One of the most iconic structures in the United States, the Golden Gate Bridge first opened on May 27, 1937. It’s the most photographed bridge on earth and was named one of the “Wonders of the Modern World” by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Despite its fame, some people might be surprised to know that the bridge’s chief engineer included a unique and novel life-saving feature in his plans. Read on to learn about that and some history behind the Golden Gate Bridge.
High Above The Golden Gate Strait
Even viewing this photo from the safety of solid ground, it’s understandable why some people might become uneasy. These workers who appear to be casually hanging out at such lofty heights could be literally seconds from death if something were to happen suddenly and they plummeted to the water below.
But this was just a day’s work for these brave men who were used to their very unique working conditions.
Some of the men working on the bridge became so accustomed to the everyday risks their jobs involved that they actually bragged to each other about their bravery in the face of danger.
But their boss, head engineer Joseph Strauss, was determined to show the world that working on a tall bridge such as this one was not a death sentence. He was so concerned about safety that the men felt confident as they worked.
The Human Element
Working on the bridge offered these people more than just a job – it was a chance to be a part of history. After all, the finished product of all the hard work was going to be one of the most recognizable bridges on earth. The Golden Gate Bridge is revered for its beauty and it serves as a symbol of San Francisco and northern California.
It’s nearly impossible to look at the bridge and not think of the people who were responsible for constructing it.
A Man Calling Himself “The Emperor Of The United States” Was One Of The First To Propose A Bridge
The Golden Gate Strait, which is the entrance to the ocean from San Francisco Bay, is a mile wide at its narrowest point. Rapidly moving currents pass through the strait, making travel from the city of San Francisco to Marin County all but impossible before the bridge was built.
One of the earliest proponents of building a bridge to straddle the Golden Gate Strait was a man named Joshua Norton, who proposed his far-fetched idea in 1869. Norton was a failed businessman who was considered insane by many, as he claimed to be the Emperor of the United States as well as the “Protector of Mexico.” Norton is pictured here in a photo dated 1950.
Whatever Norton’s actual mental status might have been, his ambitious idea to create a bridge across the strait was eventually seen to fruition… although the credit went to someone else. First, a railroad tycoon named Charles Crocker presented a concept for the bridge, complete with tangible plans.
But it was not until 1916 that the public seemed willing to listen to anyone about building a bridge across the Golden Gate Strait. That year, civic engineer Michael O’Shaughnessy was tasked by the City of San Francisco with finding out if such a bridge was even feasible to build. He’s pictured here, wearing a business suit.
Joseph Baermann Strauss Entered The Picture
O’Shaughnessy’s research led him to a structural engineer who would end up changing the skyline of San Francisco forever. Joseph Baermann Strauss (pictured) was from Cincinnati, Ohio, and his life story makes it seem as if he was fated to construct the now-famous bridge.
As a young man, Strauss had a wide range of interests, including poetry and football. He tried out for the football team, which led to an injury and a stay in the school infirmary while he recovered.
His Infirmary Room Overlooked A Famous Bridge
As fate would have it, the infirmary that Strauss was forced to recuperate in overlooked the Cincinnati-Covington Bridge, America’s first long-span suspension bridge. Now known as the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, it was once the largest bridge in the world.
Strauss developed a fascination with bridges as a result of his early exposure to such a feat of engineering. His senior thesis was a proposal to build a 55-mile-long railroad connecting the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska, a far-fetched idea at the time.
A Renowned Bridge Builder
Joseph Strauss’s early interest in bridges wasn’t just a passing fancy. After graduating, he worked for a company that specialized in building bridges.
From there, he went on to design many bridges around the world, including one in San Francisco – the Fourth Street Bridge. Other Strauss works are located in cities such as Portland, Oregon, Toronto, Ontario, Houston, Texas, and even in places as far as Norway and Russia.
Price Was A Huge Issue For The Golden Gate Bridge
Back in San Francisco, price had been one of the biggest problems facing the potential bridge project. It was going to cost a fortune to build such a complex and large structure. Joseph Strauss, however, told Michael O’Shaughnessy that he could do it for less than $30 million.
This price was a significant reduction from city engineers’ earlier estimates of $100 million (or more), which is equivalent to $2.4 billion today. And they knew he was more than capable of building the bridge. The project was greenlit.
The Public Didn’t Care For The Design
The first rendering of the planned project was a symmetrical cantilever-suspension hybrid. Strauss had developed this design and later patented it.
