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

Happy Birthday, San Francisco!

Two hundred thirty-six years ago on 28 March 1776, the settlement that would one day become the great city of San Francisco was founded. While the British-dominated eastern shore of North America was in political ferment and rebellion that would result in the world’s first colonial declaration of independence, the Spanish-dominated western shore was being settled to make a reality Spain’s longstanding claim to the potentially valuable territory. Spain had started to settle California with the establishment of a small military garrison and a religious mission on San Diego Bay in 1769.

That same year, the impressive, accommodating, and strategically important San Francisco Bay had been discovered. Though the California coast had been frequently explored in the preceding 250 years, the Spanish despaired of finding a decent natural port. Unlike the East Coast of North America whose many rivers formed navigable tidal estuaries and bays at regular intervals along the coastline, the West Coast of North America was almost completely devoid of natural harbors. Until the discovery of San Francisco Bay, the best harbor that had been found was at the Monterey Peninsula, and that was not a particularly sheltered locale.

Why did it take so long to find San Francisco Bay? Well, those who have been there surely know: it is often foggy there. Very foggy. So foggy, in fact, that the narrow opening of the Bay, the Golden Gate, often disappears from view, either from inside the Bay or from outside. Though many expeditions had sailed very close to the Golden Gate – Sir Francis Drake is thought to have sailed within four miles of it – not a one saw the wonderful gap in the coastline that opened into a splendid natural port. It seems somehow typical of San Francisco – doing the exact opposite of what is usually expected – that the famous Bay was first discovered from the land! Yes, it was Gaspar de Portola’s 1769 overland expedition that made first sighting of the glorious natural harbor that would later become so important.

So it was on this day, 28 March in that fraught and momentous year of 1776, that the first settlers under Juan Bautista de Anza reached the site that was to become San Francisco. It was first established as a military garrison – in Spanish Presidio; it was a military facility for Spain, Mexico, and the United States. The United States Army maintained that Post until the site was incorporated into the Golden Gate national recreation area in 1994, and “The Presidio” proudly bore its founding date, 1776, upon its entrance gates. The very next order of business was the founding of a religious mission. The ancient adobe mission building, dedicated to the patron of the Franciscan friars who built the California missions, San Francisco de Asis, still stands, having withstood nine major earthquakes and five major fires unscathed. And finally established was a small town known, in honor of the healing herb that grew on the site, as Yerba Buena, Good Herb.

The actual city of San Francisco would not exist until the first American governor of California granted a charter to the former Yerba Buena in 1847. This governor, John C. Frémont, was a renowned geographer who had mapped a great deal of the far West for the United States Army – he also coined the name “Golden Gate” for the entrance to San Francisco Bay (in 1846, before gold had been discovered) but his coining did not stick in its original form: drawing on his mastery of Classical Greek, Frémont had dubbed the breathtaking entry Chrysopylae, “Golden Gate.” (I am glad that the English form won out!) Frémont also established a bit of a tradition of Californian unorthodoxy: an Army officer, Colonel Frémont had been appointed governor by Commodore Stockton after the U.S. victory in the Mexican-American War. General Kearny felt this was an unacceptable slight – he outranked Frémont, after all! Kearny therefore arrested Frémont and sent him to Washington, D.C. charged with mutiny!

Frémont was convicted and almost immediately pardoned by President Polk. The whole affair convinced many of the former Mexican citizens who now found themselves under American rule that the Yanquis were as unstable as the Spanish Grandees who had been so intolerable. (All the principals have streets named after them in San Francisco!)

San Francisco, as this brief account illustrates, was unusual and unorthodox from its very founding. And California has often had a rough time with its governors! But in any case, a Happy 236th birthday to one of our nation’s – indeed, one of the world’s – most interesting and delightful cities!

Downtown San Francisco looking eastward from UCSF Medical Center. This is an unorthodox view, most SF cityscapes looking westward. 06SEP08.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

It is an odd thing, but everyone who disappears is said to be in San Francisco.

— Oscar Wilde

The Acquisition Of Alaska

It was on this day in 1867 that the United States of America formally took possession of the territory of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands from Imperial Russia. United States Secretary of State, William Seward, had negotiated the purchase in March of that year, and with much political arm-twisting, Seward successfully convinced the Senate to approve the purchase by the barest of margins: one vote.

The purchase was a bargain: more than 600,000 square miles of territory were acquired for a mere $7,200,00.00, which works out to that famed “two cents an acre” which most of learned about in grade school. Many of us also learned that this transaction was roundly derided as “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Icebox,” and that detractors predicted the creation of new posts such as “Secretary of Polar Bears.” And there is some truth to these notions. But it seems that most of these criticisms were from the Anti-Johnson Administration press of the day, and that a small majority of Americans in 1867 felt that the acquisition of more territory was a good thing for the United States, especially territory which bordered upon and hemmed in Canada, since the United States was having tense relations with Great Britain at the time.

