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Golden Gate Bridge: History & How to Visit

Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge today

Ever since the late nineteenth century San Franciscans had dreamed of a bridge across the Golden Gate, the narrow strait that separate the northern and southern sides of the entrance to San Francisco Bay. However, the practical difficulties of building a Golden Gate Bridge seemed insuperable at the time, and the crossing stayed a fever dream of city boosters and ambitious politicians. Nevertheless, as time passed and construction techniques improved, a bridge began to seem not only feasible, but necessary.

Opening in 1937, the bridge has since become one of the most famous symbols of the U.S., a physical representation of American ingenuity, technical prowess and superhuman determination. Along with the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Unites States Capitol, the White House and the Hollywood Sign, it is instantly recognizable and symbolizes for many around the world their very concept of the U.S.

Golden Gate Bridge postcard
Golden Gate Bridge postcard, late 1930’s

In this article I’ll give you the history behind the San Francisco icon, as well as recommending the best ways for visitors to, well, visit it.

A Bridge Over Troubled Water

As the twentieth century dawned, and bridges in other hard-to-previously-build locations started to appear, more and more San Franciscans began to wonder if, in fact, the Golden Gate itself could be spanned with a crossing. At nearly 7,000 feet, the completion of the Manhattan Bridge in New York, in 1909, seemed to suggest that a suspension type bridge would be technically feasible.

But why was a bridge over the Golden Gate necessary? In many ways it was to reverse engineer the city because, frankly, it’s in the wrong place! What do I mean by that? Well, the emergence of San Francisco as the dominant city in the Bay Area was very much a matter of chance. The settlement had barely five-hundred inhabitants when the Gold Rush began in earnest in 1849. In less than a year it had exploded to an incredible 25,000 people. The real reason the first ships of the Gold Rush landed at San Francisco was because it was the only real settlement in the Bay Area.

The problem was that the gold fields were in the High Sierra – on the other side of the bay. Meaning prospectors who were in a hurry (which was most of them) had to immediately get a ferry to cross the bay and then find land transportation northeast, up to the mountains. The most practical solution would have been to develop a port at Benicia, in the northeast of San Francisco Bay, which offered easy transfer to shallower boats to travel up the Sacramento River.

If the British or French had colonized California, instead of the Spanish, or had the U.S. been in possession of the state for longer, they probably would have developed a port there. It’s the obvious spot. In addition to the reasons already mentioned, the San Francisco peninsula is much windier, foggier and colder, with little timber or fresh water in those days.

If Benicia had become the major urban center in the Bay Area then the peninsula could have looked a lot like its northern neighbor, Marin County, with extensive parkland. Maybe the Golden Gate Bridge would have been necessary, but probably some of the other bridges in the Bay Area would not. it’s an interesting thought.

Golden Gate, 1891
Golden Gate, 1891

With the closing of the Panama Pacific Exposition in 1915 though, and after putting the 1906 Great Fire well behind it, the city was in a confident and expansive mood. San Franciscans began eying the Golden Gate and picturing a big, beautiful bridge.

In 1916, an article in the San Francisco Bulletin moved the the idea of a bridge from a pipe dream into a serious proposition. Subsequently San Francisco’s City Engineer asked for practical and affordable proposals for a suspension bridge across the straits. One of the first to respond was Joseph Strauss. He was an ambitious young engineer at the time and he was sure that it could be done.

Planning and Construction of Golden Gate Bridge

It took Strauss many years of lobbying the city, but in 1923, with the passage of the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District Act by the state legislature, a special district to design, build and finance the bridge was officially created.

Of course that wasn’t the end of it. The War Department had to be convinced that an enemy couldn’t bring it down, and thereby block the Navy from being able to put to sea. Another proposal of theirs, to paint the bridge black and yellow to make it more visible, was thankfully shot down too.

A major issue was the opposition of Southern Pacific Railroad, which had bought all the bay ferry companies in the 1920’s. Obviously concerned about what a nice, convenient bridge would do to all those fat profits from its monopoly, the company began to file lawsuit after lawsuit to fight the bridge. Eventually filing nearly a hundred of them, in local, state and federal courts.

San Franciscans responded with a boycott of the ferries for weeks, until ‘the great octopus’ (AKA Southern Pacific) gave in and dropped their frivolous litigation, in 1932.

Another issue was how to pay for it. That didn’t seem a problem in the 1920’s, when the U.S. economy looked like it was an economic miracle, but after the Wall Street Crash and onset of the Great Depression, raising the money became a major issue.

Incredibly, in November 1930, voters in counties affected by the bridge voted to underwrite the debt for the construction of the bridge, meaning they would be held personally liable for the money. Even that wasn’t enough, until Amadeo Giannini, president and founder of Bank of America, agreed to buy $5,000,000 worth of the bonds, in 1932. He did it to help the city, as he did after the Great Fire.

Construction began on January 5, 1933 and it took nearly four and a half years to build. At the time it was the highest and longest suspension bridge in the world (it’s since been overtaken). The engineering obstacles to overcome, with the technology at hand (particularly not having computers), were enormous.

