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Celebrating 75 Years of the Golden Gate Bridge: A Bit of History

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I like bridges. I like them so much that the title of my blog, A Bridge for Business & STEM, reflects this. As timing would have it, this is my 10th post and a cause for celebration. This week’s post also celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge. 

I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for seven years, and crossed the Golden Gate Bridge many times. The bridge serves as a vital transportation link between the City and County of San Francisco and Marin County. It is a magnificent structure that is 1.7 miles long (the main span is 4,200 ft.), has a fixed six-lane roadway, and currently carries about 112,000 vehicles each day.  It is one of the transportation work horses of the San Francisco Bay Area and assists visitors and commuters in reaching their destinations each day.

As with most significant undertakings, the construction of the bridge was not without critics or controversy. The historical source for this post is the Golden Gate Transportation and Highway District: http://goldengatebridge.org/research/. While researching the history of the bridge, I was reminded of our present day challenges here in the U.S. and the rest of the world. Overcoming the obstacles to building the bridge, the setbacks, and actual construction, is a true testament to what a small group of people and shear persistence can do. This is a great historical lesson that Americans should all know. 

For starters, let’s get some terminology out of the way. Technically, the gate in Goldent Gate is defined by the headlands of the San Francisco Peninsula to the south and the Marin Peninsula to the north. The strait is the water that flows between the gates, and since 1937, the bridge overlays the strait. Prior to construction of the bridge, railroad entrepreneur Charles Crocker called for a bridge across the Golden Gate Strait in 1872. It would take more than four decades before James H. Wilkins, a structural engineer and newspaper editor for the San Francisco Call Bulletin would socialize this question with City Engineer Michael M. O’Shaughnessy in 1916.

The city engineer was requested by officials to perform a feasibility analysis to build a bridge that crossed the Golden Gate Strait. With the experts weighing in, most speculated that a bridge would cost over $100 million and that one could not be built. It would take someone like Joseph Strauss – a structural engineer, designer, and non-conformist – to come forward and declare that such a bridge was not only feasible, but could be built for $25 to $30 million. 

Strauss was the steadfast believer who organized the political, financial, and promotional efforts to build the bridge. With no federal or state funds, a special bridge and highway district was formed on May 25, 1923 for the purpose of planning, designing, building and financing a bridge across the strait.

As great as this building project was going to be, strong opposition emerged quickly from well-financed special interests, especially the ferry companies. An aggressive campaign was launched to stop construction of a bridge and the formation of the special district as the entity to build the bridge. Eight years of opposition and litigation followed. Bridge supporters prevailed, and on December 4, 1928, the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District, comprised of its six member counties, was incorporated by the California State Legislature as the sole entity responsible for the final design, construction, and financing of a bridge. Secretary of War Patrick Hurley issued the construction permit August 11, 1930.

Nothing is ever easy, and in some states like California, an extra heaping of turmoil seems to always surface. From environmentalists to civic leaders, there was more opposition to a proposed bond measure that was place on the November 1930 ballot. There were many reasons from the opponents as to why this bridge could not be built:

  • The bridge could not physically be built.
  • It would not stand.
  • It was vulnerable to earthquakes.
  • The floor of the Golden Gate Strait would not support the weight of theSan Francisco pier and tower.
  • The entire project was a hoax and sham.
  • Only fools would buy bonds of a bridge certain to fall.
  • Taxpayers would suffer and have to continue paying to finance the fiasco.
  • An enemy fleet could demolish the bridge and bottle-up the U.S.fleet.
Golden Gate Bridge [NASA Satellite Photo, 07.06.2006]

Golden Gate Bridge [NASA Satellite Photo, 07.06.2006]

This was 1930; the country was feeling the effects of the Great Depression that started a year earlier. I look at the above list of why the Golden Gate Bridge could not be built and consider many of the arguments that have been made by lots of folks, including political figures, regarding issues of today as to why or why not something should or should not be done….same rhetoric, different day.

On November 4, 1930, voters within the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District’s six member counties (San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, Del Norte, and portions of Napa and Mendocino) went to the polls on the question of whether to put up their homes, their farms and their business properties as collateral for a $35 million bond issue to finance the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge.

For some, the timing of the bond election was considered economically reckless as it would create bonded indebtedness during the Great Depression. Others would argue that bridge construction represented the economic relief needed from the Great Depression. After the vote, it was clear the people believed in Chief Engineer Joseph Strauss’ vision – 145,057 voted in favor and 46,954 against it.

To celebrate, every store in Marin County closed at 3 p.m. on November 12, 1930, as the Marvelous Marin club staged a parade with floats and fireworks.Santa Rosa celebrated with a bond fire.

Although the bond measure passed, more opposition to the bonds and the bridge ensured for another two years. Articles in local as well as the eastern press spread the story throughout the country until the general public came to generally believe that the bridge could not be built and that it would not be built.

It’s not every year that human beings or historic landmarks turn 75. To celebrate this diamond anniversary, 75 Community Tributes program with a variety of activities throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond have been planned. Some of these events were kicked-off on January 1st of this year. However, the big celebration, The Golden Gate Festival, is on May 27th. A future post will focus on the actual construction of this historical landmark as well as more current info.

[Note: The historical source for this post is the Golden Gate Transportation and Highway District: http://goldengatebridge.org/research/.]


About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.


One thought on “Celebrating 75 Years of the Golden Gate Bridge: A Bit of History

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