Probably the best-known landmark in San Francisco, and one of the most famous bridges in the world. Tourist attraction, traffic artery, record setter, and wonder of the world, the Golden Gate bridge is one of the most beautiful sights on the planet.

The Big Numbers

Metric values are in the pipelinks.

       |---------------- 1.7 miles -----------------|
 _                                                        _
 |                   |                  |                 |
 |                  /|\                /|\                |
500 ft             / | \              / | \               |
 |               /   |   \          /   |   \             |
 |             /     |     \      /     |     \           |
 |          --       |       ----       |       --       746 ft
 |      -------------|------------------|------------     |
 |       --          |                  |         |       |
246 ft /    \        |                  |         |       |
 |     |FORT|        |                  |         |       |

           |-1125 ft-|-----4200 ft------|-1125 ft-|

Total weight of the bridge, anchorage and approaches in 1937: 894,500 tons.
Total weight in 1986, after the reinforced concrete decking was replaced with asphalted steel: 887,000 tons.
Length of each main cable: 7560 ft
Total length of wire in the main cables: 80,000 miles.

Location, Location, Location

The Golden Gate Bridge spans the Golden Gate Straits, the narrowest point in the mouth of the San Francisco Bay. It connects the cities of Sausalito and San Francisco, California, and forms part of Highway 101. It is one of the main commuting arteries into San Francisco.

The name actually has nothing to do with California's gold deposits. US Army captain John C. Fremont named the straits "Chrysopylae" (meaning Golden Gate) in 1846, two years before gold was discovered. The straits reminded Fremont of the Chrysocras (Golden Horn) harbor in Istanbul.

The narrowness of the passage made it valuable for the bridge-builders. But even before the bridge, the straits were a vital part of San Francisco Bay. They controlled access to Northern California's main port, and were guarded by Fort Point, the only Civil War fort west of the Mississippi.

I Have A Dream

Charles Crocker, railroad owner and bank founder, proposed a bridge across the Straits in 1872, but it was widely held to be impossible. Engineering knowledge of the time was insufficient to deal with the climactic stresses of the Golden Gate Straits.

A local newspaper editor, James Wilkins, revived the idea in 1916, and this time it caught on. San Francisco's City Engineer, Michael M. O'Shaughnessy, started a national enquiry to assess the feasibility of such a bridge. Most of the engineers he asked said it was impossible.

The exception was Joseph Baermann Strauss, who had designed nearly 400 bridges. He felt that the project was possible, at an estimated cost of $27 million. He submitted his design in 1921, just as the population pressures in the San Francisco Bay Area were making such a span imperative.

Strauss' design had only one flaw. It required the destruction of Fort Point, the Civil War fort on the San Francisco side of the straits. The space was needed for the southern pier. Local outrage ensued, and a quick redesign took place. A small arch, barely tall or wide enough to clear the fort's brick walls, was patched in instead.

It took another twelve years to get the money, approvals and contracts into place. The Bay Bridge, also under construction at the time, had attracted all the available government funding, and the Golden Gate Bridge had to be financed by bonds. The ferry companies mounted a strong opposition to the threat to their business. And the War Department required convincing that the bridge would not be a "hazard to navigation".

The US Navy requested that the bridge be painted with black and yellow stripes, but cooler heads prevailed. A color now known as international orange was chosen to go with the bridge's setting.

Halfway to Hell

The bridge construction began on January 5, 1932, and lasted for just over five years. Strauss, now chief engineer on the project, insisted that unprecedented safety precautions be used onsite.

Before the Golden Gate Bridge, the engineering profession expected one man to die per million dollars spent on bridge building. Stauss used two main safety innovations to change that. He commissioned the first hard hats and insisted they be worn on the project. He also had a safety net strung under the entire bridge throughout construction.

The net saved the lives of 19 men, who became known as the Halfway-to-Hell Club. However, despite Strauss' precautions, eleven workers died while building the Golden Gate Bridge. Kermit Moore died on October 21, 1936. And just before completion, a scaffold carrying twelve men fell through the net, killing ten of them. OA Anderson, Chris Anderson, William Bass, O Desper, Fred Dümmatzen, Terrence Hallinan, Edridge Hillen, Charles Lindros, Jack Norman and Louis Russell died on February 17, 1937.

At 11 fatalities for $35 million, the Golden Gate Bridge was the safest bridge of its time.

Open Up Your Golden Gates

On May 27, 1937, the Bridge opened to pedestrian traffic. The next day, vehicles were allowed on. The builders had achieved that engineering dream: a project on time, and under budget.

It was the longest span in the world for 27 years, until the opening of Verrazano Narrows Bridge in New York in 1964. It is still seventh in the world, and by far the oldest in the top ten.

The toll on the bridge is $3 one way. It was the first bridge in the world to use one-way tolling. Although the construction bonds are now paid off, the tolls are still needed to pay for upkeep and seismic improvements.

The Golden Gate Bridge has one deck, five lanes wide. To increase the carrying capacity of the bridge, the central lane changes direction during the day. It is a southbound lane, into San Francisco, in the morning. In the evening, it is used by northbound cars. The dividers that separate it from incoming traffic are temporary, and too flimsy to stop a car. The lane is known as the suicide lane.

And, sadly, the bridge is associated with suicide in another way. As Templeton's write-up says, it is the most popular suicide spot in the United States.


In Memoriam: Sarah Birnbaum, high school classmate and neighbor, the only person to jump off of the Golden Gate Bridge twice.