In the perfect backward vision of the past 144 years, Seward’s decision to pursue and complete the purchase of Alaska certainly proves to have been far-sighted and beneficial: in the late 1890s gold was discovered in the territory, and by the early 20th century a thriving fishery industry was well established, and later an oil bonaza was developed. Furthermore, with the collapse of Imperial Russia in 1917 and the rise of the Soviet Union, the fact that the United States owned Alaska was an immensely important security bulwark for the United States and Canada. Imagine, at the height of the Cold War, if the Soviet Union had bases, missiles, and troops massed on the North American continent! How different things would have been. So, as I say, in retrospect, Seward’s purchase was one of the most important strategic acquisitions that the United States has ever made.

But we know that Seward had no idea that the Soviet Union would arise, and we can be sure he knew nothing of gold strikes and other material resources that would be discovered. So the question remains: why did Seward urge the United States, which had less than two years before emerged from the terrible and costly crucible of Civil War, to spend millions on a distant, marginal territory? What was his reasoning? What was his motivation?

The answer is actually surprisingly simple and rather prosaic: Seward was repaying a political debt, an ancient if uninspiring motive. The United States owed Russia for its support during the Civil War.

When the states of the American South united into the Confederate states of America in 1861, nearly every major European power immediately recognized the government of the rebellious states. In part, the European states were giving the United States a taste of its own policies: the U.S. had long had a policy of recognizing revolutionary states, much to the annoyance of Spain which lost almost all of her New World colonies through revolution by 1861, and so the recognition of the Confederate government was simply a repayment in kind.

But, too, in the global politics of the mid-nineteenth century, a strong United States represented a real rival to the power and influence of Great Britain and France, the two Superpowers of the age. The United States had declared with its Monroe Doctrine in 1823 that it intended to dominate the Americas, and it had risen to a predominant position in the Pacific Rim trade with the opening of Japan in 1856. Both Great Britain and France were uneasy with the power of the upstart nation, and both Great Britain and France would have liked to see the United States split and weakened.

Imperial Russia, on the other hand, had been defeated by an Anglo-French coalition in the Crimean war in the 1850’s and was still smarting from this humiliation and its burdens. Too, the young Czar Alexander II unexpectedly proved to be the greatest reformer in more than 400 years of Romanov rule. Alexander II reformed the decrepit state bureaucracy, revamped the military, sponsored legislation permitting modern corporations for the improvement of the nation’s infrastructure, and he consolidated and reduced Russia’s far-flung and expensive empire. Notably, he abolished Russia’s ancient institution of Serfdom.

Russia’s peasants were the last in Europe to receive the legal abolition of serfdom, a status equivalent to slavery. Alexander II undertook this bold, modernizing step almost singlehandedly in early 1861. Because of this liberation, some historians have explained Alexander’s diplomatic position as being motivated by a love of liberty and a hatred of slavery, but this seems unlikely. There is not the time nor the space here to properly analyse Alexander II’s long and eventful reign, but suffice it to say that his abolition of serfdom notwithstanding, Alexander II was probably not motivated by a hatred of slavery. Despite his progressive initiatives, Alexander II also maintained many of his predecessors’ oppressive policies.

Alexander’s strong support for the United States arose from both a desire to thwart his former adversaries, France and Great Britain, and a real and pressing need to develop an ally with usable ports. Since France and Great Britain were at odds with the United States due to their support of the Confederacy, Russia found a natural ally in Lincoln’s government: the enemies of my enemies are my friends.

In January of 1863, widespread famine in Russia’s Polish possessions led to open revolt. The first six month of 1863 held the potential for destabilizing the balance of power within Europe, and the specter of War loomed. It looked as if Great Britain and France might again be required to take up arms against Russia. And a weakened Russia would alter the balance between France and Great Britain. It was a delicate season.

Russia, for her part, needed an ally with ice-free ports for her fleets in case war broke out. Great Britain vastly dominated the seas, with France a distant second. Russia’s navy would have easily been blockaded in the Baltic and Vladivostok. Therefore, Alexander II ordered his fleets into American ports. The Baltic fleet arrived in New York Harbor on September 11th 1863 and was greeted with festivities and parades. This congregation of Naval power would help avoid overt British action against the Union. President Lincoln hosted the officers of the fleet at a White House banquet, and the Russian sailors were so moved by the appalling conditions of lower Manhattan’s tenement dwellers that they raised $5,000.00 for their relief! An interesting footnote is that a young Lieutenant, recently graduated from the Imperial Russian Naval Academy, passed his long, idle hours on duty with the fleet by writing his first symphony. The experience convinced him that his first love was music, and so Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov resigned his commision when the fleet returned to Russia in 1865.

