A History of the Golden Gate Bridge

Planning | The Team | Construction | The Opening | The Bridge Today

The construction of the Golden Gate Bridge was a tremendous technological achievement, but it was also a significant economic benefit to the entire United States. Coming at a time when the country was struggling to emerge from the Great Depression, it provided badly needed jobs and commercial activity - and not just for the Bay Area.
The Golden Gate Bridge
The steel was fabricated in New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania, then transported by rail and ship to San Francisco. The architects, engineers and iron workers involved in the construction effort came from across the county. Many people benefited, directly and indirectly, from the process of turning this iconic Bridge from vision to reality.

Imagine San Francisco without the Golden Gate Bridge. During the Gold Rush, the First World War and the Stock Market Crash of 1929, if you wanted to get to Marin County you had to take a ferry. The Golden Gate Ferry company began as the Sausalito Land and Ferry Company in 1867. The crossing between the Hyde Street Pier and Sausalito took 20 minutes and cost $1.00 (which sounds great to today’s commuters!).

The Golden Gate strait is a 300 foot deep, 3-by-1 mile channel scored into the bedrock beneath San Francisco Bay by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers during the last ice age. As the only connection between the Pacific Ocean and the Bay, the strait is a treacherous place. Powerful tidal currents move at 4.5 to 7.5 knots (nautical miles) per hour. The approach is populated with rocky reefs and often shrouded in dense fog. In 1846, two years before the California Gold Rush, John C. Fremont, a topographical engineer in the US army, named the strait the "Golden Gate" because it was the golden gate to trade with the Orient, similar to the Golden Horn in Istanbul. (return to top)


People had talked about a bridge to connect San Francisco with the North since the nineteenth century, but it was thought to be too expensive and technically impossible. An article in the San Francisco Call Bulletin in 1916 by James H. Wilkins was the start of serious consideration. Joseph Strauss, a dreamer and poet who studied engineering, responded. He had received a B.A. from the University of Cincinnati in 1892, and for his graduate theses he proposed a bridge across the Bering Strait, inspired by John August Roebling who build the Cincinnati Covington bridge and went on to build the Brooklyn Bridge. For the Golden Gate, Strauss suggested a cantilever on each side, connected by a central suspension segment. He estimated that the design could be built for $17 million. By this time Strauss had built many bridges, including the 4th Street bridge in San Francisco, but most were drawbridges set in inland locations. None were of the magnitude required to span the Golden Gate. However, he had become successful and had revolutionized the construction of bascule bridges with his own patented design, and he was championed for the Golden Gate project by the city engineer, Michael O'Shannesay.

The path to the completion of the bridge was a long one, involving many strong personalities, ambition, infighting, greed, and politics. But the dominant personality throughout the process was Joseph Strauss, who for ten years tried to obtain support for his idea over the views of many opponents. The Department of War thought a bridge would interfere with ship traffic through the gate, while Southern Pacific Railroad feared competition and sued to stop it. Finally, in 1923, the state passed the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District Act. Six northern California counties (San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, del Norte and parts of Napa and Mendocino) voted to be included. The next year the federal land needed for the bridge was transferred to the "Bridging the Golden Gate Association."

The Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District was incorporated in 1928 to design, construct, and finance the Golden Gate Bridge. It was unable to raise construction funds after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, but in 1930 the six counties approved a $30 million bond measure. At the time, the bridge was estimated to cost $27 million. The bonds promised that the bridge would be toll free by 1970. They went unsold until 1932, when Amadeo Giannini, the founder of Bank of America, agreed on behalf of his bank to buy the entire issue, to help the local economy.

The "Golden Gate Bridge" name had been used from the start by Strauss and San Francisco’s city engineer, Michael O’Shaughnessy, because it was to span the Golden Gate Strait, the entrance to San Francisco Bay. (return to top)

The Team

Strauss, a visionary and a self-promoter, wanted to be named as the chief engineer, but he needed help from others more experienced in this type of design. The original design was changed to a cable-suspension bridge due advances in metallurgy. Strauss hired Charles Alton Ellis as the senior engineer. Ellis was an expert in structural design even though his degrees were in mathematics and Greek. Strauss sold the project on the strength of Ellis's involvement.

Leon Moisseiff, an expert in the theory of wind forces who designed the Manhattan Bridge, was responsible for the final graceful design. He and Ellis worked closely on the structural calculations, but they annoyed Strauss, who felt they took too long. In 1931, Strauss fired Ellis and promoted Clifford Paine to be managing engineer. Because it was the depression, it took Ellis until 1937 to find another position, teaching at Purdue, but he and continued to work on the design of the bridge on his own. Clearly his contribution was invaluable, but he wasn't officially recognized until his death in 1949. There is no record that he ever saw or crossed the bridge to which he gave so much of his life.

Moisseiff remained on the bridge team and subsequently designed the Tacoma Narrows Bridge which collapsed in 1940, the same year it opened.

The contract for design was granted to Morrow and Morrow, a husband and wife team of architects. Gertrude Morrow was a UC Berkeley graduate. Irving Morrow, a local architect, was responsible for the Art Deco elements. He graduated from UC Berkeley in 1906, then studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Art Deco was introduced to the world at the Paris Exposition of 1925, so it was a natural choice for the design of the towers and lighting. He picked the warm vermillion orange color of the bridge to blend with nearby land masses and to contrast with the cool colors of the sea and sky. You can have his color, International Orange, mixed today. While the color has become irrevocably associated with the bridge, it was not without opposition. Some people thought the red paint was not durable enough to withstand the ocean climate, while army wanted it painted black with yellow stripes. Others suggested dull gray or aluminum. (return to top)


Construction of the bridge began in January, 1933 with a ground-breaking ceremony on February 26, 1933 at Crissy Field, attended by 100,000 people. There was a parade, Navy planes flew overhead, and an 80-foot replica of the bridge was displayed. The country was in the middle of the Great Depression.

