Golden Gate Bridge

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.


 the other night we stumbled upon a NOVA episode exploring the logistics of constructing Stonehenge and how it connects to Durrington Walls up the River Avon. the heart of the portion we watched centered on one scholar’s theory about how the stones got to the famous site in the Salisbury Plain — placing the several-ton stones on platforms on tracks of milled timber with the equivalent of wood or stone ball bearings to allow the contraption to glide towards the destination. it was an interesting idea … for an age when modern milling and ball-bearings might be common, but I was inclined to agree with the criticism that it was perhaps a bit over-engineered for the Neolithic architects of Stonehenge. logs and lots of people with ropes seemed just as effective and perhaps more expeditious. but then, most of what we know about Stonehenge comes from educated guesses at best.

the earthwork enclosure that encompasses the site dates from about 3100 BCE while radiocarbon testing and other evidence suggest the stones were erected sometime between 3000 and 2000 BCE, with the bluestones (the smaller ones) perhaps going up towards the beginning of that period and the remaining sarsens (the larger ones) later on. Stonehenge was constructed in several phases over a some 1,500 years, replacing monuments that previously stood on the site.

one of the more impressive facts about the site is the distance the stones traveled. while the precise origin remains unknown, it seems the bluestones came from the Preseli Hills in southwest Wales more than 150 miles away from Stonehenge (another theory posits they were glacial erratics left much closer to the site by the Irish Sea Glacier). in 2011, researchers at the University of Wales announced they’d identified the exact source from which the earliest stones were taken — 140 miles away in Pembrokshire in Wales. the sarsen stones are made of a type of sandstone found throughout southwest England but most archaeologists believe these stones came from the Marlborough Downs about 30 miles distant. as I mentioned, the bluestones were erected first, likely in a double-circle, and show signs of human efforts to shape them to fit together in some fashion. the sarsens were worked at the site using handmade tools; the NOVA program included excavation of some of the tools and stone shards carved off the sarsens.

the first signs of inhabitants on the site, however — four or five pits (some which held pine posts) — were discovered in the site’s parking lot between the 1960s and 80s and date to sometime between 8500 and 7000 BCE (the Mesolithic era!). recently uncovered evidence suggests the site may have been used for burials from the beginning, with cremains found in and around pits along the bank and ditch; in the 64 identified burial sites archaeologists have found remains for as many as 150 individuals. the NOVA program also chronicled excavations along the banks of the River Avon by archaeologists, seeking to determine whether the avenue did, in fact, continue all the way to the river and thus, presumably, symbolically and physically connect Stonehenge with Durrington Walls up the river. based on the positioning of the two sites, the researchers proposed Durrington Walls as a “site of the living” (as it aligned with sunrise) while Stonehenge was a “site of the dead” (as it aligned with the sunset and was a site for burial).

beginning in the 1920s, the National Trust began purchasing land around Stonehenge to preserve the setting around the monument as early in the 20th century land nearby was increasingly turned to cultivation. since the 1980s, the National Trust has worked with local landowners to revert some of this previous farmland back to chalk grassland. the setting-preservation effort was undermined somewhat by the two roadways — the A344 and the A303. over the last several decades plans have repeatedly been advanced then shelved to close or reroute the two roads in order to return the atmosphere of the site to how it might have been millennia ago. in 2010, the Wiltshire Council approved plans for a new visitors center to replace the one built in the 1970s, but forward progress is currently held up by getting acquiescence to close the A344 and two other nearby roadways.

of course, the sheer volume of visitors will still affect how one experiences Stonehenge. at the turn of the 20th century, concern for visitor safety (coupled with the toppling of an outer sarsen and its lintel) prompted the then-owner to begin the process of re-erecting fallen stones and stabilising the bases of others. the site was donated to the nation in 1918 by Cecil Chubb (who’d purchased several years earlier in an auction) who became responsible for its upkeep and providing access. between 1938 and today, annual visitors to the site increased from 38,000 to over 900,000. in 1978, erosion of the earthworks due to the increased number of visitors and acts of vandalism to the stones resulted in access to the stones being restricted. today, visitors are only allowed to tour Stonehenge from roped-off paths that prevent too many people from accessing the stones at any given period.

even though access to the stones is restricted, it isn’t prohibited; it just requires some planning, forethought, and approval from the National Trust. my dad was one with such foresight and managed to coordinate an early-Sunday-morning visit for us when my parents came to visit me while I was studying in London. it’s a truly unique experience to get such remarkable access to a monument so impressive, so old, and so shrouded in mystery. the first time I visited England, we focused more time on Avebury and (if I recall correctly) just stopped along the road and looked through the fence at Stonehenge, rather than paying the entrance fee to walk around the roped-off path. it was worth the wait, though, to get to to stand so close the stones, to touch them and walk among them. if you’re ever in the vicinity, I highly recommend taking the time to visit and, if you’ve got some foresight, too, plan ahead for one of those outside-operating-hours access spots.

some final thoughts:
if you’re in Ireland, you should definitely make the effort to visit Brú na Bóinne (it’s on the itinerary for the next trip to Ireland this summer!) another remarkable Neolithic site.
check out the NOVA program, Secrets of Stonehenge, for more on all the projects I referenced above.
lastly, one of my favorite travel blogs, Twenty-Something Travel, posts “Friday Postcards” and the one from this week was, coincidentally, Stonehenge at sunrise!

pres de la Tour Eiffel

three times to Paris … three times to the Tour Eiffel … but only up in the elevators once. the most recent time, with Becca, was perhaps the most amusing. I don’t have particularly clear memories of the first two visits, apart from the fact that they were both during the day, and the second time we tried to figure out which riverside tunnel was the one in which Princess Diana died.

many Parisians decried the structure when it was completed in 1889 as an “eyesore” and, when asked why he ate lunch at the Tower’s restaurant every day, Guy de Maupassant explained that it was the only place in the city from which one could not see the tower (flimsy claim if you ask me). while it has become the quintessential landmark of the city, and depicted as visible from many an establishing-shot in movies, zoning regulations in Paris mean that very few buildings are actually tall enough to grant a clear view of the tower. initially, the construction contract called for the structure to be dismantled after twenty years, when ownership reverted to the city of Paris, but it proved valuable for communication purposes and remained standing. and now that it’s become part of the popular perception of the City of Light, more than 200 million people have visited the “eyesore”.

but Becca and I didn’t go up in the tower; we arrived after the elevators had closed down for the night. (we’d climbed up the Arc de Triomphe instead.) instead, we wandered around the park and gazed up the center of the tallest building in Paris. and as we headed back to the Metro, past Les Invalides, we were accosted good-naturedly by a middle-aged, local, hobo-looking gent (from what I remember — Becca correct me on this if you recall differently). I don’t recall precisely what he said, or how we responded, apart from something of the oh-how-gorgeous-you-two-young-ladies variety. what occurs to me now, in thinking back, is that stands as one of the few conversations during the weekend in which a French person began and continued a conversation with us in French. it seemed that everywhere else we went, everyone else we encountered, saw us and began in English, or heard our attempts at French and switched to English. (which was certainly not, for someone, who, at that point had spent seven years studying French and considered spending her study abroad experience in France, a welcome assumption or shift.) but this random lout, between the Tour Eiffel and Les Invalides, assumed and tolerated our French-language abilities.
and now, quite suddenly, after not thinking much about Paris in the intervening five and a half years, I would very much like to visit again.

more from Wikipedia and the Tower’s site