(To view photos of the Golden Gate Bridge, see 252 images in Lee’s three galleries at http://stockphotos.fostertravel.com/gallery/Golden-Gate-Bridge-75th-Birthday/G0000nF2owqZVxus, http://stockphotos.fostertravel.com/gallery/Golden-Gate-Bridge-75th-Birthday-2/G0000giTsUxYSLe4, and http://stockphotos.fostertravel.com/gallery/Golden-Gate-Bridge-75th-Birthday-3/G0000.trMxcMT5vU.)
by Lee Foster
San Francisco celebrated in 2012 the 75th birthday of its beloved Golden Gate Bridge. I was there. The joy in the Bridge continues today. The Bridge is now beyond 80 years.
This article is a chapter in my book/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. A variation of it appears in my new book/ebook Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. Click over to the history story for another read.
All visitors to the Golden Gate area will notice some subtle improvements each year in the setting. The visitor experience at the south end Vista Point of the Bridge continues to be enhanced. The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, a local ally of the National Park Service, took charge of the existing Round House gift shop and art deco-themed Bridge Café, upgrading the quality of the merchandise and installing a restaurant with locally-grown food. A new interpretive Visitor Pavilion sprung up and became the starting point for guided tours of the south area of the Bridge
Views of the Bridge improved with the cutting of non-native trees were. Designers added more overlooks. Trails appeared along the north side of San Francisco, part of the Coastal Trail system. The trail system extended east from the bridge through Crissy Field, part of the Bay Trail. If a visitor walked any of these trails in the past, a pleasant surprise awaits in the new era. It is now possible to walk west from the Golden Gate Bridge all of the way to the Cliff House along the north side of the San Francisco peninsula. It is also possible to walk east from the south end of the Bridge through Crissy Field to the Marina Green, another engaging outing.
The 75th Anniversary
The 75th birthday was an occasion to contemplate many aspects of the Bridge, including its beauty, its engineering design genius, and its economic importance. The Bridge became a symbol of America’s vision of a brighter future, approved of and constructed during the darkest days of the Great Depression.
The Golden Gate Bridge at Any Time
Any day of the year, it is a joy to view and photograph the Golden Gate Bridge. Spring is an especially wonderful time in the Bay Area for such a pursuit. Each day, thousands of travelers engage in a private ceremony of affection for the Bridge.
Consider the Bridge’s history and beauty, then some suggestions on how to enjoy and photograph it today.
The object of all this adulation is one of America’s best-loved landmarks. Whether seen from the south and north end visitor viewpoints or from special vantage points, such as the deck of a Blue and Gold Fleet excursion boat, the Golden Gate Bridge is a pleasing sight. The gracefulness of its suspension construction, the bridge’s proportion alongside the green hills of Marin County to the north, and the orange-vermilion color of the bridge against the blue sky and sea all add to the breathtaking effect. The ship lane below the Golden Gate became its own bridge to the orient, adding to the mystique of the site.
How the Golden Gate Bridge was Built
Building the Bridge required both political vision and technical imagination. A San Francisco character of the 1860s, named Emperor Norton, first publicly proposed a bridge. In the 1870s railroad magnate Charles Crocker presented plans for a bridge. However, the task was enormous and public interest dwindled until 1916, when newspaperman James Wilkins launched an editorial campaign favoring a bridge. The idea appealed to North Bay residents who were transporting their cars across on time-consuming ferries. Spanning the Golden Gate, however, seemed more like a dream than a possibility. In 1917, San Francisco’s chief engineer, M. M. O’Shaughnessy, enlisted the aid of a Chicago engineer, Joseph B. Strauss, to design and build the Bridge.
Strauss followed the project attentively for the next two decades. A distinguished bridge builder, Strauss engineered over 400 bridges from Leningrad to New Jersey in his lifelong record. A statue at the south end of the Bridge acknowledges his role as “The Man Who Built The Bridge.”
Political Hurdles to Building the Golden Gate Bridge
The political hurdles required to build the Bridge were considerable. In 1930 voters in the six counties making up the Bridge District approved issuing the bonds to finance it. This act required some vision as the nation waded through the Depression. In January 1933 Strauss broke ground for construction of the towers. Admirably, workers finished the Bridge on time and under its $35 million budget, with the last bridge bond paid off in 1971. Today’s toll goes entirely to maintaining the Bridge, including its never-ending schedule of painting.
