Facts and history surrounding the Golden Gate Bridge

Paris has the Eiffel Tower and San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge. Indeed, the iconic structure is the most photographed and internationally loved bridge in the world. From its construction and engineering “firsts” to its many movie appearances to its daily traffic crossings, the Golden Gate is one busy bridge with a very interesting history.

Chief Civil Engineer Joseph B. Strauss campaigned tirelessly to rally support to build the bridge, finally gaining approval after a decade. Many talented architects, skilled engineers, financiers, and union laborers played significant roles in making Strauss’ vision a reality. In fact, Strauss’ own bridge design was scrapped in favor of a more aesthetically pleasing suspension bridge. After four years of construction, the Golden Gate Bridge opened to “pedestrians only” on May 27th, 1937, and was opened to motorized vehicles the following day.This was not before the loss of 11 lives during construction, but still well below the 35 fatalities that were estimated to be lost by the construction company. This was a new safety record at the time and the lower number can be attributed to a newly created safety suspension placed under the bridge that saved the lives of 19 workers. The survivors came to be known as members of the Halfway to Hell Club. 

With construction taking place during The Great Depression, the bridge project attracted thousands of fearless job seekers from diverse backgrounds including farmers, lumberjacks and taxi drivers. Workers’ wages ranged from $4 to $11 dollars per day, the highest paid being the ironworkers. Despite the job hazards, including dense fog and gale-force winds up to 70 mph that would often make the bridge surfaces like walking on ice, men would mill around the base of the towers in the event someone fell and a replacement was needed. Underwater divers were also employed to set explosives to enable the concrete foundation of the bridge to be poured. The job was tricky requiring completion within a 1.5 hour window each time.  

The Golden Gate Bridge has an east coast connection to the Bethlehem Steel plants in New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Workers at these plants prefabricated the steel and loaded it onto railcars destined for Philadelphia and then was shipped through the Panama Canal to San Francisco.

At the time, it cost $35 million to build the bridge and it’s estimated that it would cost $1.4 billion to build today. The Golden Gate Bridge held the record as the longest suspension bridge in the world until the completion of New York City’s Verrazano Bridge in 1964. Since then both bridges’ records have been usurped and the Golden Gate now ranks as the world’s ninth longest suspension bridge with a total length of 1.7 miles (8,981 feet or 2,737 m) including both bridge approaches. The Golden Gate bridge is 90 feet wide (27 m) and has a water clearance of 220 feet (67 m) but that height can fluctuate up to 16 feet due to temperature or thermal expansion.

Interestingly, the Golden Gate Bridge has lost weight due to the use lighter decking material replacements. Now it weighs a mere 887,000 tons (804,700,000 kg) compared to its original weight of 894,000 tons (811, 500, 000 kg). The bridge’s two towers rise 746 feet (227 m) above the water and 500 feet (152 m) above the roadway. Each tower weighs 44,000 tons (40,200,000 kg) and together they contain over 1.2 million rivets. The two main cables passing over the tops of the towers are made of 27,572 wire strands that took over six months to be spun and measure 36 3/8 inches (0.92 m). The wire strands’ overall length measure three times the earth’s circumference. 

Contrary to public perception, the Golden Gate Bridge is not named for its color but for the strait that it spans. The strait was deemed Chrysopylae meaning “Golden Gate” by Army Captain John C. Fremont in 1846. The bridge’s color, is historically known as International Orange and more casually known as Golden Gate, it’s a far cry from gold. The color was chosen by architect Irving Morrow and developed to complement the Marin Headlands, water and sky, yet still be highly visible to oncoming maritime vessels. Fortunately, Morrow’s aesthetically pleasing vision won out of the US Navy’s garish proposal of yellow and black stripes, and the US Army’s proposed red and white.

Today, 33 painters maintain the bridge color continuously. The paint is currently supplied by Sherwin-Williams. Since it’s a popular color request, Sherwin-Williams’ closest off-the-shelf color is called Fireweed. If you’d prefer to match the International Orange exactly, Sherwin-Williams provides the color percentages on their website. 17 ironworkers are also permanently employed to maintain the bridge, replace corroding steel and rivets.

Since its completion, the Golden Gate Bridge’s celebrity status includes an extensive list of movie, television and documentary appearances. Just a few of the most famous include The Maltese Falcon (1941), Dark Passage (1947), Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), Dirty Harry (1971), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Superman: The Man of Steel (1978), Star Trek (2009) Rise of Planet of the Apes (2011), and the credits roll on and on.

As one of the world’s most romantic icons, the Golden Gate Bridge is a popular site for marriage proposals and three babies are known to have been born on the bridge. And as lives have begun on the bridge, unfortunately, many more lives have ended; the Golden Gate Bridge has the notorious distinction of being the site of the most suicides in the world. Plans are in the works to add a suicide prevention barrier, estimated to cost $40 million to $50 million which is noteworthy since it is more than the original cost of $35 million to build the entire colossal structure. It will take three years to complete although the money to build it has yet to be found. 

An engineering triumph of the 20th century, the City of San Francisco celebrated the Golden Gate Bridge’s 75th anniversary on May 27, 2012 with fireworks and fanfare for its most famous landmark.