McClintic-Marshall Construction Co., a subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel, was awarded the contract for the steel, which was fabricated in Bethlehem’s plants in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland, then taken by rail to the port in Philadelphia and shipped through the Panama Canal to the Port of Oakland, where it was stored. Fabrication was timed to the construction schedule. When pieces were needed they were moved by ship from the port to the constructions site.

Strauss was very concerned about safety. The Bay Bridge between Oakland and San Francisco would open in November, 1936 and during its construction 28 people lost their lives. At the time, the industry expectation was that for every $1 million spent on bridge construction, one man would be lost. In response, Strauss instituted a number of safety measures that were innovative for their time. He required workers to wear safety lines and promptly fired them if they refused. He mandated hard hats on the job site, making the Golden Gate Bridge only the second U.S. construction site to require hard hats (Hoover Dam was the first). He called on Edward W. Bullard, a local merchant who had designed a mining helmet based on the WWI doughboy hat, to design the hats and later had Bullard design sandblasting protection, when it was discovered that steel destined for the bridge had oxidized in transit and needed to be sandblasted before installation. Finally, Strauss ordered a safety net, at a cost of $130,000, to go completely under the bridge and out 10 feet on either side, to catch those who fell or were blown off by the high winds. Nineteen men were saved by this device, in the process gaining exclusive membership to the Half Way to Hell Club. Thanks in part to Strauss's efforts, there was only one death on the bridge until 1937, when a section of scaffolding carrying 12 men went through the safety net, killing 10 of them.

Construction began at both ends of the bridge and the two sections were joined together in November, 1936. The north tower (on the Marin County side) was to be on land, so construction began in November, 1933, by digging the footing, which was completed in June, 1934. The south tower was 1100 feet from shore, so a trestle had to be built first, to reach the site. Work on the south tower began in January, 1935 and ended in November the same year, despite many difficulties due to weather.

The contract for the cables was awarded to the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, the firm that had cabled the Brooklyn Bridge 52 years before. The cables needed to be strong enough to support the roadway, yet flexible enough to bend 27 feet laterally in the wind. The cables were actually fabricated on the bridge. In October, 1935 cable spinning began: a single wire was pulled from one tower to the other, and the process was repeated over and over again until two main cables three feet in diameter were fabricated. In order to complete the cabling on schedule, a process was developed to use multiple spinning wheels simultaneously; six in total. The resulting cables were the largest ever made at the time. Once the main cables were finished, cable bands were placed every 50 feet along the main cables and vertical suspension ropes were added. (return to top)

The Opening

The bridge was completed in April, 1937, at a total cost of $35 million. It was officially opened on Thursday, May 27th with a weeklong fiesta. The first day was Pedestrian Day; most schools closed and businesses, if open, maintained minimal staff. At 6:00 am there were 18,000 people waiting at both ends to pay the 25 cent toll and walk across. A fog horn announced the opening. The first person to cross was Donald Bryan, a sprinter from SF Junior College. There were many firsts, including Carmen and Minnie Perez, who were the first to roller-skate across, and Florentine Calegeri, a houseman from the Palace Hotel, was the first to walk on stilts both ways. At 10:00 am, Strauss arrived at the Crissy Field reviewing stand erected for the dignitaries attending the parade. Instead of making a speech, he read a poem he composed: The Mighty Task is Done. Mayor Angelo Rossi gave a speech. The song There's a Silver Moon over the Golden Gate played. By the end of the day, an estimated 200,000 people had crossed the bridge.

Friday, May 28th was the first day for vehicular traffic. President Franklin D. Roosevelt opened the bridge with a telegram. Governor Frank Merriam spoke. The Fiesta Queens, garlanded with flowers, formed a living gate for the dignitaries to walk through. Overhead, 500 planes flew and the U.S. Navy fleet came into port. At 10:30 am there was a chain-cutting ceremony at the North tower - the official county line - and the bridge was open. That day, 23,300 vehicles and 19,350 pedestrians crossed. Festivities continued at Crissy Field, ending with fireworks that evening.

Strauss had achieved his dream. He died only a year later, on May 16, 1938. (return to top)

The Bridge Today

The Golden Gate Bridge remained the longest suspension span in the world until November 21, 1964 when the Verrazano Narrows Bridge opened in New York. Today it is the 11th longest span. The longest span is the Akashi Kaiky Bridge in Japan.

The bridge celebrated it's 50th Anniversary in May, 1987 by closing to vehicular traffic, so pedestrians could once again walk across its roadway. So many people crossed, that the bridge's structural strength was tested. Accordingly, the 75th anniversary, in May 2012, was celebrated with a fair, but no closure. The bridge has been closed for weather only a few times in its history.

Changes have occurred along the way, in addition to routine and ongoing maintenance. The original lights have been changed. The bridge is constantly being repainted. The roadway has been replaced. A new visitor's center was built in 2012, and Strauss's statue has been moved to a new location just outside the center. Tolls (which never disappeared as promised) were first restricted to one direction, then in recent years electronic toll collection was introduced to enable those with an account to pass without stopping. Toll takers have been eliminated entirely in 2013, replaced by a system that photographs each license plate passing through the toll plaza and sends invoices to those who don't have an electronic toll account.

One change that has been extensively debated but never implemented is a suicide barrier. The Bridge has the dubious distinction of being the most common suicide site in the world; over its lifetime more than 1500 people have taken their own lives by jumping to the water below. (return to top)