My favorite bridge is 75. Not only is it my favorite bridge, but I’ve always considered the Golden Gate Bridge one of the crowning achievements of mankind. It is a masterpiece of Art Deco design, perfect down to every detail and a symbol of incredible engineering achievement. No matter how many times I walk, ride, or drive across the span, it never grows old. There’s a magical feeling to a nighttime walk up the hill towards Battery Spencer in Marin and seeing the lighted bridge appear over the hill’s crest with the city twinkling as a backdrop. It’s one of the seven wonders of the modern world and I would argue it’s the most magnificent of the list.
75th Birthday Bash
After the debacle of opening the entire bridge to pedestrians on the 50th anniversary, the 75th anniversary went off swimmingly. My dad proudly displayed his 75 year-old Rolls Royce on Crissy Field while bands entertained throughout the day. I hauled around 45 pounds of photo gear all day to get some shots of the fireworks show. We headed down to the roadway to Fort Point to get close to the fireworks, encountering surprisingly few people down there. And no one had a radio so the show had a strange eerie feel as we watched it with no music soundtrack, just booms and foghorn blares. It was nice to see what the show looked like with the full soundtrack (not my video):
Strain at 50
The bridge’s 50th anniversary didn’t go quite as smoothly. For the first time in 50 years, the bridge’s roadway was opened to pedestrians. The people arrived. And they kept arriving. Organizers planned for a maximum
of 50,000 people. 800,000 to a million people showed up. A sea of gridlocked bodies squished together so tightly it was impossible to go anywhere but flow onward to the span. I was one of them. Many suffered from nausea and claustrophobia, but the bridge had bigger problems that day.
A potential disaster was brewing. Maximum load on the bridge in bumper-to-bumper traffic is 2,000 lbs/ft. The bridge was designed to withstand a maximum 5,700 lbs/ft. On May 24, 1987 the bridge was strained under a 6,000 lbs/ft load from the crushing weight of the unexpected crowd. The bridge’s normal bowed-arc flattened and even bowed down a bit in one section. The bridge’s vertical cables near the towers flapped in the 17mph wind while the cables toward the center of the span were stretched tighter than ever.
Structural engineers still debate how near collapse the bridge came that day.
An Interesting History
The bridge’s chief engineer, Joseph Strauss, led the funding, engineering, and construction of the bridge and you’ll find his name everywhere for his achievements. But he didn’t design the bridge you see today. Strauss’ blueprint for the bridge’s design depicted a utilitarian eyesore of cantilevered mishmashed steel, a design that was thankfully trashed.
The actual designer of the bridge is a name virtually obliterated from history. A man named Charles Ellis designed every elegant detail of the bridge down to the rivet placement. Charles Ellis’ name is nowhere to be found on the bridge’s credits on the south tower plaque. It’s an interesting and controversial history. If you pick up a book or catch a documentary on the bridge’s design, you’ll see the bridge in a whole new light.
Sounds of the Bridge
When the fog comes in, the bridge sings out in sweet harmony with rhythmic fog horns to guide ships safely through Golden Gate Straight. The horns are so loud that I can hear them nearly halfway across the city when I’m jogging laps at Kezar Stadium. Two short higher-pitched blasts at midspan followed by a deep wail from the south tower pier at 20 second intervals. Walk or ride to the south tower on a foggy day to feel the bone-rattling blast of the dual 4′ airhorns at the base of the south tower. The soothing harmony of the horns is one of my favorites sounds of the city.
The Bridge in Pictures
I’ve taken thousands of photos of the bridge over the years. Here are a few from different angles: