the last time I was in San Francisco, I was still very new to the idea of “running” and certainly didn’t consider using the descriptor on myself. but I’d brought my shoes with me and one morning a couple of us headed out from our hotel for (what now seems remarkably) an easy out-and-back run to Ghirardelli Square. I distinctly remember thinking, when my friend quipped “I’m going to sprint the last block!”, that she was completely nuts.
three years later, I proposed a run across the Golden Gate Bridge as one of our pillar sightseeing activities. what better way to see one of the most impressive engineering feats in American history than on foot! at slightly-faster-than-walking pace! the journey to get to the visitor’s center proved its own adventure and gave us a more street-level introduction to the city than perhaps anticipated (riding local public transit will do that).
prior to the construction of the bridge, getting from the city across the bay to Marin County required a ferry ride, which was subject to certain weather-related travel constraints and ultimately hampered the growth potential of the city. as the city and area grew, the need for a better means of travel became increasingly apparent as the growth rate of comparable cities outstripped San Francisco. ferries began running as early as the 1820s and regular service began in the 1840s, eventually becoming an extension of rail service. discussion of a bridge began around the same time but did not bear fruit until the 1930s.
for a long time, engineers held that, due to the depth of the channel, strong currents, persistent fog, and winds, building a bridge across the strait was impractical, if not impossible. in 1916, the City Engineer estimated, while theoretically possible, the cost of constructing a bridge could exceed $100 million – a prohibitive price tag – but allowed that a project might work, should it prove possible to do it for less. engineer Joseph Strauss (who designed a 55 mile railroad bridge over the Bering Strait) presented a plan for a cantilevered system joined by a suspension in the middle, the price of which came in at $17 million. the city assented to let him proceed on the condition he consult additional experts, who determined a suspension system the most practical for the site.
it took quite a few years of litigation and negotiation, however, before the project ultimately began construction. the Department of War feared a bridge could interfere with ship traffic or be a target for sabotage (terrorism); the railroads litigated because a bridge would compete directly with their ferry business. eventually the Department of War came around, even granting necessary land for construction on the San Francisco side; the fledgling auto industry supported the project, providing a useful counterbalance to the railroads, and serious design discussions began in 1923.
while Strauss was officially the chief engineer on the Golden Gate project, his initial design was both impractical and visually unappealing; in later years he spent a good amount of time downplaying the contributions of his collaborators, with an eye to posterity. Leon Moisseiff, who designed the Manhattan Bridge, championed the suspension design, while Charles Alton Ellis did much of the technical and theoretical work for the design, including figuring out how to preserve Fort Point at the foot of the southern end of the bridge. in 1931, Strauss fired Ellis from the project (for “wasting money” sending telegrams to Moisseiff for consulting purposes) but Ellis, who could not find subsequent work during the Depression, continued to work some 70 hours a week on calculations for the project. as a result of this dispute, Ellis received no credit for his work when the bridge opened in 1937 (that snub was corrected in 2007 in a governmental report, which gave Ellis major credit for the design).
funding for the Bridge, once it was ready to go up, proved challenging. after the crash of 1929, the Bridge & Highway District incorporated by the legislature to see the project through, was unable to raise funds for the project; they lobbied for a bond measure, which voters approved in 1930, but the bonds didn’t sell. ultimately, the founder of Bank of America (Amadeo Giannini) agreed to buy the lot in an effort to boost the local economy.
construction began on January 5, 1933, under Strauss’ supervision, and was completed in April 1937 (ahead of schedule and under budget. at the time of its completion, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world; today it is second only to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. until 1998, it was also the tallest, with the span towering 746 feet high and the span some 220 feet above the surface of the water. steel in the bridge was fabricated by Bethlehem Steel in plants in New Jersey, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. it contains some 1.2 million rivets and over 80,000 miles of wire (with some 27,572 wires comprising one cable).
during the project, eleven workers died; one in October 1936, and ten in February when a portion of scaffolding fell through a safety net that hung below the work area. by contrast, the net saved the lives of some 19 men who fell from the work area; they became members of the informal Half-Way to Hell club.
proposals to install netting or higher fences to reduce suicides from the bridge in recent hears have not yet borne fruit. impediments to such measures have included cost, aesthetics, and concerns about what kind of effect additional weight might have on the structural integrity of the bridge. in 2008, the Bridge’s Board of Directors voted to approve a plastic-covered stainless steel net beneath and extending out from the bridge, but cost has prevented that from being installed. instead, information about a suicide helpline is installed at frequent intervals along the bridge, have trained volunteers and law enforcement officers to watch for people in distress, and closed the bridge to pedestrians at night. despite those efforts, however, the number of suicides each year remains high.
it remains one of the most iconic and visited landmarks in the United States. we saw countless pedestrians and tourists on rented bicycles traversing the span as we ourselves took it in on foot. San Francisco City Guides runs free walking tours of the bridge as well, for those that want to know more about the history of the bridge and its construction.