The bridge’s proposed appearance was not appealing. In fact, when the bridge commission finally showed plans to the public in 1922, they were met with displeasure. One local reporter wrote that it was “a ponderous, blunt bridge that combined a heavy tinker toy frame at each end with a short suspension span. It seemed to strain its way across the Golden Gate.”
Building The Bridge Was Becoming More Necessary
Fortunately for Strauss, the bridge design being “ugly” wasn’t enough to completely derail the project. He spent a good bit of time traveling to different cities and towns in Northern California to gather backing for his project.
The fact was also growing clearer that a bridge was desperately needed across the Golden Gate Strait. The population was growing and the existing ferry service was no longer sufficient to carry everyone across. Another way to get across was becoming increasingly necessary.
Local support for building the bridge was there, but when it came to state and national governments, Strauss continued to face opposition. Federal funding was already tied up in the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge project.
But Strauss wasn’t going to quit when he’d gotten this far. At the suggestion of a local consulting architect named Irving Morrow, he changed the plan to a suspension bridge. Morrow also chose the color of the bridge: International Orange. Not only would it be easily visible in fog, it was also pleasing to the eye.
The Great Depression Factored In Heavily
Despite there being enough public support to construct the new bridge, the project couldn’t proceed just yet. This was due to the country being in the midst of the Great Depression, as well as political and technical glitches holding things up.
Locals were ready to see the bridge go up, though, and the people voted for a bond to finance the project. The bond was for $35 million, which is more than half a billion dollars in today’s currency.
Finally, Construction Began
Construction finally began. Naturally, one of the biggest concerns that Strauss had for the project involved safety and keeping the workers out of danger. There was a safety code that everyone had to follow, including wearing hard hats. Some novel technological innovations were also used to ensure that no one was harmed during construction. One of these innovations was something that Strauss had come up with himself.
However, the bridge itself could pose a threat to workers when it was completed.
High Winds Are A Huge Issue With Suspension Bridges
Since they’re frequently exposed to high winds, suspension bridges are designed to sway and move. Hung from thick cables, they’re flexible and can move up and down and from side to side. This also allows the bridges to accommodate changes in temperature or weight load. Although it’s a safety feature, it can be terrifying to people on a bridge when it’s moving.
Soon after the Golden Gate project was completed, another suspension bridge suffered a disastrous collapse in heavy winds.
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse
On November 7, 1940, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington State was subjected to 40-mile-per-hour winds. The suspension bridge, which spanned the Tacoma Narrows, was only four months old at the time of the disaster.
The high winds caused the bridge’s vibrations to amplify, leading to a dangerous twisting motion that eventually shook the girders loose and caused the bridge to crash into the waters below. Sadly, a pet cocker spaniel died in the collapse but there were no human fatalities.
Strauss Knew The Dangers
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse, although it didn’t happen until shortly after completion of the Golden Gate Bridge, gives us a haunting illustration of the risks involved in building a suspension bridge. It had to be constructed perfectly, and Strauss knew this well from all his experience with other suspension bridges.
Construction began on the Golden Gate Bridge on January 5, 1933, after years of setbacks and complications. Needless to say, it was a day of celebration for the many locals who were excited about the project.
100,000 People Attended The Ground-Breaking Ceremony
As part of the ground-breaking ceremony, there was a parade to Crissy Field, which is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. A message from President Herbert Hoover was read, there was a 21-gun salute, and students showed off an 80-foot long model bridge containing carrier pigeons that would spread news of the Golden Gate Bridge project all over the state of California.
More than 100,000 people attended the festive event.
Enthusiasm For The Golden Gate Bridge Soared
In fact, there were so many human revelers there to celebrate that they scared some of the carrier pigeons that were supposed to carry news of the new bridge. One local news account reported that the birds “were so frightened by the surging human mass that small boys had to crawl into their compartments in the bridge replica to shoo them out with sticks.”
Despite the avian setback, the day was a success, and enthusiasm for the Golden Gate Bridge soared.
No Small Task
Joseph Strauss and his talented crews certainly had their work cut out for them if they were going to turn the celebrated plans into reality. For starters, they needed to excavate 3.25 million cubic feet of dirt for the bridge’s enormous anchorages.
And the three-feet-thick cables that suspend the bridge were more than 7,600 feet long. If stretched out from end to end, the cables would measure in at 80,000+ miles and could encircle the Earth more than three times.
Strong Winds And Currents Made Conditions Tricky
Conditions at the construction site also made things tricky. There were hazardous currents in the Golden Gate Strait, along with strong gales of wind. And to build those massive anchorages, the workers had to actually get into the perilous waters. Danger faced the crew at just about every step of construction.
