Seventy-five years ago, an icon opened up for the world to admire.
This icon was seen as a solution to a problem: Navigating across the treacherous waters of the Golden Gate. San Franciscans wanting to head to the North Bay, especially to Mount Tamalpais and the Headlands, had to take a ferry across the water to get into Sausalito. The same goes for the people on the other side of the bay. The ferry was one of the busiest on the Pacific Coast even through the deepest part of the Great Depression.
Before the nation's economy went into the tank, plans were already being made to build a bridge across the Golden Gate. It had been delayed due to World War I, but momentum picked up in the new decade. A district was created to facilitate the design and construction of the span. With a dreamer for the chief architect – Joseph Strauss – the story of the Golden Gate Bridge remains a part of Bay Area lore.
What makes this span very special is not just the design. The suspension bridge design won over – a smart move considering the microclimate of the Golden Gate. Suspension bridges are designed to withstand any movement from the elements – especially the wicked winds of the Golden Gate. Construction of the bridge called for two anchor towers standing 230 meters above sea level – one built on the edge of the Sausalito, the other built right into the bay. The span totaled just short of two kilometers in length with the distance between the two towers at 1.2 kilometers.
When it opened on May 27, 1937, the red-orange colored bridge was seen as an engineering marvel. Building it was no picnic, either. Though a moveable net was secured underneath the workers building the span, only eleven of them were killed in the name of the bridge. Yet, the bridge opened its six lanes of variable traffic to create one of the finest visions in automotive history.
This bridge is also part of my personal history. My first recollection of the bridge was through a visit to my father’s side of the family in 1970. I may have visited there before, but this visit was the most vivid in memory. I remember just being enthralled with the span, the towers and that color. Little did I know it would be a regular crossing for a majority of my nine years living in the Bay Area.
My father's roots are in Marin County – San Rafael to be exact. To be able to go into The City, the Bridge was the only way in. This crossing was done by car or by Golden Gate Transit bus. On the bus, you are secured in your seat that you only care about when the bus will finally get into San Francisco. It is when you are driving that you feel the full extent of the span.
To mark the flow of traffic, bridge district workers would switch the median markers from lane to lane. On weekday morning commutes, North Bay commuters get four lanes of southbound traffic as opposed to two going north. The opposite happens in the afternoons. The best time to cross the bridge is when you have three lanes going in either direction – during the week in-between commuter times.
However, on the weekends, motorists are limited to two lanes each way. This creates an interesting proposition for traveling to both sides of the span. On any given weekend afternoon, travelers coming out of Marin are greeted with a massive traffic jam above Sausalito on the Waldo Grade. This hill, part of U.S. Highway 101, is a curvy parking lot when the bridge is limited to two lanes southbound. At the top of the grade is a tunnel. Usually, tunnels give you hope – this one does not. Traffic will slowly make their way down the hill, as they are crammed onto the two lanes across the bridge.
On the San Francisco side, weekend traffic affects two arteries feeding the bridge: Lombard Street and 19th Avenue. Lombard Street was always the traditional feeder from downtown San Francisco onto the span. As locals, we try our best to avoid Lombard at all cost. That includes driving on Van Ness Avenue towards Lombard. Before I moved from San Rafael over to the East Bay, I found that driving Divisadero Street and winding my way through the Presidio helps calm my nerves on the Lombard approach to the bridge. At that point, I no longer had any reason to drive on either Van Ness or 19th Avenue in The City.
Those median markers are the bane of a motorist coming across the Golden Gate. There were times when I could see one caught in a car's wheel well. The trick is to aim away from them and point center right in the lane. Then again, did the bridge engineers saw the coming of wider vehicles in the decade or so after the opening of the span?
Many vehicles were under my power across the Golden Gate Bridge. My 1991 Acura Integra bore the brunt of my personal carriage on the span. A typical run would be from home in San Rafael into the Castro or to a friend's place in the Alamo Square neighborhood. The Integra always struggled up the Waldo grade and had to be hill-held on uphill stops in The City, but it managed the bridge with ease.
In fact, one of the best photos I ever took was when I drove the Integra to the Headlands with the bridge as the background on a gorgeous November sunrise. It was taken the morning after I took delivery of it. I wished I still had that photo…
From about 1988 through 1992, I worked for a taxicab company in Marin that ferried passengers across spans to airports, The City or anywhere they wanted. As a cab driver, the trick is to get your fare across the bridge as safely as possible. No problem, except you had no time to enjoy the beauty and the majesty of the Golden Gate while earning your keep.
To truly experience the span, the ultimate challenge is walking on it. I have done this twice – with the wind challenging my progress at every turn. Around the towers, the pedestrian path would wind on the outside creating some interesting meetings with Mother Nature. I am surprised how one can still adhere the Laws of Physics when walking on the sides of the span.
In the 75 years of operation, the Bridge remained the same despite various changes around it. The bridge district decided to replace toll takers with an electronic system. No longer do you have to shell out the $6.00 to cross the span. You will get a bill for your crossing, eventually. Then, they are replacing old Doyle Drive with a new approach called the Presidio Parkway on the San Francisco side to meet seismic standards and improve flow of traffic. However, the biggest change has been the reduction of the speed limit to 45MPH across the span. Not everyone likes going slow, but if you have been on this span many times – you would rather not go too fast on it.
It has been a long time since I traversed the Golden Gate – probably the mid-1990s before my eventual relocation east. Many things have changed in the Bay Area since – some I would rather not discuss on any public forum. Still, the Golden Gate Bridge represents many things personally and to the world.
There was a time when many people did not think it was possible to successfully build a bridge across the treacherous waters of the Golden Gate. Seventy-five years ago, it is still standing.