Beyond the Triangle

Iconic Structure: Golden Gate Bridge Pt 2


Once the approval for the Golden Gate Bridge was in hand the question really became: How to get it done? Strong currents in the bay and high winds were troublesome to say the least. The construction of the Golden Gate Bridge was indeed an engineering marvel. Designers didn’t have computers then. It was all about slide rules and precise measuring. The project was also a testament to courage.

The Public Broadcast System or PBS described the dangers this way: “The narrow Golden strait between Marin County and San Francisco is one of the world’s most tumultuous bodies of water. Up to 335 feet deep, the Golden Gate is the largest California coastal opening — a portal into which the Pacific Ocean surges. Powerful currents also flow in the opposite direction, as water from many of Northern California’s freshwater rivers and streams rushes into San Francisco Bay. This freshwater flow collides with the incoming Pacific, creating complex and violent currents.”

Divers were critical to the plan. They had to swim down over 90 feet to find the best place in the bedrock for installation of the center pier which stood 11-hundred-feet tall. Because of the ferocious  currents  the men could only dive in 20 minute intervals when the conditions were best. Finally, Berkeley, California geologist Andrew Lawson determined that all their hard work had paid off. Down he went 107 feet below water to inspect the work, after which he wrote,

“the rock of the entire area is compact, strong serpentine, remarkably free from seams… When struck with a hammer, it rings like steel.”

Despite the dangers of this project, men flocked to the jobs because, of course, this was the depression in the US and jobs were scarce.

Stunningly, during most of the construction of the bridge only 1 man died. According to published reports, this  “set a new all-time record in a field where one man killed for every million dollars spent had been the norm. ” Then, on February 17th, ten more men lost their lives when a section of scaffold carrying twelve men fell through the safety net” under the bridge platform. That  brought  the total death toll to 11. In another instance however that safety net saved the lives of 19 men. There was a special club formed by the survivors of those falls. It was called the  HALF WAY TO HELL CLUB.

One member, Al Zampa reportedly said “when a man fell to his death from a bridge it was said “he’s gone to hell.” The men who fell and were saved by the nets were said to have fallen only “half way to hell.”

What’s more Zampa said, “There were ten of us that fell into the nets those first few weeks. Four got hurt. I was one of them. We were in the hospital together. We formed the club right there in St. Luke’s Hospital.”

The net that saved those men was the first in a number of innovative designs that improved safety in an number of industries. The net was manufactured by The E.D. Bullard Company of San Francisco, CA. That company also developed the first “hard hat” for miners and those in the construction business. The original hat made in 1919 was called a “hard boiled hat” made from steamed canvas, glue and paint. It resembled the World War 1 doughboy army helmets Edward Bullard had seen when he was fighting the war. He then used its design as a model for the now ubiquitous hard hat.

In his book, “ The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge,” California State Librarian Emeritus Kevin Starr called the Golden Gate  bridge the most beautiful manmade structure on earth.”

Indeed, the Golden Gate Bridge earns its place among the most iconic structures in the world according to a number of sources. The 7 wonders of the ancient world include the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Colossus of Rhodes. From other eras you have Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal. A more modern list of the updated 7 wonders of the world has been compiled by the American Society of Civil Engineers. It includes the Golden Gate Bridge as well as the Empire State Building and the Panama Canal.  Pretty impressive company. It is also a magnificent landmark which instantly connects it to the city it is in.


(Source: National Park Service)

I was watching a movie the other night and the opening scene showed the bridge. I didn’t need anyone to tell me where the story was about to take place. That was the Golden Gate Bridge and we were in San Francisco. The two are inseparable.

The Golden Gate Bridge spans the Golden Gate Strait which is the body of water that connects San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean. It is part of both US Highway 101 and California Route 1. It starts on the peninsula of San Francisco and connects to Marin County and Sausalito on the other side.

The strait was named, by U.S.Army Engineer John C. Fremont in 1846.  According to  bridge officials, “Fremont chose this name because it reminded him of a harbor in Istanbul named Chrysoceras, which translates to “Golden Horn”.

Given all the golden references you might wonder why the bridge wasn’t painted gold. If the navy had had its way it would have been painted black with big yellow stripes to make sure passing ships could see it.

The consulting architect and designer on the bridge project was Irving Morrow. And Whit says it was he who is responsible for the inherent beauty of the bridge by adding art deco designs, street lamps, railings and pedestrian walkways.

