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Celebrating 75 Years of the Golden Gate Bridge: Constructing the Bridge that Couldn’t Be Built

It is Memorial Day weekend and two very important events are planned for Sunday and Monday. Tomorrow, Sunday, May 27, 2012, may be one of the more memorable celebrations of this year. Californians, as well as numerous persons across the United States and in the international community will participate in the Golden Gate Festival – marking the “official” 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge. On Monday, May 28, 2012, we will observe Memorial Day. This is a day set aside to remember the cost that Americans have paid for the freedom that we enjoy today.

[View a 55-second YouTube video of Pedestrian Day on the Golden Gate Bridge, May 27, 1937: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sow_vHGdMXo.]

This post captures some of the events that are planned for the Golden Gate Festival, identifies some of the challenges of constructing the bridge, and discusses the iconic symbolism that it represents to America and the rest of the world.

Highlighted Golden Gate Festival Events

There are a number of planned events for this special day including [Ref 1]:

  • International Orange Artists’ Exhibition at Fort Point
  • Crissy Field Stage highlighting dance, music and local bands
  • Road Trip through History featuring vintage cars and motorcycles from 1937 to the present at East Crissy Field
  • Crissy Field Center Future Fair with activities and demonstrations showcasing sustainability technologies and innovations at East Beach
  • Vintage Maritime Display and Historic Watercraft Parade with classic boats spanning 75 years at St. Francis Yacht Club
  • Marina Green Stage featuring dance and music organizations and local bands at West Marina Green
  • Fireworks – A 20-minutespectacular grand finale showcasing the bridge, bay and surrounding national park lands

    Looking down from the tower on the Marin County side
    Source: National Geographic, Photographer – George Steinmetz-Corbis

    Tens of thousands of participants are expected at this historic celebration that will take place along the San Francisco water front and around the San Francisco Bay Area. Since I will be “California Dreaming” from my couch in Arizona, I hope to capture some of the events and the fireworks using the resources of the internet and live-streaming.

Construction and Maintenance

The Golden Gate Bridge is perhaps one of the most photographed and most recognized landmarks within the United States and the world. Did the builders envision this more than 75 years ago? I suppose that is possible. More than likely the need for a bridge that would provide transportation utility for a growing region was at the fore-front of their minds. Overcoming construction challenges and at times inclement weather along with staying on schedule and under budget were the issues of the day for the project team.

When the Golden Gate Bridge opened to traffic, it was the world’s longest suspension span and had been built across a strait that critics said was too treacherous to be bridged. Among its many characteristics, the bridge also had to be light enough to hang from its own cables, but strong enough to withstand the strait’s fierce winds and the possibility of earthquakes. Many said these were impossible challenges to overcome. [Ref 2]

Prepping to Spin the cables (Source: AP)

The official start of construction for the Golden Gate Bridge is cited as January 5, 1933. Significant dates include [Ref 3]:

  • November 1934:Marin tower completed.
  • June 24, 1935: San Francisco tower completed in just six months.
  • May 22, 1936: Spinning of the two main cables is completed.
  • November 20, 1936(this has also been cited as occurring on November 18 and 19, 1936): The two sections of the Golden Gate Bridge’s main span were joined.
  • February 17, 1937:10 men lost their lives. While removing scaffolding from the underside of the roadway structure 10 tons of timber tilted and fell into the safety net. There were 13 men on the scaffolding – one was able to jump off the net to a girder, 12 went down – 2 lived and 10 perished in the waters below.
  • April 19, 1937: Paving of the roadway deck is completed.
  • May 27, 1937: Golden Gate Bridge opens to pedestrian traffic.
  • May 28, 1937: Golden Gate Bridge opens to vehicular traffic at 12:00 noon.

Opening day 75 years ago was not only observed by those living in the San Francisco Bay Area. At 12:00 noon, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) pressed a telegraph key in the White House to announce the event to the world. When FDR pressed the telegraph key, every fire siren in San Francisco and Marin was sounded, every church bell rang, ships sounded their whistles, and every fog horn blew.

