“Launched midst a thousand hopes and fears; Damned by a thousand hostile sneers.” A line in a poem written by Joseph Strauss, the Chief Engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge Project. 1933.
Early into the 20th century, Americans began to dream big. The industrial revolution and the modernization of our nation gave birth to automobiles, electric lights, steam-powered engines, telephones, elevators, steel ships, skyscrapers, and even expansion bridges. By early 1920, Americans wanted modern and particularly loved the automobile, and with its growth is where the problem started. Unfortunately, the whispered desires of connecting the shores of San Francisco with the beautiful region of Marin and Sonoma, California, were considered pure fantasy; because up until the 1920s, no halfway decent engineer offered any assurance that a two-mile-long bridge could be built safely and withstand the test of time and elements. The depth of the water was a concern, as much as 350′ deep in places, that constructing the necessary concrete foundation piers seemed impossible. So the iconic Golden Gate Bridge began like many other world-changing ideas. It was opposed, sometimes vehemently, incurring as many as 2000 lawsuits to stop the construction of one of the world’s best-loved bridges.
In the beginning, many feared that a bridge in that precarious location would not stand up to the extremes of weather, tremendous winds of the Pacific Ocean, turbulent tides, dangerously thick fog, and the occasional hurricane and, of course, earthquakes; let’s not forget that in 1906 San Francisco itself had experienced one of the worst earthquakes on record nearly destroying the city. Experts pointed out that the proposed bridge site was between two hazardous fault lines, St. Andreas and Heywood.
The loudest complaints came from the Southern Pacific Railroad, who opposed the bridge as competition to its ferry fleet Golden Gate Ferry Company. Before the bridge, hundreds of ferries operated daily and carried customers across the two-mile strait in twenty minutes or less. Disgusted by the greed of the railroad giant, the public hit back and boycotted the ferry system.
Even the military made a complaint, noting that a large bridge would become a target for enemy attack, and during the years of construction, the shipping channel would be tied up and create an absolute nuisance. Eventually, the military dropped their objections.
Joseph Strauss,an experienced bridge builder, was the dreamer and promoter who dared to risk his professional reputation, and he began pushing his ideas in public meetings as early as 1921. Although Strauss was a bridge expert, having built over 500 bridges worldwide, his expertise was with cantilever-type bridges. Unfortunately, the design from the start was clearly an eye-sore, a plan that projected horizontally into space and needed to be anchored only on one end. Many citizens complained that Strauss’s “hideous” bridge was ugly and unsafe. Later, he listened to his advisors and revised the bridge plans, dismissing the cantilever style with a suspension bridge. The problem was that no suspension bridge in the world had ever been built this large or faced the natural challenges of the Golden Gate.
In time, many other complainers joined in the chorus of noise, including environmentalists, financial experts, geologists, preservationists, expert structural engineers, oceanography experts, meteorologists, and much more. Later, even one of Strauss’s own staff of engineers doubted the stability of the bridge; in June 1931, Robert Kenzie, a mining engineer expert, advised the media that based on some borings into the ground, the foundation was not strong enough to hold the weight of the bridge. Nevertheless, by 1933 the Golden Gate Bridge committee and the public had decided to go forward with the project and placed Strauss in charge, prompting the head engineer to write in a poem, “Launched midst a thousand hopes and fears; Damned by a thousand hostile sneers.”
In the early 1930’s financing the mammoth project was another problem. The nation was struggling with the chokehold of the Great Depression; skyrocketing unemployment, through foreclosure or eviction, many families were suddenly homeless, long soup and bread lines to feed the many hungry, and thousands of banks had closed. Help from the federal government was quickly rejected, leaving local support as the only answer. That answer came in the form of a public referendum to raise the funds necessary through municipal bonds. The public voted overwhelmingly to support its passage, but it remained an issue until a bank was willing to accept the bonds. Finally, Joseph Strauss found a lender, a dreamer and risk taker, much like himself, in A. O. Giannini, the founder of Bank of America.
As construction began, more concerns were raised about the safety of the thousands of workers needed. The cost of the four-year project, which had also been a concern, $35 million (over $500 million in today’s dollars), was the litmus test of what to expect in fatal bridge accidents. The rule of thumb in 1933 was roughly 1 worker killed per million dollars spent; the expectation from the project’s start was that 35 workers would die before the bridge was complete. Joseph Strauss, however, insisted on solid safety measures, including requiring all workers to wear hard hats and always use the safety net. The safety net was sometimes cumbersome and awkward to pull along, but Strauss did not tolerate noncompliance, and workers were immediately fired if they violated his rules. Nevertheless, the strict measures saved lives; by 1936, only one life had been lost, but sadly, just months before the completion of the bridge, the safety net failed when a scaffold collapsed falling nearly 300′ into the bay killing its crew of 10 workers.
Nearly two decades were spent addressing the long list of concerns and complaints, all taking attention away from the apparent benefits of building the Golden Gate Bridge. There was so much discourse about why not to build a bridge the public had forgotten why a bridge was needed – the ferries could not keep up with the tremendous traffic growth. Moreover, a bridge was the most reliable and easiest method to travel north up the coast from San Francisco. Finally, the economic benefits were and have been enormous.
The Golden Gate Bridge stands at the entrance to California’s San Francisco Bay as a symbol of American will and resolve, having been built despite the overwhelming voices against it and during one of the darkest periods of American history, the Great Depression.
The dreamer, the relentless force who persevered when others would have fallen, Chief Engineer, Joseph Strauss passed away in 1938, just a year after the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Archives of the San Francisco Chronicle (1921-1938)
U.S. Park Service
* Featured image – Golden Gate Bridge engulfed in fog. 1974. Courtesy CCO Public Domain.