side view of the golden gate bridge

The Great Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge is it the most photographed bridge in the world? It’s certainly beautiful enough, with its elegant towers and slim span flaming red against the Californian sky. A marvel of engineering in 1937, when it was the world’s longest suspension bridge, it remains an icon of San Francisco.

Ferries had run across the mouth of the bay since the 1820s, serving he small local population. But the Californian Gold Rush changed everything: by the end of 1849, San Francisco was a boom town of 25,000 people, and it went on growing. Finding gold seemed like the fulfillment of a prophecy, as two years earlier the solider and explorer John C. Fremont had named the mouth of the bay the Golden Gate, likening it to the Golden Horn of the Bosphorus. Building the impossible by the late 1920s the Golden Gate Ferry Company was the largest of its kind in the world, and the queues were becoming itolerable. The need for a bridge was clear, but building one was thought unfeasible. The strait was over 2 km miles wide and 150m/500 ft deep, with high winds and strong currents. The suggested cost was $100 million. But the visionary bridge builder Joseph Baerman Strauss promised that his cantilever design would cost less than one third of that.

Golden Gate Bridge

His first version was rejected, but Strauss persevered with a new suspension bridge, designed with the help of Irving and Gertrude Morrow, who created the towers and Art Deco detailing, and Charles Alton Ellis, who was largely responsible for the structural design. In the depths of the Depression, the voters of a specially incorporated bridge district were persuaded to support $35 million in bonds to finance the project.

Construction began in 1933 and involved sinking the largest foundation piers ever built. Strauss was unusually attentive to workers’ safety and installed a safety net: 10 of the 11 fatalities occurred in a single incident when this broke, and 19 other men were saved by it, becoming opened with a week-long party in 1937.

There are now about 41 million crossings a year. On 28 May 1987 the bridge was closed to vehicles to celebrate its 50th birthday, and about 300,000 people visited it on foot. A sadder statistic is that the bridge is the world’s most popular place to commit suicide, because of its height above the water. Effort are continuing to finance a safety net under the span.

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