The Golden Gate Bridge-- A lovely way to cross an ocean
Northern California’s continental wall stretches for nearly 600 miles. The only cleft in its mountainous coast is the Golden Gate. For well into the 20th century, this mile-wide strait was considered unbridgeable.
For a good reason.
On one side is the not-so-Pacific Ocean, on the other a vast (500-square-mile) natural basin nourished by 16 rivers—San Francisco Bay. At its peak, the tidal surge through the Gate is three times the flow of the Amazon and 14 times the Mississippi’s. Currents sweep through the slot at speeds of up to 60 mph. Fierce winds whip the headlands. Fog frequently obliterates the passage.
Hence the near miracle of the Golden Gate Bridge. The great red-orange span opened to pedestrians on May 27, 1937 and to vehicular traffic the next day. When, at noon on May 28, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed a telegraph key in the White House, every fire siren in San Francisco and Marin County sounded, every church bell rang, every foghorn hooted. Ships bayed. Car horns honked. Four hundred planes flew overhead. Two great ocean liners steamed underneath.
San Francisco marked the 50th anniversary of its most famous landmark on Sunday, May 24, 1987. The celebration was scheduled to begin with a bridge walk reminiscent of that 4:45 a.m. Starting time for the walk was 6 a.m. but the crowd breached the barricades before the appointed hour. An estimated 300,000 people surged onto the span, flattening its central arc, while 400,000 more gathered on the sides. Despite the crush, festive spirits prevailed. The crowning spectacle was the permanent illumination of the bridge’s majestic towers with four-dozen high-pressure sodium lamps.
Joseph B. Strauss, a crusty, Chicago-based engineering titan barely five feet tall, has long been credited with masterminding the bridge--with the assistance of Strauss Engineering’s vice presidents Clifford Paine and Charles Ellis, along with engineering consultants O.H. Ammann, Charles Derleth Jr., and Leon Moisseiff. Without Strauss’s vision, ingenuity and dynamism, however, it is agreed that the bridge couldn’t have been built in the form or in the time it was.
When Strauss arrived in San Francisco in 1917, he had already built bridges all over the world. He spent the next 13 years battling business and political opposition to his “impossible dream.”
Strauss won by igniting the public imagination. In 1930, at the depth of the Depression, the voters of six Bay counties approved bonds for construction of a bridge over the Golden Gate by a three-to-one majority. A fellow visionary, A.P. Giannini, founder of Bank of America, agreed to buy the materials. Construction began on January 5, 1933.
Strauss was to remark later, “It took two decades and 200 million words to convince the people that the bridge was feasible; then only four years and $35 million to put the concrete and steel together.”
Actually, it was an awesome struggle against the elements. Eleven bridgemen died in the effort. Strauss’ insistence on unprecedented safety measures is credited with keeping the mortality rate down. Nineteen plunged into the safety net strung the length of the span and were spared. Many of these daredevils worked for less than $1 an hour.
When completed, San Francisco’s “Curve of soaring steel” was a study in superlatives. It was the world’s longest and tallest suspension structure at that time. Its 746-foot (65-story) towers were the highest west of the Empire State Building. Its two great cables contain enough steel wire (80,000 miles) to encircle the equator three times. The 1.7-mile-long bridge is suspended over water 318 feet deep and allows a minimum ship clearance of 220 feet. It accommodates six car lanes.
Every year more than 40 million vehicles pass over this panoramic strand. The five-decade total is well over a billion. Drivers pay a toll southbound. The pedestrian walkway is free. Cyclists can travel on the west side as well.
The Golden Gate Bridge has always been painted “International Orange.” Its designers rejected carbon black and steel gray, selecting the color because it blended well with the span’s natural setting. If the U.S. Navy had its way, the bridge may have been painted black with yellow stripes to assure clear visibility to passing ships.
Painting the bridge is an ongoing task and the primary maintenance job. The paint protects it from the salt air that rusts and corrodes the steel components.
Several misconceptions circulate about how often the bridge is painted. Some say once every seven years; others say from end to end each year. Actually, the bridge was originally painted with a red lead primer and a lead-based topcoat that only required touch ups for the next 27 years. By 1965, advancing corrosion sparked a program to remove the original paint and replace it with an organic zinc silicate primer and acrylic topcoat, which was completed in 1996.
In 1994, the American Society of Civil Engineers voted the Golden Gate one of the “Seven Wonders of the United States” in its first list since 1955. Of particular significance to the society was the fact that the bridge was not damaged during San Francisco’s 1989 earthquake.
The bridge has been continuously open, with few exceptions since its completion. It’s only been closed three times due to weather--in 1951, 1982 and 1983 due to gusting winds over 70 miles per hour. Other than its 50th anniversary party, the bridge has also been closed briefly on separate occasions for visiting dignitaries Franklin D. Roosevelt and President Charles de Gaulle of France and for a few late night construction projects.
The Golden Gate Bridge is recognized the world over as a symbol of San Francisco by people who’ve never seen it first-hand, let alone driven, walked or cycled it. The most romantic approach is by sea. Almost as breathtaking is the view from the north. Motorists emerging from Waldo Tunnel on Highway 101 behold a red lyre in the sky. In the background a diaphanous city dances above a sparkling sea.
The Gate and its graceful garland have been described as “a miracle of nature illuminated by a flash of genius.”
In defining the bridge’s spell, the New York Times’ Joseph Giovannini wrote, “The design complements the promontories on either side; it allows elegantly framed views of the ocean, sky and sunset; and it is, above all, awesome in itself -- a work of man on the scale of nature...in some condition the structure is spectral.”
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