Golden Gate Bridge Builders


Joseph B. Strauss - 1874 - 1938

Joseph Strauss studied poetry and economics at the University of Cincinnati, which almost makes sense when you think about it. Standing 5 foot 3 inches, football may have been the wrong extracurricular activity, but a bridge outside his hospital room became the first of many in his mind and future career.

He worked as a draftsman in New Jersey and then Chicago, and was named a “Principal Assistant Engineer”. He specialized in bascule (asymmetrical counterweighted) drawbridges, formed his own company and eventually built 400 of them. He happened to meet with San Francisco's City Engineer at the time of the initial investigations, and soon became the front-runner, perhaps because of his boldly lowball bid of $27,000,000. Even he did not have faith in the suspension bridge idea at first (his design was a homely, chimerical monstrosity) but his unwavering self-confidence and bulldog-like perseverance are probably the major reason any bridge was ever built across the geographical, economic, physical, and political chasms. After 11 years of pushing and pulling, when funding was finally approved, teams in place, and the project finally moving with its own momentum, he collapsed into retreat and seclusion for 6 months of recuperation, leaving the job of overseeing initial construction to Clifford Paine, who he brought in from his Chicago firm. It is no doubt true that the project sapped the life out of him, and “...at last the mighty task is done...”, as he wrote in a poem commemorating its completion, could also be his epitaph. He died of a stroke within a year.

Charles Ellis – 1876-1949

With Strauss known mainly for utilitarian drawbridges, not awe-inspiring, landscape changing monuments, he needed intellectual clout to build his “team” and Charles Ellis (with Leon Moisseiff) helped shore up his image with the various skeptical factions who needed convincing in the approval process. Working for the American Bridge Company, Ellis had written an influential textbook on framed structures. Working closely with the visionary Leon Moisseiff, most of the heavy engineering work and painstaking calculations for the bridge design were done by Ellis, without the benefit of a computer, or even a simple electronic calculator. Ellis did all of the painstaking calculations needed to create the delicate balance between strength and economy, to create one of the wonders of the world, using only his trusty slide rule and graph paper. But Strauss became impatient with Ellis’ methodical attention to detail, and, in 1931, ordered him to turn in his work and take a vacation. He was then told not to come back to work, and he was removed from all official histories and documentation of the project. Years after being dismissed, he still obsessed about his greatest achievement, spending countless hours going over the numbers again and again, to reassure himself that the structure would be safe as built. The Man who Designed the Golden Gate Bridge spent his remaining years in silent anonymity, but never stopped thinking about it, even revisiting his engineering calculations into his waning years, perhaps worried that the Tacoma Narrows disaster was not unique, but a warning for other large suspension bridges. There is no mention of him on any official plaques or documents, except for one critical blueprint. He died in 1953, and was not widely recognized for his contributions until the 1990’s.

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