The Impossible Bridge: 1933-1937, The Construction of the Golden Gate.

May 29, 2023

Golden Gate Bridge engulfed in fog. 1974. CCO Public Domain.

“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.

Fort Point and Golden Gate Bridge construction. This photo, taken around 1933, shows the early construction phase of the Golden Gate Bridge. Notice that the southeast area of Fort Point was used as a staging area for construction materials. Photo is in the Public Domain courtesy of U.S. National Park Service.
Fort Point and Golden Gate Bridge construction. This photo, taken around 1933, shows the early construction phase of the Golden Gate Bridge. Notice that the southeast area of Fort Point was used as a staging area for construction materials. Photo is in the Public Domain courtesy of U.S. National Park Service.

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.

Two bridge workers on the Golden Gate Bridge, 1936. Courtesy of San Francisco History Center. San Francisco Public Library.

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.

Golden Gate Bridge at sunset. CCO Public Domain.

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.

More about Allen Cornwell

Allen Cornwell is a self-employed business owner and an adjunct American History professor at a small college. He lives in rural Virginia and enjoys history, sports, old movies and visiting all types of museums. Cornwell has had a number of American history articles published and he earned his M. A. degree in American History from Virginia Commonwealth University. He can be contacted at:

    1. I was in SFO many times. There was a small park close to it. I saw a nuclear submarine sailing out probably for a long military cruise. It was impressive.

    1. I love the view of the San Francisco bay! When you first come over the top of the hill!

    1. I keep seeing such negative comments here…that makes me so sad. No appreciation for how beautiful our City truly is and what an incredible feat building this bridge was! My grandfather was one of the many who took risks to build this engineering feat! I have lived here all of my life, 65 years and yes, there have been changes, not all of them good, but go to the top of Coit Tower and tell me what a sh*thole this City is. Better yet, keep your negativity to yourself! There are plenty of us who still love our San Francisco

    1. My Uncle John was on the painting crew for years. He and his wife also lead the band for the opening ceremony. In a box somewhere I have a photo of that and a small commemorative photo album for my baby pictures

    1. In 1971 I was stationed @ Treasure Island & could see part of the Golden Gate Bridge. I was amazed watching the peaks above the fog in the morning & then just clear up.

    1. I walked back and forth across this wonderful bridge in the 1960s. Will always remember it and be glad I had the experience!

    1. I was on a trip on the west coast with friends and crossed that bridge. I have pictures but did it back in the early 90’s before cell phones and digital cameras. I remember it was amazing

    1. I crossed this bridge so many times in the 70s.

    1. I never tired looking at it…whatever the time of day or climate!!! Wish I could see it again today!!

    1. I’ve walked both ways. Beautiful!

    1. This bridge was amazing to see and drive on!

    1. Took them 4 years to build. Takes 20 years to build now. What happened ?

    1. Saw a presentation about the construction –it was amazing to watch!!

    1. I have crossed it many times when I lived in Vallejo!

    1. Thank you Pat for taking me over it

    1. It certainly is a wonderful and beautiful bridge

    1. Went on a passenger ship under this bridge in 1965.

    1. I have always loved that bridge, and I was super happy to spend the night there on my road trip to California.

    1. Thank you Bethlehem Steelworkers

    1. My grandparents used to live in Daly City and could see the fog roll in every night.

    1. I have been across this many times.

    1. I’ve been there 3 times and have never seen it because of foggy times to like this.🤨

    1. I have crossed the Golden Gate about three times and one time over the Richmond bridge. One was more than enough on the Richmond. No wonder it wasn’t crowded

    1. My Uncle worked on the Golden Gate Bridge.

    1. I have sailed under it on the USS Carl Vinson, then 3 hours later was in a plane that flew over it between the towers.

    1. Got to see it close up on a trip to California.

    1. I have been across the Golden Gate Bridge one time & from what I remember it was huge.

    1. My dad was part of a crew that built the Eisenhower tunnel.

    1. My great uncle was an engineer on the project

    1. After leaving the San Francisco Airport we were on our way to Calistoga, California for our vacation in March 2022. It was breathtaking to see the bridge close up just beyond the neighborhood near the water. Suddenly there we were on The Golden Gate Bridge. Thrilling, Magical and Breathtaking!

