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28 May 2008

On this day in history: Golden Gate Bridge opened, 1937

In 1916, the editor of The San Francisco Call & Post, James Wilkins, started a campaign to revive the idea of a bridge to span the Golden Gate - the strait that connects San Francisco Bay with the Pacific Ocean - in order to cut congestion on the ferry. The editorials caught the eye of the City Engineer, Michael M. O'Shaughnessy, who requested feasibility studies from across the United States. Most engineers said that the costs would be prohibitive, some saying that it could cost as much as one-hundred million dollars. Yet, one engineer from Ohio, Joseph Baermann Strauss, claimed that the project could be completed for less than thirty million dollars.

Strauss submitted preliminary sketches to O'Shaughnessy who then had the difficult task of persuading the local government that the bridge would finance itself through toll charges but without much luck. In 1922, the bridge's proponents came up with the idea of creating a district a quasi-governmental authority to administer transportation between six counties in the San Francisco Bay Area. The idea received official sanction the next year when the California state legislature passed the "Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District Act."

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District incorporated in 1928 just in time for the stock market crash of 1929 to hamper their attempts to raise funds to start construction. The District lobbied for a thirty-five million dollar bond issue, which received approval in 1930. Finally, on 5th January 1933, work began on the bridge.

At that time, no suspension bridge in the world had a longer span, so Strauss had his work cut out as head of the project he had fought for. He developed a system of moveable safety nets under the point of constuction, which saved the lives of nineteen workers; however, near the end of completion, ten men did lose their lives when the net failed under the wait of the scafolding that fell with them. In April 1937, the construction was completed, $1.3 million within budget.

On 28th May 1937, President Roosevelt pressed a button in Washington D.C. to signal that the bridge was now open for vehicle traffic - the day before, 200,000 people had crossed the bridge by foot or on roller-skates to mark the beginning of the week-long festivites to celebrate the opening of the bridge.

To find out more about the financing and contruction of the bridge see 'Golden Gate Bridge Changes Engineers' Reasoning' by Kathleen Elliott at the California Historian site.


Johnguru said...

Very nice article, step. There is also a very nice documentary movie, televised a year or two ago, that covers the construction of the bridge in detail. Apparently, as you say, it involved some innovative engineering, especially in the area of crew safety, which was a watchword throughout his project.

Michigan has its own seven-and-a-halfth wonder of the world: "Big Mac," the suspension bridge across the Straits of Mackinac. I first saw this bridge on a holiday trip when I was very young. Even today, it remains an impressive structure, spanning a watery five miles from end to end (iirc)

Thanks :-)

Lou said...

I still marvel every time I cross that bridge... One of the greatest architectural icons anywhere, of any time.

Stepterix said...

John: I was a little surprised that the focus on safety still resulted in the whole project coming in under budget. Sometimes I suspect that health and safety requirements are used as an excuse for going over budget in projects these days.

I used to live in Hull in the north of England for a while, nearby is the very impressive Humber Suspension Bridge. These days I live near two long span bridges: the historical Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Severn Bridge.

Lou: I would rate the Golden Gate Bridge as one of the most iconic in the world, up there with Tower Bridge, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, etc

Thanks for your comments, guys