Over Memorial Day weekend, one of the grandest structures in the history of mankind will be memorialized: San Francisco’s Golden Gate will be 50 years old.
I’ll never forget my first viewing of the marvel: I flew in—my first transcon jet—to chair a panel on TV criticism at the National Educational Broadcasters convention, and my wife came along to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary with a flourish.
Jet-lagged, we awoke in the Jack Tar Hotel before dawn. “Heh,” a bright idea occurred to me in the dark, “Why don’t we go watch the sunrise over the Golden Gate Bridge?” Mary, whose metabolism was late rising, assented grumpily, in the spirit of the anniversary. The cabbie dumped us on the toll plaza, assuring us it would be easy to find a place to eat breakfast.
Shivering, we started to walk across the awesome structure, abandoned entirely at that hour except by a few of the hardiest of sea gulls, scudding about in the buffeting winds. On the edge of hypothermia (and only half way across), I confessed my geographical ignorance to my half-frozen mate: “It’s the sunset, I guess, that makes it Golden.” Looking up the bay, Alcatraz was barely visible in the dense fog, a prophetic emblem of a marriage that would end on other rocks just shy of another ten years.
But even freezing, I exulted in the presence of the greatest Art Deco sculpture in the world. (We got our Golden Sunset eight months later, aboard the S.S. President Cleveland, bound for Honolulu.) Since then I must have walked, driven, bused, flown over the G.G. a couple hundred times, and I have never failed to feel exalted. Hell, taking the scruffy #29 Muni bus home from Fort Mason, I used to sit in the back the better to get another fix of the Big One out the grimy back window.
So John Van Der Zee’s The Gate: The True Story of the Design and Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge (Simon and Schuster, $19.95) has been no ordinary read for me. The epic of its creation is almost as levitating as the thing in itself. Begin with the “architect” of G.G. (his second wife used to refer to him endearingly by those initials), one Joseph Strauss of Cincinnati, five foot three and eyes of blue skies ever since seeing Joseph Reobling’s bridge across the Ohio (1866) in his home town. (Strauss astonished, nay stunned, his baccalaureate audience at the U. of C. by giving an address on bridging the Bering Straits!)
The mathematical genius of Charles Ellis really cooked up the G.G. as we know it, but Strauss did design the Aeroscope, a cantilever bridge on its end, that was the Ferris Wheel of the Pan Pacific Expo in 1915. There he ran into a real engineer, M.M. O’Shaughnessy, whose drive brought landlocked SF its water supply from high up in the Hetch Hetchy valley of the Sierras. They fell out, and Joe went on to make his only original contribution to the success of the scheme, a Bridge District that combined the economic interests of SF and counties in Northern California.
The plot thickened as politicos dickered—and Strauss covered the nakedness of his ignorance of suspension bridges by hiring on the superstars of the movement (O.H. Amman of the George Washington Bridge, Leon Moissieff of the Port of New York Authority, and Ralph Modjeski of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge—as his constituents.)
Indeed, there are a surprising number of Philadelphia connections in the Golden Gate’s construction—the several kinds of steel came in large part from Bethlehem subsidiaries in Pottstown and Steeltown. Philly was the inspection point for the materials which were then sent through the Panama Canal and stored in Alameda until each numbered part was called forth in a technological orchestration that makes you forget, momentarily, all the hateful things high tech has done to us since WWII.
The Oakland Bay Bridge beat Strauss to the WPA trough, so he had to wangle a $35 million bond drive through an electorate muddled by the media manipulation of Southern Pacific—which had a monopoly ferry service to Marin.
Opening Day, 200,000 pedestrians plopped a nickel in the turnstile to help with the hoopla. Says Van Der Zee: “Carmen Perez, and her sister Minnie were the first people to skate across . . . Florentine Calegari, a houseman on strike from the Palace Hotel, was the first person to cross over on stilts; he then turned around and crossed back . . .
“There were people who tap-danced across, a man blowing a tuba, people on unicycles and playing harmonicas . . . A woman, apparently in physical distress, was stopped by police, who discovered that she wanted to be the first person across with her tongue out.” Those people really knew how to inaugurate.
John C. Fermont had christened the entrance of the Golden Gate, an allusion to Constantinople’s Golden Horn. Strauss wanted to allude to the golden spike used to complete the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Point, Utah, by making the last G.G. rivet of pure gold. Alas, the malleable material wouldn’t rivet: a grubby Pottstown regular rivet had to do. The only thing that would tempt me to put down a book as delicious as this would be another chance to walk, ride, drive, fly, etc. over the G.G.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 20, 1987