    1. I watched a documentary about the bridge and they said that some of painters must have had too much time on their hands and captured some seagulls painted the top of their heads with the gold paint and then set them loose. A few days later some people were talking about the new species of seagulls that showed until recaptured a few and realized it was only paint

    1. Keith Malley
      Truly a work of art in addition to an engineering marvel.

    1. Beautiful bridge. It’s a shame it’s in San Francisco.

    1. We need to dream big again and rebuild America!

    1. We have been there and it looks like a rust color, not gold like I was expecting. We crossed over it too.

    1. Just look at everything we built before we had computers!! What do we build now 🤔😭

    1. My late wife’s father was a rivet setter on the golden gate bridge back in 1934-36. He had left his job in Portland Or ship yards. To work on it then the war was in the works and rejoined his family to help build ships he was a welder on that job from 1939 till 1945. Family name is in the life magazine forwarded by George h BRAUCKMILLER MY FATHER IN LAW WHOM I NEVER GOT TO MEET

    1. It takes a year to paint the Golden Gate Bridge when they get done they start over WOW

    1. My uncle operated one of the cranes , wayyyto high for me to ever do something like that 🍀🍀

    1. My brother painted it for 15 years, ,thanks

    1. Looks like it is wrap in a white fluffy blanket for it’s bed time.

    1. Foggy morning in San Francisco

    1. The gift shop below the bridge sells the paint color ✨️ 😍

    1. OMG. Scared me just looking at this.

    1. I went under in Feb 1946, returning from Hawaii, WAR OVER….
      Went over it several times in 80s on a trip with Edna in our motorhome.

    1. Wow How amazing the building of the bridge was 💖💖💖

    1. Does it still get foggy like that?

    1. I’ve crossed it both ways….had a cousin living in San Rafael.

    1. Best in the West and better than the Rest…..

    1. I’m told they built the St John’s Bridge as a practice run, in Portland.

    1. I had a neighbor who worked on that bridge. One day he was too hungover to ğo to work and al) the guys in the cassion he worked in drowned. The moral of the story is if you wish to live, get drunk.

    1. …100% courage built that one- of-a-kind suspension bridge that is still a wonder of the world.

    1. Been Above it , On it ,and Under it

    1. I will never see the Golden Gate in person, but I’ve always like the looks of it & admire the labor it took to complete it.

    1. I love the fog…it’s cool too.

    1. Very Beautiful. I love it.

    1. I wonder how many MILLIONS have crossed this amazing bridge? And maybe UNDER too????

    1. I read they paint it constantly all year around?

    1. A beautiful bridge, yes, magical, romantic

    1. Just be careful of the toll takers if you don’t have exact amount some will hand you a wad and short change you… Count it before you drive on..

    1. How much you want to bet that that’s smog and not cloud cover…

    1. I have a Token Coin from the day the bridge was opened. It was opened for people to walk across and those people all got this Golden Gate coin. My late wife’s family lived in San Francisco for generations. Her grandmother was the one that walked across the bridge to get the coin. That same grandmother was at the World’s Fair they built Treasure Island for. We used to have paperwork for it I don’t know where it’s at. She was also the first female Police Officer in San Francisco History. How’s your mom and sister were in 1989 with a big earthquake hit was partially destroyed with them in it. I lived at 14th Street by Gary on Treasure Island Alameda today I wouldn’t allow my worst enemy to go to that City. Governor Newsome, Pelosi the mayor & District Attorneys have destroyed San Francisco. It used to be a wonderful time now it’s a sewage pit of crime drugs Danger of human fetus is everywhere it’s a dump.

    1. Lori Bennett I always have loved the pictures of the men building the New York City skyscrapers! … Just sitting on a girder having lunch HUNDREDS of feet up with absolutely NO safety equipment!

    1. My grandfather, an Army Sergeant in WWII and pro football player, quit his first day of work when his boss told him to go to top of a tower.

    1. I was in SFO many times. There was a small park close to it. I saw a nuclear submarine sailing out probably for a long military cruise. It was impressive.

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