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

History Hit

3 mins

05 Jan 2016

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.

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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!

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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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