Building bridges was a risky business and some supervisors would expect to lose a few lives along the way with a project of this magnitude. Joseph Strauss was not one of those supervisors.
There Was No Shortage Of Workers
Despite the dangers of working on the Golden Gate Bridge project, there was no shortage of eager workers. This was during the Great Depression, after all, and work was scarce. One young man from Montana, Fred Brusati, dropped out of high school to find work. He ended up on the bridge project.
“One day, I heard they were going to start the Golden Gate Bridge,” he later recounted in an oral history project. “And I says, ‘Well, I’ll try it. I never been up 746 feet but I’ll try it anyhow.'”
Strauss allowed no risky antics or shows of daredevilry on his crew. In a 1937 interview with The Saturday Evening Post, he explained his views on safety. “On the Golden Gate Bridge, we had the idea we could cheat death by providing every known safety device for workers,” he said.
“To the annoyance of the daredevils who loved to stunt at the end of the cables, far out in space, we fired any man we caught stunting on the job.”
Lots Of Extra Safety Measures
For projects of this scope at the time, the (gruesome) rule of thumb was you could expect that for every million dollars spent, one worker would die. As the Golden Gate Bridge was going to cost $37 million, that would be a lot of deaths.
The precautions Strauss took to keep his men safe were extensive. Specially-designed hard hats, respirators, safety lines, glare-free goggles, and even skin cream to protect against the blistering wind, were all requirements of the job.
Strauss Even Recommended A Special Diet Helped To Prevent Dizziness
Joseph Strauss even required his workers to adhere to special diets that he believed would help reduce the dizziness that could result from working so high up. And anyone who imbibed in alcohol the night before working had to drink sauerkraut juice, which was thought to be a hangover remedy.
But even beyond all of these extraordinary safety precautions, there was one that stands out as truly revolutionary. It is credited with saving dozens of lives during the construction of the bridge. Strauss is pictured on the right here.
He Spent $130,000 On A Certain Safety Precaution
Strauss had a safety net hung under the bridge, something that had never been done before. At $130,000, it was a very expensive net but one that he felt was more than worth the cost.
Constructed from manila rope, the life-saving device protruded 10 feet beyond the sides of the bridge’s trusses and 15 beyond the length. Manufactured by the J.L. Stuart Company, the net was similar to those used by trapeze artists in circus acts.
The “Halfway To Hell” Club
People who fell from the bridge into the safety net below became part of a special group with a macabre name, the Halfway to Hell Club. The club had a total of 19 members, all souls that would have been lost to the Golden Gate Strait had it not been for the net Strauss installed.
One of the club’s earliest members was an ironworker named Al Zampa. He fell in October of 1936 and later recounted his story. “There were ten of us that fell into the nets those first few weeks. Four got hurt. I was one of them…. We formed the club right there in St. Luke’s Hospital.”
Construction Went Quickly
Without the fear of a fatal fall into the choppy waters under the construction site, workers made good progress on the new bridge. As Strauss later said, “It took two decades and 200 million words to convince the people that the bridge was feasible, then only four years and $35 million to put the concrete and steel together.”
By May of 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge was ready to be used by the public.
A Week Of Celebrations
On May 27, 1937, festivities began for the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge. On opening day, 200,000 pedestrians crossed the span on foot. The following day, In Washington, D.C, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed a button that indicated the official start of vehicle traffic.
There was a motorcade carrying the mayor and other officials across, and a special song was written to commemorate the event. The city of San Francisco celebrated its new bridge for an entire week.
Despite Some Tragedy, A Much-Improved Safety Record
Although Joseph Strauss almost finished the bridge with a perfect safety record, there were some fatalities among his crew. A total of 11 workers perished. Ten of those took were from a single accident in which a five-ton platform broke away and fell through the safety net.
That number is unthinkable by today’s standards, but for Strauss’s era, it was a considerably lower number than what the project’s predicted deaths could have been. By comparison, 28 workers died while constructing the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which opened six months prior to the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Bridge Today
Joseph Strauss died just a year after completion of the Golden Gate Bridge, “the bridge that couldn’t be built”. A statue honoring him and his many safety innovations rests at the San Francisco end of the span.
Today, the Golden Gate Bridge is still one of the most famous bridges in the world and a major tourist attraction. Kevin Starr, California’s state librarian, might have summed up its importance best. “The Golden Gate Bridge … offers enduring proof that human beings can alter the planet with reverence.”