It’s hard to imagine anyone in the developed world and certainly the United States not immediately recognizing the international orange-colored steel spanning across the strait where the Pacific Ocean meets the San Francisco Bay, displaying sharp and bold through sunrise or sunset, midday haze or heavy fog; to think one of the most distinguished engineering projects in the world almost ended up looking like a giant hideous bumble bee.
A beacon of awe for locals and tourists around the world alike, let’s look at why the Golden Gate Bridge is simply magnificent.
1. Natural Challenges
The idea of building a bridge at the strait of a busy bay and ocean entrance was ambitious to say the least. Many said it couldn’t be done and those who did say it could be done forecasted astronomical totals, like San Francisco City Engineer M.M. O’Shaughnessy, who estimated the bridge would cost $100 million. O’Shaughnessy, thankfully, wasn’t a stubborn prideful man, so he openly asked other engineers what the bridge could be built for, which connected him with Joseph Strauss.
There was a lot to consider, such as how to span nearly a mile gap of an extremely deep channel. There was rising tide to consider, busy ship traffic to account for, strong constantly swirling gusts of wind in the construction zone, and of course, the risk of earthquakes with the San Andreas Fault line located just 12 miles away.
2. Construction Faced Countless Roadblocks
Despite the proposition for the bridge first being made in 1872, it began to build real momentum by the early 1920s. However, when an actual project proposal finally was made, it faced resistance from multiple angles.
A successful court ruling from the State legislature as well two favorable Federal hearings gave way for approval to be sought from the Department of War, which owned the land on both the San Francisco side and Marin side. However, they had reservations about the bridge interfering with ship traffic. The Navy was also against the bridge, fearing an event where a ship collision or damage to the bridge would block traffic to one of its biggest harbors. Then there was the business of the ferry being infringed upon. Before the Golden Gate Bridge, the only decent way to get across was by ferry, and the massive Southern Pacific Railroad owned 51 percent of the company solely responsible for doing so—the Golden Gate Ferry Company. Naturally, Southern Pacific filed a lawsuit, but interestingly enough, thousands of other lawsuits were filed against the project as well—2,300 in total! Many were from environmentalists, such as Ansel Adams, fearing the bridge would ruin the natural beauty of the strait. Even though all these folks turned out to be completely wrong, I guess we can try to understand when looking at one of Adams’ pre-Golden Gate Bridge photos in 1932.
3. Inspired Future Engineering Safety Standards
As far as engineering projects go, particularly those in the first half of the 20th century before federal safety standards and during the Great Depression of all eras, the Golden Gate Bridge was a extraordinarily safe project. In total, only eleven men died during construction, and none during the project’s first three years. By contrast, bridge projects of that era were expected to suffer roughly one fatality per million dollars spent. The Golden Gate Bridge was roughly a $35 million project, making the eleven lives lost a breakthrough in construction safety.
A central reason for this was chief engineer Joseph Strauss’s innovative safety net, installed around all work platforms for an extremely cost-effective $130,000. The safety nets saved 19 lives during construction, with survivors bonded together in a group called the Halfway to Hell Club. In addition to installing the safety net, Strauss introduced hard hats, safety lines, glare-free goggles, required workers to use hand and face cream to protect their skin from the aggressive winds and had no tolerance for workers messing around. He even reportedly had workers go on special diets to battle dizziness. Strauss’ methods were unprecedented and met with resistance by workers, but he stifled any opposition by firing them on the spot. Even the most talented of iron workers weren’t good enough to not follow the rules, as detailed in this video below:
Strauss’ safety standards ultimately improved workers’ morale and sped the construction process up considerably.
As far as the eleven men that perished, one was killed by a crane, and then, during a regular workday morning, a dozen men fell 200 feet to the frigid waters after a 5-ton section of scaffolding failed and forced the safety net to give way. A handful of the men miraculously survived the fall, but only two would hold on to be saved by a crab fisherman that was in the area.
4. What the Golden Gate Bridge Is Made Of
Though the original design penned by chief engineer Joseph Strauss included a cantilever design with steel-girder sections on both ends with a suspension span in the middle, advances in metallurgy would give way to a full suspension design.
The bridge’s load-bearing ability would hang from 250 pairs of vertical suspender ropes, attached to two main cables. These cables passed to the two main towers, each filled with over 22,000 tons of concrete. The main cables are comprised of 27,572 strands of wire, the total length of the galvanized steel estimated to be 80,000 miles long. And if you’ve ever walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ve surely noticed the giant rivets throughout. There are approximately 1.2 million in the bridge.
So, how many hours do you think something like this took to construct? It wasn’t too laborious; just 25-million man hours. (Gorge on more numbers that make up the Golden Gate Bridge.)
Perhaps the coolest part of the bridge though, is its ability to fluctuate depending on wind, load and temperature.
For example, as part of the bridge’s 50th anniversary in 1987, 250,000 people filled the bridge to celebrate, putting the biggest load on the bridge to-date. And as Joseph Strauss predicted long before, the bridge held, flattening in its middle span to accommodate the extreme weight
The bridge also constantly goes through a process called thermal expansion that causes it to rise and fall by as much as 16 feet depending on the climate. Essentially, it works like this: sun hits the bridge and expands the metal, causing the bridge cables to stretch and the bridge to dip. When fog and its cooler temperatures roll in, the metal cools and cables contract, making the bridge rise again.
Here’s a video below describing the bridge thermometer that the Outdoor Exploratorium built a few miles away from the bridge in the Presidio to capture the bridge’s elevation per the current weather.
5. The Dream Team
Amazing engineering projects—especially in the 1930s—usually aren’t built with maintenance in mind, and the Golden Gate is no exception. In fact, it takes a squad of a few dozen full-time painters to constantly upkeep and prevent rust on the 10-million square feet of steel. Rather than systematically going from one end to the other, the work is a never-ending series of touch-up jobs in surreal circumstances; from getting disoriented by the undulation of the water below and touching up hard-to-reach places in the bridge’s underbelly to being distracted by the abrupt sound of navy horns below and, of course, the many jumps toward death the bridge plays host to each year.
While it’s fallen victim to hundreds of millions of selfies from people around the world, the Golden Gate Bridge’s image exceeds well beyond. It overcame several natural and legal roadblocks during the worst economic era in America’s history to help usher new standards for construction safety, grow the San Francisco Bay Area into its present-day self and become one of man’s most impressive achievements the world over.
6. Additional Tidbits
- Oddly enough, the Golden Gate Bridge isn’t part of the interstate system, yet it carries both U.S route 101 and California State Route 1 through it.
- The Golden Gate Bridge was named one of the Seven Wonders of the United States in 1994 by the American Society of Civil Engineers, joining the ranks of the Panama Canal, Hoover Dam, the Interstate System, Trans-Alaska Pipeline, World Trade Center and Kennedy Space Center.
- Excitingly, the steel sections for the two towers were fabricated in Pennsylvania and sent by boat to San Francisco through… the Panama Canal.
Upon completion of the bridge in May 1937, chief engineer and poet Joseph Strauss penned “The Mighty Task is Done” — read the poem here.