Icons in History: San Francisco’s Golden Gate

Editor's Note: This weekend, the main entry drive to the Golden Gate Bridge closes down for three days, and traffic in my home city is expected to be horrendous. As is the case with many things we encounter on a regular basis, I realized how much I take this bridge for granted – both in my daily commute, and in my reveries of San Francisco and my identification of this world city. Sometimes it takes a little hiccup to appreciate what you’ve already got. Fascinated, I dug up some facts from the bridge’s history

The Bridge That Couldn't Be Built

Imagine a world without the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s hard to do, right? San Francisco--as the world knows it today--is represented by the iconic towers spanning the opening between the mountains; the golden arches a symbolic gesture to the Pacific and West as much as an iron protection of the city and the bay area communities.

Yet many of us forget that less than a hundred years ago, the bridge didn’t exist. It wasn’t there. Absent the orange-colored columns and cables, chilly fog and wind whipped through the narrow channel. Water rushed in and out through the narrow channel's depths of more than 365’, reaching rapid speeds that could sweep swimmers out to sea, crush boats, and perpetually make navigation in and out of the cove terrible. Marin county was far away from San Francisco, something to look at or take a Ferry over to, but it was not easily accessible otherwise.

Often referred to as the “bridge they said that could not be built,” the 1-mile channel of water with its foggy weather, strong ocean currents, and 60-mph winds posed visibility, structural, and erosion challenges for the cities architects and engineers.  The Golden Gate channel gets its name from Captain John Charles Fremont (1846), who referenced the Byzantium myth of the Golden Horn and it’s description of the great harbor entrance to Constantinople.

During one of the most downtrodden times in our nation’s history, construction on the Golden Gate started January 5, 1933.

The bridge officially opened for traffic on May 28, 1937, with a 50 cent toll each way. President Roosevelt announced it to the world via telegraph, and 200,000 people celebrated the opening by walking across it. Today, visitors can walk, drive, or bike across the bridge—something not possible on many bridges. Not far away, a second bridge also opened just six months earlier—the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge. In one year, during the aftermath of some of the most arduous times in our countries’ history, San Francisco changed the connectivity and transportation options of the Bay Area by building two new bridges.

Financed through bonds and paid for exclusively through bridge tolls alone, the construction bonds were retired in 1971, 34 years after the bridge was built. Completed in 1937, in just over four years, the bridge cost $35 million to build. (In comparison: the Empire State Building cost just under $25 million to build, completed in under one year in 1930).

The total weight of the bridge, including anchorages and approaches, is 900,000 tons. The towers stand at 746’ above the water, approximately the height of a 50-story building.  The bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world for 27 years.  The length of the wire in the two cables is 80,000 miles (if one wire, this would be enough to circle the earth at the equator three times). The center span can sway more than 27 feet in either direction, and drops up to ten feet under extreme loads and temperatures. The clearance below the bridge is 220’, tall enough for large ships.

Making the Bridge Happen: Long-term Collective Investments

During the construction of the bridge, as many as 1,300 men were part of the workforce. Most of us today probably don’t know the names of a single person who helped put together, piece by piece, the bridge components that most San Franciscans use on a near-daily basis. The work of those men influences our cities, our identity, our culture. As a resident of the city, the bridge is part of me; I am grateful for the work of the men of years’ past.

On Friday, after writing most of this post, I learned that Jack Balestreri, believed to be the last known builder of the Golden Gate bridge,  died. The San Francisco Chronicle tells the story of Balestreri's three years of work on the bridge and his later years as a toll collector and toll captain. From the article: "It amazes me to think of the things they did with what they had to work with." 

It makes me think, too.

What’s worth doing? What am I working on, tirelessly, without need for recognition or approval, because whats more important is the whole, and not the sum of its parts? What 3-year job as a concrete builder, a rivet-driver, a team of men, will I be a part of? In a world of instant gratification, in a world where we can publish blogs and instagram photos in seconds, what’s really worth doing? Will my accumulation of photographs add up to anything more than a series of ticks in a stream of endless information?

What are you building, slowly, over time? What are you investing your time and energy in that might be invisible or unseen?

What’s your Golden Gate Bridge?

The Chief Engineer I, Joseph Strauss, is quoted as saying “When you build a bridge, you build something for all time.” It’s orange hue, officially called “International Orange,” was chosen by architect Irving Morrow as a contrast to the cool grays, blues, and greens of the water, sky and mountains. Strauss revised the original plans for the bridge (slated to tear down Fort Point) to create an arch in the anchorage so as not to destroy the “perfect model of the mason’s art,” at Fort Point.

Strauss died at age 68, the year after the bridge was completed. He did not live to see the bridge today, its iconic servitude to the cities it connects.

More importantly, the bridge was a concerted effort by thousands of people--visionaries, engineers, city officials, workers, specialists, and even high-schoolers looking to pick up some work during the depressed economy. The lasting icon is the bridge itself and the collective energy, not the names of the individuals that helped create it. We will forget almost every name in history, but we will use the best of everything they leave behind.

What will you spend your life doing?

What can you offer the world today, and beyond today?

When you leave, what will you leave behind?

What will your legacy be?

Would you be willing to work on one thing for the rest of your life, and only that, without any recognition? How can the world be different than it is now--because of you being here, doing what you're doing?

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One Response to Icons in History: San Francisco’s Golden Gate

  1. Cat says:

    Appreciated this post and the quick history lesson about the GGB. Rather timely since I was just in San Francisco and accidentally experienced the beginning of the shut down! On Friday, my husband and I walked across the bridge up into the Marin Headlands then back across the bridge (saw a few news helicopters flying around too). We found that the bus we took to get to the bridge had stopped running at 7pm and the recommended closest bus stops were 2 and 2.5 miles away. A hike through Presidio Park in the dark was a bit unnerving but an adventurous story we can now tell!

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