In a report on possible color choices Morrow wrote, “ is it desired to emphasize the bridge as an important feature of the landscape, or to make it as inconspicuous as possible?  ” That said,  The bumble bee design and Grey and black were also both considered and rejected.

Then, the  steel for the bridge arrived from the foundries of Bethlehem Steel which came with a reddish primer on it. Each day Morris would travel back and forth to the site via ferry, which was the only way to get there, and noticed just how well that color blended with the background of the blue sky, the city and the mountains. Morrow fell in love with the orangey color. And he had support for his preference.

An Italian sculptor named Benvenuto Bufano wrote to Morrow saying this: “ I have been watching very closely the progress of the towers on the Golden Gate Bridge in its structural beauty, its engineering and architectural simplicity – and of course its color that moves and molds itself into the great beauty and contours of the hill – let me hope that the color will remain the red terracotta because it adds to the structural grace and because it adds to the great beauty and the colorful symphony of the hills—and it is because of this structural simplicity that carries to you my message of admiration.”

In addition to its aesthetic value the orange color used on the bridge is almost identical to the “international orange” color used in the aerospace industry to distinguish one object from another. Similarly “safety orange” is used for traffic cones for instance. It is a smart color choice for a structure, like a bridge, which sees both air and water traffic and ensures that everybody operating those transport vessels steers clear.

I asked Bridge Manager Kary Witt about the repainting of the bridge every year. He said, “It would take much longer than a year to repaint that bridge. We began a paint program in 1968 which didn’t finish until 1992 with a paint crew of 40 men and a 100 person maintenance crew.” He adds, “If you were going to repaint the Golden Gate Bridge every year it would take a-thousand person crew probably.”  He says “ the real challenge to painting the bridge is not the actual painting of the bridge but getting access to the different parts of the bridge that need repainting. It takes a staging crew of iron workers at least a month to build the scaffolding from which the painters do their jobs.

He adds,  “The myth is that we start at one end and we paint all the way to the other.” That is not true. Whit says, “The fact is that Golden Gate Bridge is so big that we actually have micro climates. We have certain parts of the bridge where the paint jobs will last 30-40 years. There are other parts of the bridge where the paint will last 10 or 12 years. “  And so the repainting system is done as circumstances require and is on-going.

Cuban immigrant Reynaldo Charles is one of the painters. In an article that he wrote about his work he describes the first time his bosses promoted him to bridge painter. He says, “The first thing they did was take me up to the tower, rig me up, and make me walk down the cables. Some people just freeze up there—they’re scared and can’t perform. So they have to check to make sure you can actually do the job up there. I’m from Cuba—I’ve never been that high in my life! I looked down and the cars looked tiny. I’m not going to lie; at first I was really scared. Now I’m not scared, but I do respect the potential danger. You don’t want to lose that fear entirely because that fear keeps you alive.”

Charles goes on to say  that there is no job like his  in the world: “When you’re going to work 700 feet in the air, you see everything. Sometimes you see people at their happiest moments—proposing marriage or in a wedding dress getting married and having pictures taken. (I was actually planning to propose to my wife on the top of the tower, but then she told me she didn’t like heights, so I realized that plan wasn’t going to work.) But twenty feet further down, you notice somebody else scattering ashes over the side. And further on, you catch sight of someone who wants to jump. You see all that—the whole spectrum of life…on the Bridge.”

For your information the California Penal Code Section 219.3, states that it is a misdemeanor to “willfully drop or throw any object from any toll bridge. And that includes human beings. But that has not deterred some. The Golden Gate Bridge is  7-hundred-46 feet high. And, sadly, has become a beacon for many poor souls who want to take their own lives. With its deck standing 245 feet above water it has become a platform for suicides. At least 16-hundred in fact, making it the second most frequented suicide site in the world next to the Yangtze River bridge. The numbers are probably much higher. First unless there is a witness, it is hard to document the exact number who have actually jumped from the bridge. Second, the strong current surely washes some jumpers away so that their bodies are never found and accounted for.

