Golden Gate Bridge
How It Was Built

The Challenge

Geology and Engineering - The Golden Gate is only about a mile wide, but there were many physical obstacles that made engineers respectful of this project, and politicians fearful. The War Department first was adamant in its refusal, but eventually approved with several stipulations, including the height of the roadway to allow clearance for large ships - 220 feet at the center. That height required the suspended roadway to be 1.4 miles long. These two dimensions then resulted in a final design that would have the longest free suspended span ever built, 4200 feet, and the two towers to be the tallest structures east of New York City, 746 feet, with the south tower (San Francisco) extending another 110 feet below the water to meet bedrock. The savage currents rushing in and out of the bay from high to low tides, and the equally savage winter storms made it extremely challenging to construct anything at that location, even more so the tallest and longest bridge ever!

Money and Politics - The Southern Pacific Railroad owned 51% of the Golden Gate Ferries monopoly. The company funded, and was the lead plaintiff, on a lawsuit ostensibly brought on behalf of 91 taxpayers, and which was almost the final nail in a complicated coffin built by uncertainty - of the Bond Markets, of the new science and engineering, and of the skeptical Army and fearful politicians. The supporters of the bridge rallied behind it, and the compelling argument was jobs. The newspapers, the Auto Dealers' Association, citizen groups, and the unions all threw their weight into the battle, and even called for a boycott of SP's ferry and rail lines.

Economics in the Depression - Even after the bonds were approved by the voters in November of 1930, a multitude of legal challenges dragged things out as the District’s seed funds began to dwindle, which threatened to kill the project. Somehow Joseph Strauss was able to convince the Bank of America’s A. P. Giannini to back them in the worst year of the Great Depression, 1932. By this time, new bids were required, and because of falling prices, they came in at a total of $23 million!

This is a good time to mention the role of the President of the United States at this time, Herbert Hoover. He was generally perceived as being philosophically opposed to government intervention in the markets, and accused of being uninvolved, or aloof, to the concerns of the common people and their need for jobs during the worst economic disaster of the country’s first 200 hundred years. He was a Stanford graduate, and therefore knew and had ties to the Bay Area, and one of the few things he did do to stimulate the economy during his tenure was to commit federal funds to build a bridge across the Bay of San Francisco – but not this one! Not a single federal dollar was used to build the Golden Gate Bridge. Hoover’s Bridge funds went to build the Oakland Bay Bridge, which was over 3 times as long, and cost about 3 times as much. All well and good, but it points out the somewhat miraculous achievement the Golden Gate Bridge was even before the first shovel hit the ground!

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