The first technical challenge in the 1930s construction involved the 4,200-foot length of the span, which many said no designer could bridge successfully. Strauss weighed plans for a suspension bridge, which risked being too flimsy, and a cantilever bridge, which might be too heavy for the site. His original plans called for a design incorporating both ideas. From an aesthetic point of view, his later decision to focus just on the suspension approach proved far superior. At that time, there were no suspension bridges of this length.
Challenges in Building the Golden Gate Bridge
The location of the Bridge, bearing the full brunt of the ocean elements, exacerbated potential problems of design. Winds of 20-60 miles per hour are commonplace. A broadside wind at 100 miles per hour produces a midspan sway of 21 feet. Heat and cold expansion and contraction of the Bridge meant a movement of 10 feet up and 10 feet down. The depth of the water underneath the Bridge and the speed of the current were major technical challenges. Pacific tidal pressures are enormous in the narrow outlet, especially when the 7-1/2 knot tidal outrush combines with the swift-flowing waters of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers emptying through this gap into the ocean. Strauss decided to anchor one of the 65-story towers right in the waterway, 1,215 feet from shore.
The 36-1/2 inch cables manufactured for the Bridge were the largest bridge cables ever made, incorporating 80,000 miles of wire about the thickness of a pencil. Each of the two cables has a tensile strength of 200 million pounds. During construction, Strauss paid particular attention to worker safety. It was assumed in bridge building that a worker would die for every million dollars worth of construction. The safety record was excellent until near the end of the project. A special net saved 19 men who fell at various times.
Pete Williamson, one of the bridge workers, recalled what it was like.
“I had to walk along those girders with nothing to hold onto,” said Williamson, “balancing myself on 8-inch I-beams with only net and water underneath. The thought of walking the flanges scared the hell out of me. But I did it. I learned quickly that when the wind was blowing, which was all the time out there, you had to carry lumber on the side away from it. If you didn’t, it could get hold of you and blow you into the drink.”
The Safety Record
The safety record remained excellent until 1936 when a falling beam crushed an iron worker. Unfortunately, another tragic incident, in February 1937, took 10 lives when a scaffolding with workers broke off. The weight of the scaffolding tore through the net, carrying the workers to their deaths below.
Over the years the bridge has set some remarkable and gruesome records. Over 100,000 cars a day cross it, joining San Francisco to Marin County and the redwood country to the north. By February 1986 the billionth car had driven across. More than 1,600 people have jumped suicidally to their death from the span.
How to Enjoy and Photograph the Golden Gate Bridge Today
If you want to enjoy and photograph the Golden Gate Bridge today, here are some suggestions.
From mid-afternoon through sunset, choice photos and spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge and its setting are best from beaches on the western side of the Golden Gate in San Francisco and from bluffs on the Marin Headlands on the north side of the Bridge. For these outings, you will want to have your own car.
West of the Bridge, the Baker Beach turnoff from Lincoln Boulevard is well marked. There is ample parking and direct access to the beach. Good shots can be made of the Bridge in the distance with breaking waves in the foreground. The beach is extensive. Many photo strategies can be employed. You can draw in the Bridge with a long lens or use a wide-angle to create vertical photos of the Bridge and the surf. If the sky is clear, the afternoon light can be golden. If the sky is cloudy or foggy, the interplay of the setting sun on the clouds/fog can be dramatic.
The cover photo for my photo guidebook, The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco (Countryman/Norton) is from Baker Beach. You can replicate the image. Get to Baker Beach at about 3 p.m. on a gorgeous, sunny day and prepare to meditate on the scene for an hour. Walk from the parking lot area toward the Bridge until you see the image that pleases you. It is helpful to have a tripod and rubber boots that allow you to stand in the surf. The singular beauty of the Bridge, the beach, and the surf is appealing. Optional amenities to bring are a bottle of wine, some brie, and a baguette.
Nude Baker Beach
One unusual aspect of the scene at Baker Beach will help orient you to the fact that you are in San Francisco. The “family” area of Baker Beach is near the parking lot. Walk toward the Bridge on a warm and sunny day and you will see perhaps a thousand naked people cavorting in this salubrious environment. You will need to be patient as you wait for the Bridge and the surf to appear alone in your frame without naked people running into the surf. A bottle of wine can help. Be litigiously respectful of naked people running through your photos. This is not the proper occasion to whip out your model releases. Although no thefts have been reported, it is best to have a colleague present to watch over your camera equipment if you decide, after getting your fabulous photo, to run naked into the surf yourself.