The most suicides recorded in one month was quite recent:  10 in August of 2013. That equals one jumper every 3 days. The tragic trip takes just 4 seconds and when a person hits the water he does so at 75-miles per hour. According to published reports,  “the survival rate for suicides is only 2%. Those who do live probably entered the water feet first and at a slight angle, although individuals will still sustain broken bones and internal injuries. “

Although precautions have been taken to reduce the number of suicides, many people are determined. Sarah Rutledge Birnbaum was one of them.  She was 18 years old and a student at UCLA when she went to the bridge and jumped from it on January 4th 1988. Miraculously, she survived. But then she came back one month later. Jumped again and this time succeeded in killing herself. The reason for her depression was apparently disappointment at not being accepted to the ivy league school, Stanford University.

And now for the elephant in the room. You cannot look at the Golden Gate Bridge for long without thinking about earthquakes and the bridge’s ability to withstand them. Although the earthquake of 1906 in San Francisco was still fresh in the minds of bridge builders in the 1930’s not much was known about earthquake construction.


Then on October 17th 1989 the earth began to shake again. The official website for the Golden Gate Bridge describes the event this way: “It was a bone rattling, concrete crushing, nerve-racking 15 seconds. At 5:04 p.m. on Tuesday evening, October 17, 1989, the 7.1 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake caused 68 deaths, at least 3,700 injuries and an estimated dollar loss of $6 billion to $7 billion. The earthquake reminded the world that the San Francisco Bay region remains vulnerable. Although the Golden Gate Bridge suffered no observed damage from the Loma Prieta quake, since the epicenter was located some 60 miles to the south, the earthquake became a catalyst for the extensive seismic retrofit program that the historic structure is undergoing today.”

Kary Witt says since 1990 $600-Million has already been spent to strengthen the bridge and another $300-Million is going to be spent for the same purpose. He says, “We withstood the Loma earthquake either by luck or design. Our bridge was not damaged at all even though we did experience some very violent shaking. So that’s a good indicator there. After $600-million dollars of seismic retro-fitting, probably once all the retro-fitting is done, it is probably going to be one of the most earthquake resistant big bridges anywhere. With that said earthquake-ensuring  is as much art as it is science  and it is based on a lot of assumptions about how things are going to behave in earthquakes that haven’t been tested in real life and so you don’t ever really, really know until you’ve gone through an earthquake and see how your structure behaves.”

The good news is the retro-fits have been reviewed by international experts and Witt is pretty confident about the bridge’s integrity.

Californians are so laid back.

But, make no mistake.  The “big one” is probably still lurking. The Bridge’s website claims that “there is a 62% probability of at least one magnitude 6.7 or greater quake capable of causing widespread damage, impacting the San Francisco Bay region before 2031.”  Geologists predict with “A Richter magnitude 7.0 or greater earthquake, with an epicenter near the Bridge,  the structure would experience severe damage that could close this important transportation link for an extended period. If a Richter magnitude was 8.0 or greater, then geologists predict collapse of some sections of the structure.

Interestingly, Andrew Lawson, the geologist who gave the green light to the project’s viability was also the discoverer of the San Andreas fault. His expertise was unusual for the time and perfect for this Golden Gate bridge project. What better judge of earthquake protection than he? He even instructed his architect, Bernard Maybeck to build a house for himself that he hoped was earthquake proof as well. The culture magazine, THE MONTHLY,  says “Lawson encouraged Maybeck to use reinforced concrete, a relatively new material at that time in residential construction, because he knew it would resist both fires and quakes.” Predictably, when fire swept through his Berkeley neighborhood in 1923 destroying hundreds of homes, his survived.

The Golden Gate has only been closed 5 times…twice for visiting dignitaries: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and French President Charles De Gaulle and 3 times for high winds, which the bridge withstood beautifully. It has also been known to be closed down briefly because of “Advection fog” which happens when humid ocean air collides with cooler breezes along the coast line.

Over 100-thousand cars travel the 6 lanes of traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge each day paying $6.00 each way. About 8-thousand walkers and bikers use the bridge as well. Unlike a beautiful monument, this iconic structure is not only a gorgeous architectural sculpture of sorts but a useful human necessity as well.

Bridge manager Kary Witt says, “It is remarkable when you can build a bridge that fulfills the function, but that also becomes art.” A concept not lost on the Chief Engineer of the project Joseph Strauss who gave us this poem upon the completion of the bridge:

“At last the mighty task is done;

Resplendent in the western sun

The Bridge looms mountain high;

Its titan piers grip ocean floor,

Its great steel arms link shore with shore,

Its towers pierce the sky.”

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