Golden Gate Bridge History
San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge has long been called “the world’s most photographed bridge,” and it's easy to see why. The imposing structure rises out of the San Francisco fog as if by magic, its signature rusty-orange hue contrasting brilliantly with the deep blue sea.
Unsurprisingly, this world-renowned icon has quite a bit of history behind it. The 1.7-mile-long suspension bridge was nothing short of an engineering marvel when it was completed in 1937. The American Society of Civil Engineers even declared it one of the Engineering Wonders of the Modern World.
Despite being built during the height of the Great Depression, and the multiple difficulties it faced, the Golden Gate only took about four years to complete, which is pretty inspiring considering it was the tallest and longest suspension bridge at the time.
After more than 80 years in existence, this piece of American history has picked up some fascinating, surprising and even bizarre stories along the way.
The bridge was almost never built.
It’s hard to fathom now — especially considering the immeasurable economic impact its had on the city of San Francisco — but the Golden Gate Bridge was far from a sure thing. Business owners and residents resisted plans to construct it, at times vehemently, for years.
On the cusp of the Great Depression, not everyone was keen on the idea of such an expensive infrastructure investment. And we do mean expensive: it cost about $35 million to build, the equivalent of over $525 million today. (Bonds covered the costs, including $6 million worth purchased by Bank of America in a Hail Mary move.)
Moreover, with memories of the great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 still fresh in people’s minds, many believed that the proposed bridge wouldn’t be able to survive should another quake of that magnitude hit. In response to concerns, the engineering team tossed the original design, replacing it with a suspension-based structure capable of handling high winds and shaky ground. (So far, so good.)
Builders also faced a lengthy process to earn approval from the U.S. Department of War, and significant legal headaches. According to transit experts, the Golden Gate Bridge had 2,300 individual lawsuits filed against it by 1930!
It almost looked way different.
The bridge’s iconic reddish-orange hue, called “International Orange,” was a radical choice in a world where bridge colors spanned from gray to silver to black. According to the paint supervisor for the Golden Gate, the Navy wanted to paint it with black and yellow stripes for increased visibility. Other reports claim that the Army Air Corps wanted it painted with white and red stripes, like a candy cane. (Can you imagine?)
Luckily they settled for the gorgeous hue we all know it for today. And the color has more than just aesthetic value: the color was chosen in part because it sticks out enough through San Francisco’s notorious fog to provide better visibility for ships.
Today, it takes 16 ironworkers and over 30 painters suspended high on the bridge to replace the corroded steel and repaint all the parts that make up the structure.
Bridge workers saved from death joined the “Halfway to Hell” club.
With the Great Depression hindering employment opportunities, all types of able-bodied men (from farmers to taxi-drivers) signed up to work on the bridge in the hopes of ongoing employment.
Concerned with safety, the engineers installed a huge safety net that stretched from end to end of the bridge under the floor of the structure. The 19 men whose lives this net saved became known as the “Halfway to Hell” club.
At the time, the bride-building business was a treacherous one, with an average of one death per million dollars spent on a project. The Golden Gate Bridge construction held a record with only one death until February 17, 1937 (four years into construction), when a section of scaffold fell through the safety net and tragically killed 10 men.
Joseph Strauss, the engineer hired to head the project, was also a poet.
Initially predicted to cost well over $100 million, the Golden Gate Bridge needed someone who’d be able to reduce that by at least half in order to make the dream a reality. Chicago-based Joseph Strauss, who’d built over 400 bridges all around the world, was hired to complete the task.
Strauss himself has an interesting backstory: just over five feet tall, he was hospitalized after attempting to play football for his college team. His hospital room overlooked the famed Cincinnati Bridge, and it was here that his love for bridges flourished and he began plans to become an engineer.
Strauss wrote several poems about California and the Golden Gate, including one about the redwoods that was eventually published as a song. When asked in 1932 how long the Golden Gate would last he famously answered, “forever.”
Today, a memorial statue near the bridge (pictured here) honors Strauss' legacy.
When it was finished, everybody partied for a week.
The lively Golden Gate Fiesta, which lasted from May 27 to June 2, 1937, included pageants, fireworks and even parades.
The first day was open to pedestrians exclusively, who competed to become one of the many “firsts” of the Golden Gate: first to roller skate across the bridge, play harmonica, cross on stilts and more. Some 50,000 hot dogs were reportedly sold to revelers.
The second day was reserved for automobiles, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt sending out an official White House telegraph to declare the bridge open.
The last rivet inserted into the bridge was supposed to be solid gold.
The bridge’s final rivet was driven on April 27, 1937, signifying the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge. As a symbol of the dramatic feat, the rivet was made of solid California gold, with many comparing it to the famous final spike in the Transcontinental Railroad.
A number of dignitaries were in attendance for the ceremonial final rivet, but unfortunately the rivet gun they used hadn’t been designed to handle anything softer than steel. The gun caused the golden rivet to explode, covering the dignitaries with gold flakes. Luckily there was a steel rivet on hand to replace the disintegrated golden one.
At the time, it was the largest suspension bridge ever built.
