The Golden Gate Bridge continued human's dominion over nature -- a bridge that was not just for transport, but transcendence.
SAN FRANCISCO - It rises from the western edge of the continent like a crown, the apex of an American dream begun 3,000 miles earlier at the Statue of Liberty. When it opened May 27, 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge provided the country -- weary from the Great Depression and worried about rising talk of war -- with one final, majestic projection of its Manifest Destiny. Here was a bridge not just for transport, but transcendence.
A mighty lariat of concrete and steel flung across the entrance to San Francisco Bay, the bridge continued human's dominion over nature, creating 1.7 miles of new coastline where God had not bothered.
On the eve of its 75th anniversary, it remains an American icon -- as visionary bridge builder Joseph Strauss and his dream team of engineers and designers intended.
Liz Bernier, 92, recalls drives from San Francisco to Sausalito with her family in the 1930s. During four years of construction, she and her father would watch the spinning and weaving of the steel web that would create what was then the world's longest suspension bridge.
Despite the "free entertainment" of watching the span's two ends growing toward each other, there was a feeling of unease. "We could see all the men waiting to get jobs," she said. "I didn't realize at the time how desperate they were."
A lucky twist of fate
One of the men who built the bridge was Charlie Heinbockel, who -- but for a lucky twist of fate -- might have died there. Instead, he enjoyed a long life.
Strauss had made an unprecedented investment in his workers' safety, stretching a movable net under the bridge during construction. The 19 men who fell into the net and lived referred to themselves as the Halfway to Hell Club. But in 1936, a scaffold toppled into the net, taking 10 workmen on Heinbockel's crew to their deaths. But weeks earlier, Heinbockel had returned to college.
Before his death at 96 in 2007, he returned to the bridge, and the ironworkers, engaged in the ceaseless repair work required by the weather's daily assault, scrambled down from catwalks hundreds of feet in the air to meet him. He made $5.50 a day during the depths of the Depression, he said, proudly bringing every penny home to his mother and father.
The bridge's construction required precise calculations involving huge numbers, which were then carried out using brute force; many of the men equipped with tools that had not changed much since the Stone Age. Charles Alton Ellis, a bookish engineer hired to crunch the complex numbers, labored for years to make sure, as a 1937 Bethlehem Steel pamphlet pointed out, that the tops of the concrete piers were "ground down to an accuracy within one thirty-second of an inch."
But when Ellis confronted Strauss with calculations suggesting the bridge's towers might topple over in some future catastrophe, he was ordered to go on vacation -- then fired. Even in exile, Ellis remained so committed to the bridge that he continued working obsessively on the project, spending an additional five months without pay, checking every measurement, using only his head, a circular slide rule and a pencil.
Ellis was never officially credited for his work -- a slight redressed this week when the American Society of Civil Engineers added his name to a plaque on the south tower.
Seventy-five years later, the bridge remains a living, swaying, heaving, breathing organism. For Bernier, it has remained a touchstone. She said: "I guess I'm very proud of it. It's almost like I built it."