Even more incredibly, it opened ahead of schedule and under budget (about $35,000,000 – in other words the cost of a bathroom renovation today). What was it that they knew then and we don’t today?

Diagram of Golden Gate Bridge
Diagram of Golden Gate Bridge

Interestingly, while the suspension cables seem to be made up of two huge steel cables, in fact the cables themselves are made up of thousands of much thinner cables, encased in a steel tube. The suspension of them over the straits involved a process of spinning each cable from one side to the other, using a pulley contraption holding each strand, like a spider weaving its web.

While undoubtedly the leading figure in the design and construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, Strauss tried (and succeeded) in taking ALL of the credit for a long time. Now Irving Morrow is seen as being chiefly responsible for the design. Crucially, he also championed the color: International Orange (it was the color of the primer being used to prepare the bridge to be painted a different color).

Charles Alton Ellis, collaborating remotely with Leon Moisseiff (principal engineer of the Manhattan Bridge), was the principal engineer of the project. Ellis was later fired by Strauss but, obsessed with the bridge and unable to find work during the Depression, he continued working seven days a week on an unpaid basis. Eventually he turned in ten large volumes of hand calculations.

Fortunately the death toll of construction was low, by the standard of the time, at eleven people. It says a lot about the concerns of workplace health and safety during the era, that Strauss was seen as being very enlightened for trying to ensure that his employees didn’t die at work. He insisted on a net being hung below the bridge to catch any accidentally-falling construction workers, and it saved the lives of nineteen of them (who thus became members of the Half-Way to Hell Club).

Opening of Golden Gate Bridge
Opening of Golden Gate Bridge, 1937

Bridge Opens

The Golden Gate Bridge opened on May 27 1937. It was quite a day. No less than four-hundred U.S. Navy biplanes from three aircraft carriers thundered through the skies above, while a parade of official cars, with their flags flying, crossed the bridge. Beneath them an enormous fleet comprising twenty battleships and heavy cruisers, three carriers and hundreds of other ships, sailed through the Golden Gate into San Francisco Bay. It was an incredible spectacle.

The bridge was only open to pedestrians and something like a quarter of a million people walked, or roller-skated across. The following day it was opened for vehicular traffic by President Franklin D Roosevelt by pushing a button at the White House. Since then it’s made an appearance in almost every TV show or movie set in San Francisco.

Bridge Building in the Bay Area

San Francisco was on a roll when it came to bridge building at the time. In fact, the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge had opened six months earlier, on November 12, 1936. The reason for this sudden burst of bridge construction was that city leaders felt that the city was restricted in its potential to grow, by being isolated from its hinterland.

An incredible engineering project in its own right, the Bay Bridge doesn’t have the international fame of its sibling, but it’s the busier of the two with more than twice as many cars using it to drive to or from the East Bay area. The excavated soil for the project from Yerba Buena Island was used to create the adjacent Treasure Island.

Golden Gate Bridge Today

Ever since it opened the bridge has been one of the first things many visitors want to see when they arrive in San Francisco, along with Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf and Alcatraz. It’s as quintessential a symbol of the city as one of our cable-cars.

Although it has been overtaken, in an engineering sense, by many other bridges around the world, the Golden Gate Bridge is on the A-list in terms of its global fame, and that really rests on it’s extraordinary beauty. The clean simplicity of its lines, the warmth of its color against the background blues, greens and browns, and its magnificent, dramatic setting, at the mouth of San Francisco Bay. I can’t see that changing any time soon.

How to Visit the Golden Gate Bridge

The easiest way to get to the bridge by public transport is to take a bus to the transit center just south of the bridge, which is only a short walk away. From there you can explore the Presidio and walk onto the bridge itself. When you want to return to the city you can easily take the same bus back.

  • To or from Civic Center: routes 30, 70 and 101 leave from 7th & Market streets or across the street from City Hall at McAllister and Polk Streets. All these buses serve the transit center just south of the Golden Gate Bridge.
  • To or from Fisherman’s Wharf: route 28 from North Point and Van Ness Avenue, right behind Aquatic Park, or buses 70, 30 from Van Ness and Union Street.
  • Best way to visit the bridge: why not take the historic Streetcar F-Market line along the waterfront, from the Ferry Terminal to Fisherman’s Wharf? From there, take the 28 bus from North Point and Van Ness Avenue to the bridge.

If you’re driving north across the bridge (out of the city) there’s no fee. A toll ($10 at the time of writing) is charged on cars driving south (into San Francisco). It’s pay-by-plate (meaning there is no payment at the bridge, a bill will come in the mail).

There is parking near the bridge at the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center and you can drive down to Fort Point, where there is more parking. Just take the last exit before the bridge itself when driving north.

When planning your visit to the bridge, be sure allow time to walk at least part of the way across. Also take a walk down to and along Golden Gate Beach, the views of the bridge from there are beautiful too.

There are some fantastic views of the Golden Gate Bridge from Crissy Field on our Real San Francisco Bike Tour. Tour operates daily, at 10 am.

The Golden Gate Bridge

If you have any feedback on Golden Gate Bridge: History & How to Visit please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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