The Golden Gate Bridge Turns Seventy Five

Yesterday, San Francisco celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was on May 27, 1937 (a Thursday, interestingly enough) that the world-renowned Golden Gate Bridge opened to the public. Schools and businesses were closed, and the city of San Francisco declared a holiday to celebrate the event. That first day, the bridge was open for pedestrian traffic only. Five years in the making, the bridge fulfilled a vision that had been nurtured for sixty years or more before construction finally started in 1932. Engineer Joseph Strauss was the moving force behind the undertaking, and his initial design of 1927 was the focal point for the effort persuade the politicians and the people that the bridge was not merely possible, but necessary.

It is almost inconceivable that construction of the Golden Gate Bridge was begun even as the country was in the depth of the Great Depression. To add to this astonishing fact, consider that the massive Bay Bridge was being built at the same time! What great courage and confidence, and far-sighted vision it took to do so much at such a period in our history. New construction techniques were developed to address the unique challenges of the project. Unprecedented cooperation among state, county, and city governments was pioneered. And a new “Wonder of the World” was created.

Strauss’ original design was much modified by the time construction began; the famed Art Deco appearance was the work of associate architect Irving Morrow. Strauss made the final selection of “International Orange” for the paint scheme of the bridge, feeling that the bright color would help provide navigational safety for ships and planes. Though the color was chosen for imminently practical reasons, it has proven to be a fortunate choice for the beauty of the bridge as well. Situated in a naturally beautiful setting, the bridge somehow compliments the scene.

Twenty-five years ago, on Sunday, May 24, 1987, my brother Bill, my friend Michelle Gluck, and I braved the crowds to take part in the Fiftieth Anniversary Bridge Walk. Unlike on the opening day in 1937 when foot traffic was permitted all day long, in 1987 the plan was to allow pedestrian access for only two hours in the morning. This relatively short time for pedestrian access was the result of a compromise: Marin County had insisted that bridge not be closed to vehicle traffic at all, while pretty much the rest of the world wanted it closed all day so people could really enjoy the pedestrian experience. Marin County, then-current sentiment held, was just being a spoil-sport (I have always assumed, personally, that the county government was simply showing how powerful it could be, exercising its sovereign authority despite almost universal sentiment to the contrary; the urge to exert power has always been a common governmental trait.) The planners in 1987 had forecast a crowd of between 150,000 and 200,000 people with perhaps 50,000 expected to make the walk across the bridge. They were in for a shock!

Well over a million people converged on San Francisco that day, and some 750,000 or more were determined to avail themselves of the once-in-a-lifetime chance to walk across the main roadway of the bridge. (actually there were a surprising number of old-timers planning to do this a second time!) More than a quarter of a million folks actually made it onto the bridge that Sunday morning in 1987 (counts range from SFPD’s low of 250,000 to the bridge’s official engineering report’s high of 800,000!) Bill, Michelle and I had reached into the middle of the span when everything came to a crushing halt. People had poured onto the bridge from the Marin side (which was not planned) and others had decided to turn back. But there were hundreds of thousands still coming in from San Francisco. It was a situation that could have invited panic or worse: there was almost no room to move for well over an hour as officials began to turn people away at the access points, and to clear people off of the bridge from the ends. The two-hour limit had stretched to almost six hours by the time all were cleared out. As things returned to normal, photographs showed that the weight of the massive crowd had actually flattened the gentle arc of the bridge deck by a full ten feet!

I will always be impressed though, that despite the tension of the situation, (no pun intended!) there was no panic, no riot, no calamity. Around our little group, folks began introducing themselves, talking about why they had decided to take the walk, telling jokes, and — with a little sense of gallows humor as we all heard eerie metallic groans and pings emanating from the bridge — making jokes about hurling into the water when the cables started snapping! One young man nearby decided we should all sing, just to keep things calm, and we all joined in on Sweet Chariot and other soothing, mellow tunes. The whole experience was likely an “only-in-San-Francisco” sort of occasion.

The Golden Gate Bridge held the title of the longest span in the world when it opened in 1937 and retained that status for 27 years until the Verrazano Narrows bridge was opened. It is still an inspiring monument to vision, ingenuity, determination, and the can-do spirit. Functional and lovely, it seems to me that no better monument could have been built.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Golden Gate Bridge 16 April 2012

Golden Gate Bridge 16 April 2012

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