The 4,200-foot Golden Gate was the longest suspension bridge in the world until 1964, when the New York Verrazano Narrows Bridge was completed with 60 more feet in length. After that, the record was broken once again with the construction of England’s Humber Bridge. Today, the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge in Japan is the world’s longest suspension bridge at a whopping 6,532 feet long!
The Golden Gate has since moved down to 9th on the list.
There’s little to no record of who worked on the bridge.
In the middle of the Great Depression, when the Golden Gate Bridge was being built, the engineers and architects used 10 prime contractors and numerous subcontractors for construction. Yet most of these companies didn’t keep accurate records of their employees.
So if your great grandpa says that he was one of the workers who contributed to the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll just have to take his word for it.
It’s only been closed seven times.
In December of 1951, the bridge was closed for a total of three hours because of winds reaching upwards of 69 miles per hour. Then again in December of 1982, it closed for only two hours because of high gusting winds of 70 miles per hour. The most recent weather-related closure in December of 1983 was the longest, at three hours and 27 minutes, once again due to high winds.
In addition to these weather-related incidents, the Golden Gate Bridge has been closed four other times, twice for celebrating the anniversary of the bridge’s completion (the 50th and 75th), once for dignitaries and once for construction. That’s pretty impressive considering it’s over 80 years old.
Speaking of anniversaries, the bridge’s 50th made the city look real bad.
The city of San Francisco planned a grand celebration on the Golden Gate for its 50th anniversary on May 24, 1987. Unfortunately, members of the bridge’s district board of directors hired the wrong expert to predict how many people would show up. They figured 80,000 people would join the “Bridgewalk.” When the morning arrived, however, over 800,000 participants were trying to make their way onto the bridge, of which about 300,000 actually made it on.
Opening ceremonies never happened, the police force that was supposed to keep the peace never showed, and hundreds of thousands of humans crammed shoulder-to-shoulder were unable to break free from the crowd.
A journalist who was there described participants getting seasick as the bridge “groaned and swayed” with the weight. As the event’s organizers were nowhere to be found, the citizens of San Francisco held their own and attempted to remain calm. Bridge engineers reportedly were not worried about the possibility of the bridge collapsing, and remained confident in the structure’s integrity.
Parts for the nuclear bomb were transported under the bridge.
In 1945, the USS Indianapolis sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge bound for the island of Tinian north of Guam. Inside a wooden crate in one of the ship’s hangers were parts that would make up one of the most famous bombs in history — the nuclear bomb that would later be dropped on Hiroshima.
After delivering the package, the ship continued on to the Philippines, where it was tragically hit by a Japanese submarine. The 317 survivors clung to life in shark-infested waters for days before being rescued.
Woody Harrelson climbed the bridge in 1996.
In protest against the logging of Humboldt County’s ancient redwood trees, actor Woody Harrelson and eight others climbed the Golden Gate Bridge in November of 1996. They spent upwards of five hours in rock-climbing gear spreading banners above the roadways.
The protest unintentionally caused a great deal of traffic jams and trouble for Highway Patrol, which arrested Harrelson and his comrades on two misdemeanor counts of trespassing. Harrelson defended his attempt to save over 60,000 acres of redwood trees, saying that the police department caused the traffic issues, not the protesters.
Suicides from the bridge are shockingly common.
The original design of the bridge contained a tall railing to help prevent suicides, but the architect decided to lower it to make the view more scenic. In his words, the bridge was “practically suicide proof” and suicide was “neither possible nor probable.”
He was, tragically, very wrong.
Since its construction, the bridge has been used for a startling number of suicides; a foundation established to prevent these deaths estimates that over 1,600 people have committed suicide off the bridge. A police sergeant who patrolled the bridge for 23 years claims to have coaxed around 200 people out of jumping.
The first known suicide occurred 10 weeks after the bridge was opened. Two years later in 1939, activists rallied to get a barrier constructed, but were defeated by the Board of Supervisors who governed the bridge.
Finally, in June of 2014, the bridge’s board of directors approved a $76 million project to install a steel net under the bridge. After years of delay, and costs almost doubling, the net is on track to finally be installed, with the hopes of bringing the Golden Gate suicide rate down to zero.
The bridge has an advanced security system.
In light of worldwide terrorist concerns, and especially after two teenagers trespassed to climb the bridge at 3 a.m. in 2017, security has been made a top concern.The bridge’s security detail has gone up from 31 to 36 employees, which is larger than the police departments of many smaller surrounding cities. There are three or four guards patrolling the bridge’s sidewalks at any given time.
Thirty more cameras, a few more gates, new fences and better lighting were also recently added.
40 million cars cross the bridge annually.
The first year that the bridge was opened, it saw just over three million cars total, with around 9,000 cars daily on average. Today, over 40 million cars cross it annually, with about 112,000 vehicles making the trek in a typical day. All that traffic generates more than $140 million in toll revenue.
The number of cars crossing annually has actually fluctuated since the 1980s in response to specific events; after the ‘89 Loma Prieta earthquake, for instance, the area’s Bay Bridge was closed, causing a spike in traffic on the Golden Gate.
Back in the Golden Gate Bridge’s early days, even pedestrians had to pay a toll, but — happily for those who love to traverse its span, taking in epic views on either side — it was later eliminated in 1970 by the bridge’s Board of Directors.