Another, closer beach access to the Golden Gate Bridge is also possible, but the trek to it requires some athleticism. That is Marshall’s Beach, but it is less well signed and the walk to the beach is long and steep. The parking spot is one of the first available parking areas, good for only a few cars, as you travel west on Lincoln Boulevard from the Vista Point at the South End of the Bridge. You will know you have the right parking spot if you see a Park Service board path leading toward the water. An extensive set of steps and paths, part of the glorious California Coastal Trail system, leads down to the beach.
The experience is one of an extraordinary wildness. You will wonder if you are still in San Francisco. The vegetation is Californian, with the blue blossom ceanothus bushes especially fragrant in the spring. If you are up to the physical demands of the steep ascent and descent on the steps, the extraordinary private pocket beach, known as Marshall’s Beach, awaits you at the bottom. Fairly close-up photos of the Bridge from water’s edge in afternoon and sunset light are possible.
The entire stretch of public land east from the Bridge south end Vista Point to the Marina Green is now a splendid public park known as Crissy Field. A walkway along the Bay is shared by an eclectic mix of joggers, hikers, dog walkers, and families on outings.
Stop in at the Warming Hut Cafe for a break in the walk. Lovely views of the Bridge are possible all along this walk. To enjoy and photograph the views most advantageously, walk from the Marina Green to the Bridge so that an image of the span is always in your sight. Morning is a good time for this walk, when the sun light is on the Bridge. Wind surfers and huge container ships sometimes present themselves on the waterway.
Conzelman Road in Marin County
Grand afternoon and sunset views of the Golden Gate Bridge are possible from the Marin County side. Drive across the Bridge and take the first turnoff, which is Sausalito. Then turn west at a T onto Conzelman Road, which snakes along the Marin Headlands bluffs.
Three turnoffs here are recommended stops.
The first turnoff, immediately above the North Tower of the Bridge, amounts to a walk out to Battery Spencer and a close-up view of the Bridge. A vertical photo of the North Tower is possible. Another visual concept is the military fortification and the Bridge together. The Marin Headlands played a critical part in defending the United States following the hysteria of Pearl Harbor. There was substantial fear that Japan would mount a mainland invasion, with San Francisco as the target. U.S. military fortified the Marin Headlands hillsides with gun emplacements. Gone today are the guns themselves, but their concrete bunker support systems are a sobering reminder of the World War II era.
The second turnoff, a quarter mile to the west, is the classic view of the Golden Gate Bridge North Tower with The City in the background. This is a vertical image seen in many postcard collections about San Francisco. Possibly your photo visit will have extraordinary good light in the hour before sunset. If the sky is clear, the Bridge will have some golden glow on it. If the sky is foggy or cloudy, you may just happen upon a dramatic dance of fog and bridge.
There is also a third turnoff to a site known as Hawk Hill, which is choice for getting a grand perspective on the Golden Gate. Continue on the road west, and keep to the left, taking a roundabout, following the Point Bonita Lighthouse signage. You will come to a famous place called Hawk Hill. Park where the two-lane road ends and a one-way road begins. This promontory offers one of the most amazing views of the Golden Gate area, which is the famous Bridge, of course, and also the entrance to San Francisco Bay. This view calls for a wide-angle horizontal photo encompassing the Golden Gate and The City.
Signage on Hawk Hill
At the parking turnoff at Hawk Hill, there is signage alerting you to the naming of this Golden Gate location. Credit falls to John C. Fremont, who was a lieutenant in the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers. He wrote, “Between these points is the strait about 1 mile broad in the narrowest point, and 5 miles long from sea to bay. To this gate I gave the name Chrysopolae, or Golden Gate.” Fremont made reference to the fabled Straits of Bosporus and the Greek city, Chrysopolis, which translates as City of Gold. Note that he bestowed this name, ironically, before the Gold Rush.
Hawk Hill is unusual because this is where many migrating raptors on the West Coast cross the Golden Gate span, due to the favorable thermals available. An informal count of raptors migrating each year becomes an index of the health of the western U.S. ecosystem. If your photographic or nature passion is birds, especially raptors, this is a place you should visit.
All aspects considered, there is much to celebrate regarding the Golden Gate Bridge, from its history and beauty to today’s opportunities for enjoyment and photography of this beloved object. Besides the land-based approaches, an excursion from Fisherman’s Wharf on a Blue & Gold or Red & White fleet boat shows the Bridge from the water, including from its west side.
Meditating on the Bridge
The more one meditates on the Golden Gate Bridge, the greater will be your appreciation of the aesthetics and practical value of this world-class icon.
San Francisco: If You Go
The main entity encouraging San Francisco Travel is the San Francisco Travel Association at https://www.sftravel.com/.