In early 1862, both France and Great Britain had dispatched warships to San Francisco Bay, and there they remained throughout the American conflict, a potential threat if either France or Great Britain decided to openly involve itself in the Civil War. Most of the Union’s much-needed gold supply flowed through San Francisco Bay. The appearance of Imperial Russia’s Pacific Fleet in San Francisco in early October of 1863 served to eliminate this threat. To this day, San Francisco honors the memory of the Russian sailors who fought a great fire that broke out in downtown San Francisco on October 23, 1863, and thus saved the city. The Russians overwintered at Mare Island, and there are graves of Russian sailors there today. These gravesites have been the source of a fair amount of controversy in the past year or so: the Russian consulate in San Francisco replaced the 19th Century headstones which simply read “Russian Sailor” with new, strikingly white marble crosses with individual’s names. Unfortunately, these new monuments were not authorized by the historic site and they do not harmonize with the existing, antique headstones on the other graves. The matter is still being debated at this time, with preservation purists and Russian patriots at loggerheads. It is to be hoped that peaceful compromise will be worked out among former allies.

After 1863, the tide of the American Civil War turned decisively – though not speedily – in favor of the Union, and Great Britain abandoned all thought of intervention. Louis Napoleon still hoped to do something until almost the very end, because he had his own little adventure in Mexico under way. Things settled down in Russia, and her fleets returned home from New York in early 1865, and from Mare Island later that year. Though the fleets never had to fire a shot in support of the United States, their presence was a great help in deterring foreign intervention on behalf of the Confederacy, and so materially contributed to the preservation of the Union.

In 1866, Czar Alexander II decided to divest the Russian Empire of its costly and sparsely inhabited overseas possessions. He decided it was time to call in a favor, and so approached Seward about a possible purchase of Alaska. Seward, wanting to be sure that the United States would never be seen as ungrateful, decided to honor the Czar’s offer. Thus was “Seward’s Folly” – a possible boondoggle, an extravagance for a country still burdened by the titanic debts incurred in four years of nationwide war, a political payback – transacted. And by having the character to repay a favor, the United States gained incalcuably.

Happy Alaska Day!!!

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

The 1989 Loma Prieta Quake

I wrote this on the cold and rainy Monday after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake which took more than 60 lives and caused so much damage.

The destruction, while not general, is nevertheless staggering; the human character, while not perfect, is certainly inspiring. It is probably the single most indelible memory of a one minute interval that I’ll ever record. No description can hope to do justice to the experience, but after the passage of a week, I find myself unable to refrain from putting pen to paper. Thus I write, albeit impersonally, by means of my electronic livelihood.

The earthquake was, I’m sure, the longest minute of my life. It truly seemed to last hours. One hears that at such moments time crawls, but this was undoubtably the most vivid proof of that aphorism that I have personally experienced. Etched in my memory is the sequence in which the stages of recognition washed over peoples’ faces as the event unfolded. What was more striking in many ways, was the coolness and aplomb with which people behaved after the minute had passed. I am sure that I will never forget a detail of that afternoon.

We had just gathered for a general staff meeting. The atmosphere was festive since pizza and soft drinks had been provided. The meeting was to start at 5:00, and we were just getting settled in for an unremarkable hour or so.

Personally, however, I was peeved at having to attend the meeting. I had planned on driving up to Berkeley to attend an early evening meeting there, and I had hoped to leave work about half an hour early so that I could arrive at my Berkeley meeting in time. It is worth noting, ye students of fate and the possible, that such a plan, had it been carried out, would have put me somewhere on the Oakland stretch of the Nimitz freeway when the quake struck. I mightn’t have been in the Cypress section, but it would have been very inconvenient to say the least, and much more distressing, too. Needless to say, I have offered prayers of thanks for my good fortune.

When the quake hit we had just settled into our seats. The first motion was such that most people felt that some big truck was driving by just too fast. A second or two later, it became apparent that it was an earthquake, but, hey, no big deal – we get ’em all the time. Almost simultaneously, the wave of recognition hit everyone: this was not dying down; it was getting stronger! Without a trace of panic, though with undeniable urgency, Sue Finnegan slapped her hand on a table top and said, “Drop!” No one hesitated. Someone warned people to turn away from the glass, but again, voices were measured and controlled if not entirely calm. Years of training in school paid off; programmed reaction overrode panic. Some folks were laughing, some were silent. I kept repeating, “Holy Mother of God!” That’s never been an expletive of mine, but I guess it just seemed apt at the time. I stared obsessed at my wristwatch while I was underneath the table. We were down there for just under fifty seconds, and some few seconds had passed before we had ducked.

