win the war and the effect the war had on those who fought in it.
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The next day, 28 May, 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.” An array of 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 recognisable landmarks in the world. The bridge was never meant to appear as it does today however. During construction, the steel was coated in a orange primer to protect it from the weather.

The bridge’s signature orange colour was never meant to be permanent. Credit: Rich Niewiroski Jr.

However, Irving Morrow, another architect on the project, felt the warm tone suited the bridge’s location and suggested that the colour, called “International Orange” be kept. You can find the formula for the colour here

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