Author’s Note: This article on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, Spanning the Gap is a chapter in my forthcoming book Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. It was also a chapter in my earlier book Northern California History Weekends: 52 Adventures in History.
By Lee Foster
The Golden Gate Bridge symbolizes the joy and beauty that so many San Francisco visitors and locals experience when they encounter The City.
The Golden Gate Bridge is an object of national adulation as one of America’s best-loved landmarks. When seen from either the southern or northern visitor viewpoints or from the deck of an excursion boat, the Golden Gate Bridge is a pleasing sight.
Its suspension construction and proportions are graceful. Its orange-vermilion color contrasts nicely against the blue sky and sea and the green hills of Marin County to the north. The ship lane below the Golden Gate Bridge has become its own bridge to the Orient, adding to the mystique of the site.
The Historic Story
Building the bridge required both political vision and technical imagination. Emperor Norton, a San Francisco character of the 1860s, first proposed a bridge.
In the 1870s railroad magnate Charles Crocker presented plans for a bridge. However, the task was enormous and public interest dwindled. Then, in 1916, a newspaperman named James Wilkins launched an editorial campaign favoring a bridge.
The idea appealed to North Bay residents who were transporting their cars across San Francisco Bay 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. He asked Strauss to design and build a bridge across the Golden Gate.
Strauss followed the project attentively for the next two decades. In his lifelong record, Strauss, a distinguished bridge builder, engineered construction of more than 400 bridges from Leningrad to New Jersey. A statue at the south end of the bridge acknowledges his role as “The Man Who Built the 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 began construction of the towers. Admirably, the bridge finished on time and under its $35 million budget. The last bridge bond payment was in 1971.
Today’s bridge toll goes entirely to maintaining the bridge, including its never-ending schedule of painting. One technical challenge in the 1930s construction involved the 4,200-foot length of the bridge. Many had said the gap could not be spanned successfully.
The Bridge reached its 75th Birthday in 2012. I celebrated the event at the time.
Building the Golden Gate Bridge
Strauss weighed plans for a suspension bridge, which risked being too flimsy, and a cantilever bridge, which seemed 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, a suspension bridge of this length had not yet been built.
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 of 100 miles per hour produces a mid-span sway of 21 feet, which had to be taken into consideration. Heat and cold expansion and contraction of the bridge can cause movement that raises and lowers the bridge by 10 feet.
The depth of the water underneath the bridge and the speed of the current also presented 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 that empty 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-thick cables manufactured for the bridge were the largest bridge cables ever made, incorporating 80,000 miles of wire, each about the thickness of a pencil. Both of the two cables have a tensile strength of 200 million pounds.
Worker Safety at the Golden Gate Bridge
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. A special net was put in place and it saved 19 men who fell at various times. The safety record was excellent until near the end of the project.
The safety record suffered in 1936 when a falling beam crushed an ironworker. Unfortunately, another tragic incident, in February 1937, took 10 lives when a scaffolding with workers collapsed. 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. More than 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 purposefully to their deaths from the span. (The precise figure is no longer given out to the media so as to reduce sensational publicity and preclude copycat actions by the mentally disturbed.)
The Golden Gate Bridge is at the northernmost tip of San Francisco, accessible by car, taxi, or bus. If driving, take the Highway 101 approach to the Bridge and turn off at the last northbound San Francisco exit, which is clearly marked. The exit will take you to the observation area.
Be Sure to See
Park your car at the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge. Spend some time enjoying the landscape and waterscape unfolding in front of you. Then walk or bicycle onto the bridge and enjoy the cityscape of San Francisco, the fresh air, and the sense of grandeur that the Bridge inspires. A walk out on the Golden Gate Bridge can be as memorable as your first view of Yosemite’s El Capitan. There is also a vista turnout at the north end of the bridge that provides an inspiring view of the San Francisco skyline.
Views of the Golden Gate from a distance are a treat. Baker Beach west of the Bridge, Crissy Field east of the Bridge, and the turnouts on Conzelman Road as you climb the hill in Marin on the north side of the Bridge are three choice locations.
Best Time of Year
Except for periods of summer fog, which can obscure the Bridge and surrounding scenery for days, there is no bad season for seeing the Golden Gate Bridge. Somber fog or brilliant sunlight both suit the structure and may fit the varying moods of the observer. Spring and autumn present the classic blue-sky days that avid bridge watchers savor.
A fitting place to stay, which thoroughly captures the essence of the Bridge, is the Cavallo Point Lodge. The 142-room hotel, located at historic and recycled Fort Baker in a quiet cove beneath the north end of the Bridge, presents “views with a room.” The hotel offers dining and recreational opportunities. Details at https://www.cavallopoint.com/.
Murray Circle is the fine-dining option at Cavallo Point. Dine on site to enjoy the full details of the setting. Murray Circle emphasizes Northern California cuisine, strong on Marin and Sonoma farm contributions, with both fresh ingredients and the nearby stunning view of the Golden Gate.
For Further Information
The overall San Francisco information source for visitors is San Francisco Travel. Details at https://www.sftravel.com/.