David Adams
David Adams

The Bridge That Couldn't Be Built

They said it could not be done. The strait between San Francisco and the Marin headlands is three miles long and a mile wide, and here the frigid Pacific water rushes violently into the bay, swept above by fog and rarely-ceasing wind. Still, the dream persisted: a bridge would close the circle around the bay, crossing the pass through which ships bustled goods to and from the vibrant hills of San Francisco. Many thought up designs, but were thwarted by what seemed insurmountable obstacles. Wind races across the strait, often at speeds of 60 miles per hour. The Pacific water surges at 4.7 to 7.5 knots, and the pass is frequently engulfed in fog. Engineers estimated construction costs would be over 100 million dollars.

This is what engineer Joseph Baerman Strauss, who had designed more than 400 bridges, faced when he proposed the design of the bridge which would span the Golden Gate. Other engineers scorned him. They claimed it was impossible. One critic said, "Strauss will never build his bridge, no one can bridge the Golden Gate because of insurmountable difficulties which are apparent to all who give thought to the idea." But Strauss was certain his design would work, and, astonishingly, cost less than 35 million dollars. He was right.

Construction began on January 5, 1933. Innovative safety precautions were used – mandatory goggles, helmets which anticipated the modern hard-hat. A special hand and face cream protected the workers from stinging wind, and they ate a diet designed to counter dizziness. The most conspicuous precaution was a vast safety net beneath the growing span. The few men who fell and were saved by the net were known as the "Half-way to Hell Club." On February 17, 1937, eleven men died when a section of scaffolding fell through the net. But in the three years before this, there had been only one fatality – then a record low in large construction projects. Strauss’s safety net had saved the lives of 19 men.

On May 27, 1937, the bridge that couldn’t be built was opened to the public.

Until New York City's Verrazano Narrows Bridge opened in 1961, the Golden Gate Bridge was the longest suspension span in the world, stretching 4,200 feet between its two great towers. Its path at mid-span is 220 feet above the water. The two towers rise 746 feet, 191 feet higher than the Washington Monument. Each anchorage consists of 30,000 cubic yards of concrete. To overcome the challenge of occasionally severe gusts from the Pacific, Strauss designed the bridge to flexibly swing up to 27 feet laterally, should winds reach 100 miles per hour.

From the city, its red-orange structure is a constant landmark to the north. It has become an icon of San Francisco, a stretch of steel in graceful harmony with the bay’s sun-bathed vistas. The bridge leaps forward from the city’s gleaming towers and pastel-patched hills, a steady part of the landscape, seeming at once both inevitable yet undeniably the work of man.

Driving across from the city, one can stop at the bridge’s northern anchorage to see its shape combined with San Francisco’s skyline. From there, visitors walk more than a mile across its expanse, beneath massive towers and supine steel cables curved against the sky. When the fog moves restlessly from the Pacific, the bridge is lost in white, and from certain points it seems as if it hangs breathlessly in empty space and disappears, never again touching ground. Here are hundreds of thousands of tons of concrete and steel made to dance elegantly across open air.

The bridge is a fitting, living monument to the vibrancy of the great city behind it. It is much less a work of massive material than it is the dedication of one man’s mind. Its clean lines send traffic of trucks, bicycles, commuters, and pedestrians over a gap which most men said could not be conquered.

Upon its completion, a day before it opened to regular traffic, 200,000 San Franciscans walked its length to the headlands, high above surging water. They walked cheering. Their feet touched concrete and metal, but they walked upon the calculations, the perseverance, and the vision of a man who dared to challenge the impossible. Their steps were supported by the strength of one man’s mind.

Joseph Strauss was an engineer, a visionary, and a poet. He died only a year after the bridge’s completion. But in its honor, he wrote his own tribute, "The Mighty Task is Done," its opening words as noble as the bridge he built:

At last the mighty task is done;
Resplendent in the western sun;
The Bridge looms mountain high
On its broad decks in rightful pride,
The world in swift parade shall ride
Throughout all time to be.

Launched midst a thousand hopes and fears,
Damned by a thousand hostile sneers.
Yet ne’er its course was stayed.
But ask of those who met the foe,
Who stood alone when faith was low,
Ask them the price they paid.
High overhead its lights shall gleam,
Far, far below life’s restless stream,
Unceasingly shall flow....

If you enjoyed this, why not subscribe?