Opening Day, May 27, 1937 (Bancroft Library-UCBerkeley)

For all of the skeptics, the bridge opened ahead of schedule and under budget. It stands today as a symbol of many things including the will to persevere against a history of negativity and adverse circumstances.

In a previous post, I pointed out that overcoming the obstacles to building the bridge, the setbacks, and the actual construction is a true testament to what a small group of people and shear persistence can do.  Considering the many, many obstacles and the brutal force of negativity that was put forth by naysayers, the year-long celebration that began on January 1st of this year, and the special Golden Gate Festival on the anniversary of the “Opening Day” is not only necessary, it is warranted.

Lifting some quotes from the Governor of the State ofCalifornia’s proclamation for Golden Gate Bridge Day [Ref 4]:

  • since it first opened to traffic 75 years ago, the Golden Gate Bridge has demonstrated the ingenuity and boldness that California represents to the world.
  • the bridge was built over the objections of critics who pusillanimously claimed the project was neither economically viable nor physically possible.
  • in spite of these objections, the project helped restore both the economy and the pride of our state as we recovered from the Great Depression.

More importantly, and according to Governor Brown,  the Golden Gate Bridge stands today only because of the daring and dedicated work of those who actually brought it to completion and those others who have maintained it during the ensuing 75 years since.

Maintenance and upkeep of the bridge has been central to its operations over the past 7.5 decades. ‘When (one of the bridge’s designers) made his final speech during opening day ceremonies in 1937, he said, “I present to you a bridge that will last forever,”’ said Daniel Mohn, the bridge’s former chief engineer, who co-authored a book about the span. “What he should have said is, `I present to you a bridge that will last forever if properly maintained.'”[Ref 3]

Symbolic Icon

Would San Francisco be the same city without the Golden Gate Bridge? I doubt it when one considers how many tourists from within the U.S.and other countries come to California and especially the City of San Francisco to view this iconic landmark. They also contribute significant dollars to the economy of the city and the state. However, at the time, building the bridge was less about attracting tourist than it was about creating opportunities for economic expansion and the ability to connect with surrounding counties. According to the research documents, Los Angeles surpassed San Francisco as California’s largest city based on the 1920 census. Los Angeles had plenty of land, while San Francisco was bottled up at the tip of a peninsula. [Ref 3]

Initially when the bridge opened, the car toll was $0.50. By 2004, the bridge toll for 2-axle vehicles was $5.00 and $4.00 for electronic transponders. Tolls are only collected from vehicles heading south into San Francisco. Today, the tolls are $6.00 and $5.00 respectively. [Ref 3] One thing that probably was not on the minds of the planners or residents living in the area is the higher cost of gasoline today. California has had some of the highest gas prices in the country topping at $5.00 or more per gallon. The Golden Gate Bridge not only connected San Francisco with neighboring cities and counties to the north, it reduced traffic congestion and shortened the commute for those needing to travel to and in-between the north and south bays.

It doesn’t take much math to figure out that reducing your commuting miles and avoiding traffic congestion and delays around the San Francisco Bay makes the one-way fare of $6.00 very cost effective for the average commuter. Here’s wishing the best for the Golden Gate Festival on Sunday, May 27th, and a safe and peaceful Memorial Day on Monday, May 28, 2012.

[View a 60-second YouTube video of Pedestrian Day on the Golden Gate Bridge, May 27, 1937: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sow_vHGdMXo.]


1. Golden Gate Transportation and Highway District, “75th Anniversary Celebration”,  www.goldengate75.org

2. “Golden Gate Bridge Stands Time and Weather Test”, Sudhin Thanawa, The Associated Press, May 21, 2012, http://www.weather.com/news/golden-gate-anniversary

3.Golden Gate Transportation and Highway District, http://goldengatebridge.org/research/

4. Proclamation by the Governor of the State of California Proclaiming May 27, 2012 Golden Gate Bridge Day, http://gov.ca.gov/news.php?id=17569


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.


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