The ground felt as if it was heaving and pitching like a raft on a turbulent river. The noise was probably nowhere near as loud as it seemed at the time, but it was terrible. The sound of an entire building shaking and rumbling is simply too abnormal to be measured in any impartial manner. Trains roaring past rickety frame houses on nearby tracks cannot come close to recreating the noise. I have heard other quakes rattle houses and buildings, but no structure ever sounded like this. It added to the fearsomeness of the event. At some point the lights flashed and then failed completely, which emphasized the ominous sensation. It seemed surprising that no pieces of ceiling fell on us and that no windows broke. As powerful as the quake was, the building was equal to the test. We are all grateful.

After several lifetimes, when the shaking subsided – it didn’t really stop entirely for several more seconds – folks picked themselves up and hurried outside. No one panicked, but we were moving with great purpose.

Immediately everyone knew that this one was bigger than any we had been through before. Many of us had been in Los Angeles for the 1971 quake, and, frankly, with or without a degree in seismology, we were sure that this one was much stronger. I was absolutely convinced that somewhere in the Bay Area buildings were falling and people were dying. It was a very morose feeling. In fact, it surprised me to see that the old freeway overpass outside was still standing. Its vintage is such that I really expected to see it collapsed in a heap of rubble. Many people headed directly for home thus creating the greatest traffic jam I have yet seen here. Several others of us decided to sit and wait it out. Very soon news reports began filtering to us from the passing vehicles. At 5:03 the impending World Series seemed terribly important. At 5:05 it was entirely forgotten. (Since then it hasn’t really crossed my mind.) As the enormity of the quake’s impact was verified, the mood grew more somber still. After about an hour and a half, it seemed time to head home to whatever awaited. With no power and uncertain telephones, it was sure to be a long, anxious evening. And it was, it was.

The actual event itself was nearly terrifying. I hadn’t realized the truth of this seemingly obvious observation until late Friday afternoon. Having survived dozens of other earthquakes, even some rather severe ones such as that Los Angeles quake in 1971, I have come to see myself as a fairly cool and unflappable old hand at tremors and shakes. But one learns something about one’s self at times like these, and I have found that in response to this quake I am still about as nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. It took until last Friday for this to dawn on me because I hadn’t really quite gotten into a normal pattern of activity before then. And the revealing event was one of the countless aftershocks that we’d been feeling for the last several days. This particular one hit about 5:00 Friday evening. We were all proud of the way in which we had adapted to the upheavals of the week and we were pleased with our successful completion of a very unusual class week. We had endured well, and with few complaints; after all, we had survived intact and unharmed. But all of us were acutely aware of the tremors and rumbles that had made our familiar terra firma anything but for the last few days. We were finally trying to wind down from the week’s demands when this insignificant little tremor rolled through. Suddenly is was just too much; it wasn’t strong enough to be scary, but boy was it irritating! Like being within earshot of a kid who has an unknown number of balloons to pop at random, it’s not so much that each actual event is unbearable, it’s just that you wish like hell it would stop! Several of us who were sitting in the office at the time suddenly felt a compelling desire to express variations on this thought at the same time. We all came to realize that we were quite edgy and unsettled, and, as of today, we all still are. Each small tremor or rattle gives rise to some slight but palpable anxiety; sleep is still hard to come by. Yet life goes on.

It’s been a week for reflection and reassessment. Today it has been raining and gusting quite hard and unseasonably cold, almost as if to remind us all that we are being put to the test. Somehow, though, it seems that we are coming through as needed. Times have gotten tough, and the people have responded in kind. The news has been a relentless barrage of stories of grave misfortunes and great courage. The unhelpful wind shut down the rescue operation in Oakland Friday night, but the very next day a survivor was pulled from the debris. The Monday morning traffic was not terrible as anticipated. People seemed to have a great deal of patience. Of course, it isn’t as if it came as a surprise to anyone. Yet it is very encouraging and pleasing to take account of how people have behaved in this most stressing of challenges.

San Francisco is a pretty city, her splendid setting having been formed by the very geological cataclysms which threaten her. She is also a very gritty and determined city. Indeed, this observation certainly applies to the Bay Area as whole. Every community has been tried, and none has been found wanting. I think that this, in large measure, can be attributed to the training which Californians have in coping with earthquakes, but, too, an undeniable portion of the action may be inspired by the very lofty and mythic legends of courage and toughness among our forebearers from 1906. The stories and legends that have sprung up about “The Big One” are part of everyone’s consciousness in the Bay Area. The heroes of ’06 left very large shoes to fill. I honestly think that in 1989, we have found that those shoes fit us modern folk quite well. It’s a good feeling, and good to know as we face a future that will be permanently affected by that one minute on an absolutely perfect October afternoon.

Jamie Rawson
Monday, 23 October 1989
San Francisco, California