SAN FRANCISCO — A magnificent ongoing act of defiance against the forces of nature, the Golden Gate Bridge symbolizes the scope and fragility of American greatness.
I grew up near the bridge, commuting across it every day when I was in high school. My father, who drove me, called it the most spectacular commute in the world. I once suspected him of hyperbole, but passing years and travels taught me otherwise.
No bridge is as elegant as the deep red Golden Gate. None matches its splendid setting. With the precipitous Marin Headlands on one side and the craggy face of San Francisco on the other, it is a perfectly cut ruby set in gold.
From this bridge, sublime vistas shimmer across the water at every compass point: the tree-studded peninsulas of Marin; the prison island of Alcatraz; the high hills of Alameda; and the skyscrapers of San Francisco. On clear days, the distant Farrallons loom above the Pacific like mirages on the horizon.
The most commanding sight, however, is the bridge itself. It is a ribbon of concrete suspended by threads of steel, hanging down from parallel cables that are three-feet wide and nearly 8,000 feet long. These cables ascend from building-sized concrete piers at either end of the bridge, and then form matching upside down arches strung between twin towers rising 750 feet above the sea.
Almost two miles from end to end, the roadway sits 220 feet above the water. The foundation of the south tower lurks 110 feet in a murky deep churned by ceaseless tides.
No wonder many engineers said a bridge could not be built here.
According to a history of its construction on the Website of the transportation district that runs the facility, the bridge was championed, starting in 1916, by a now-defunct newspaper, the San Francisco Call Bulletin, and, later, by an indefatigable engineer named Joseph Strauss, who wanted to build it himself.
Even in the boom times of the 1920s, however, neither the federal nor the state government would finance it. A rival project had already monopolized the government money. "There was no federal or state funding to build the Golden Gate Bridge because the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which was being promoted during the same time period, had already received the limited funds available," says the bridge Website.
The lack of state and federal funding did not stop the bridge builders, however. They formed a special transportation district — comprising all of four Northern California counties and parts of two others — to move the project forward. They planned to fund the bridge by selling bonds to be paid off by toll proceeds.
Their opponents planned litigation.
"More than 2,000 lawsuits were filed to stop the project," says a monument on the San Francisco side of the bridge. "Strauss persevered and in 1930 at last won approval for a bond issue."
With the Great Depression on, however, the initial $6 million in bonds could not be sold. "Finally, Strauss went to A.P. Giannini, founder of Bank of America," says the monument. "Giannini also had a vision — of serving fully California’s growth. Giannini asked one question: ‘How long will this bridge last?’ Strauss replied: ‘Forever. If cared for, it should have life without end.’" Giannini bought the bonds.
Construction began in 1933 and was completed in 1937. The bonds were paid off in 1971 — entirely by bridge tolls.
Eleven men fell to their death building the bridge, but 19 more were saved by netting Strauss built from one end to the other. They called themselves the "Halfway to Hell Club."
In 1989, when a 7.1 earthquake hit, the badly damaged federal-and-state-funded Bay Bridge shut for repairs. The undamaged Golden Gate handled record traffic.
This Labor Day Weekend, the Bay Bridge will close again for three days so 350 feet of new roadway can be installed.
In seven decades, by contrast, the Golden Gate Bridge has never closed for more than a few hours. Steelworkers and painters labor constantly to preserve it against corrosion caused by fog and salty air, and a major retrofitting is underway to ensure it can survive an 8.3 earthquake, the magnitude that struck in 1906.
Looking back through history at the Golden Gate Bridge, it can be seen as a monumental marker demonstratively placed at the far edge of a continent by an energetic people who had turned a wilderness into a wonderland. When engineer Strauss told banker Giannini the bridge would last forever, he was not putting his faith in perishable concrete and steel, but in the imperishable spirit of the people who built it.
So far, Americans have proved Strauss right.