Building the Golden Gate Bridge - History, Facts & Construction
When you hear someone mention an iconic bridge, what do you think of? Is it an orange-gold suspension bridge located in a certain California city that spans across two landmasses? If the Golden Gate Bridge was the first that came to mind - you’re not alone.
The Golden Gate Bridge is an American icon - and for good reason. The longest suspension bridge in the world from the time it was built until 1964, this bridge wowed architects and engineers around the world. It was deemed the IMPOSSIBLE bridge.
Here’s the story of how the impossible Golden Gate Bridge was built.
The Golden Gate Bridge and the California Gold Rush
Some people believe - incorrectly - that the name for the Golden Gate Bridge has to do with the California gold rush. This is not true. However, the reason for building the bridge is somewhat connected to this part of history.
The California gold rush really took off when gold was found in the Sacramento Valley in 1848. Tens of thousands of people moved to California in search of gold. Over $2 billion worth of precious metals were extracted from the earth of the Sacramento Valley. This is what kickstarted the boom in the region.
Land worth, investment opportunities and employment blossomed in the San Francisco area. It was when this boom began that the lack of connection between the San Francisco Peninsula and the southern end of Marin County became more of an inconvenience. A bridge to span this gap and connect the two was sure to benefit both sides and help to foster a prosperous future for San Francisco and Marin County alike.
The Idea for the Golden Gate Bridge
The concept of a bridge came to be in the brain of James Wilkins - an engineering student. He was working with a San Francisco paper at the time and pitched the idea of a suspension bridge that would be 3,000+ feet long and would cost $100 million to build. He pitched the idea in 1689.
The community went wild. Most believe it was impossible. Some hoped that it could happen. Others were excited by what a bridge like this could mean for the area.
San Francisco City Engineer Michael M. O’Shaughnessy was particularly intrigued and inspired by Wilkins’ vision. He started to seek engineers who believed that it could be done. At the time, no bridge like it had ever been built.
Engineer and poet Joseph Strauss stepped up and said he not only believed that it could be done but that he would be the one to do it.
Where Does The Name “Golden Gate” Come From?
What many people do not know is that the Golden Gate Bridge is so named because the body of water it passes over is called the Golden Gate Strait.
The name for the strait actually dates back before the gold rush and has nothing to do with it. They believe that the name was actually conceived by the soldier and future California Senator and Presidential candidate John C. Fremont. When he stood on the south tip of Marin County and looked out over San Francisco Bay, he was said to have compared it to the Golden Horn inlet of the Bosphorus in modern-day Istanbul.
It was 1848 when he made this comparison, writing “the rugged opening to the Pacific is a golden gate to trade with the Orient.” The Golden Gate Strait was born.
Therefore, the Golden Gate Bridge is simply named so because it is the bridge that passes over the Golden Gate Strait.
The Golden Gate Strait
This seemingly innocent path of water is part of what made the building of the bridge seem so impossible. The water runs more than 300 feet deep with a thick layer of mud and silt that covers the bottom.
This strait connects the Pacific Ocean to the bay area of San Francisco. The bay bleeds into lakes, smaller bays, wildlife preservations and rivers all around this part of California. The strait connects areas like San Jose, Concord, Fairfield and even the streams of Sacramento out to the ocean.
High winds, fog and ocean spray pass through the area almost daily. But construction techniques and material innovations were hitting a new high as the turn of the century came about. If the bridge was ever going to be possible, now was the time.
Planning the Golden Gate Bridge
When Joseph Strauss took on the Golden Gate Bridge project, he was sure he could complete the project for $25 - 30 million. His plan was to build a 4,000-foot long bridge that would be an icon both in design and engineering.
This plan encountered a roadblock, however, when the Great Depression hit in 1926. It was already over 50 years since the initial idea was shared and the bridge was no closer to being built. By this time, the full budget for the bridge was sitting at $37 million. The city of San Francisco was trying to persuade taxpayers to take on this project anyway because the potential jobs could help boost the local economy.
In 1932, something changed. San Francisco-based Bank of America decided to take on and fund the project, hoping that construction would be beneficial to the local economy. On January 5, 1933 construction on the Golden Gate Bridge officially began.
Safety During Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge project was regarded as having the strictest safety measures of the time.
The Golden Gate Bridge project was the first project where hard hats were mandatory. Respirators and glare-free goggles were used to prevent inhalation of fumes or blindness from working at height on water. An on-site hospital treated workers and the crew was even instructed to follow a special diet to help fight vertigo and dizziness during tower and road construction.
As construction of the bridge advanced, a safety net was installed under the bridge to help catch any workers who may have fallen. This proved to be a success as 19 men were saved by it. These men were often referred to as members of the "Halfway to Hell Club".
11 men did however die on the job - one by falling and the other 10 in a tragic accident when they fell to the net along with a large piece of equipment. The weight of the machine pulled the net away from the bridge and the men and machine fell into the Golden Gate Strait.
Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge
There were three main processes for constructing the Golden Gate Bridge. The first was building the towers and concrete anchors, the second was raising the cables and the third was dropping the vertical cables, laying the steel road deck and building the Golden Gate Bridge highway.
Building the Towers of the Golden Gate Bridge
Construction began at each end of the bridge. Giant concrete blocks were sunk into the ground to provide an anchor for the future cables of the bridge. Each anchor weighs 60,000 tons.
While the concrete anchors were finished, the next priority was building the towers. Building the two towers of the Golden Gate Bridge was a whole process. The north tower was built first then the south one. It was harder to build the south tower because it was further out into the water.
Construction crews built a temporary pier out into the water to have easier access to the tower. This pier was twice damaged - once by a storm and a second time by a ship.
Crews dropped “bombs” into the water to break up the rock and slate at the ocean floor. It’s said that seagulls had a field day during that phase because they would swoop down and eat the stunned fish.
Second, the area was dredged to remove any debris, rock chunks and extra mud and dirt. Wooden forms were built and placed underwater by divers to act as a mold for the base of the tower. Concrete was piped right into the forms to cool, allowing the base of the towers to be constructed underwater.
After the underwater foundation was built, giant oval concrete blocks were added to what would be the bottom of the tower. These “fenders” or barriers would not only act as a foundation for the towers above water but would protect the tower itself from any ships or collision damage.
Once the foundation was built, the 22,00 tonne and 746 foot high towers were erected. These towers would carry the weight of the bridge and were built out of pure steel. At the time, these towers were the tallest bridge towers in the world. The towers themselves were constructed by lifting prefab steel sections up and into place.
Once the towers were built, it was time to get started on the wires.
Creating the Main Cables for the Golden Gate Bridge
The cables of the Golden Gate Bridge aren’t actually complete cables that were hung into place in one go. Instead, they are made up of thousands of individual wires that were twisted together to create the finished product.
In fact, the cables of the iconic bridge are actually made up of 27,000 individual pieces. Together, there are over 80,000 miles of wire on the Golden Gate Bridge. That’s enough wire to wrap around the earth more than 3.5 times.
The first wire was laid with the help of the Coast Guard. Shipping lanes in the Golden Gate Strait were closed down and Coast Guard ships dragged the wires from tower to tower through the ocean water. Cranes were then used to lift the wires up and attach them to the top of the towers.
Once the initial wires were attached, a working platform was connected that spanned across the two wires. At 746 feet above the ocean and with winds blowing up to 45 mph, crews worked back and forth from tower to tower, laying wire and wrapping them around the main cable, building it up strand by strand until it became the cables we have today. The main cables of the Golden Gate Bridge are 3 feet wide in total.
Building the Road of the Golden Gate Bridge
Once the towers were built and the main cables laid, it was time to drop the vertical cables down that would hold up the road.
Hanging wooden catwalks helps crews maneuver back and forth across the cables. The vertical cables were attached to trusses and beams that created the foundation of the road. Concrete would be poured on the road deck to build the highway across the bridge.
Once the road deck was built and concrete poured, the conversation of color started.
International Orange: The Colour of the Golden Gate Bridge
Throughout the phases of building the tower, a sealer and primer were painted on to protect the steel from rain, ocean spray and water. The color of this primer was red-orange. While the last few steps of construction were taking place, the color of this primer gained a lot of attention.
Although there were many ideas for what color to paint the bridge, the orange of the sealer proved to be a perfect contrast against the ocean blues and the greens of San Francisco Bay. International Orange was the final color choice and crews got to work painting the entire bridge this color.
Opening the Bridge
On May 27, 1937, the bridge opened for the first time with a Pedestrian Day. From dawn till dusk, people were able to walk across the bridge. It's said that by 6:00 AM more than 18,000 people were already in line ready to experience the wonder of the bridge.
It cost pedestrians 25 cents to cross the bridge. It's believed that more than 200,000 people walked across it on that single May day.
Modern Maintenance of the Bridge
The bridge has undergone many maintenance projects and upgrades over the years. In the 1970s, the suspension cables were completely replaced. In the 80s, the road deck was replaced over 401 nights with much lighter steel material. For 30 years from 1965 - 1995, the paint on the bridge was replaced because the original had lead in it.
Today a maintenance crew of 114 monitor any corrosion, help to paint the bridge and replace any parts that need replacing.
The Golden Gate Bridge
If you ever need inspiration that the impossible can be done, simply look at the Golden Gate Bridge. This project not only wowed engineers, architects and the public alike but also was completed almost $2 million under budget at only $35 million. More than 2 billion cars have passed over the bridge and 10 million people travel to see the bridge every year.
So believe that your impossible project is possible. Share your ideas and keep your imagination flowing. Who knows? Maybe you could come up with the next Golden Gate Bridge.