Golden Gate

The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge, Kevin Starr, Bloomsbury.

In the seventy-three years since it opened, the Golden Gate Bridge has become the defining symbol of the West Coast of the United States. But as Kevin Starr demonstrates in his new history of the bridge, things could have turned out much differently. Never mind the engineering challenges; for a long time it seemed no one wanted a bridge across the mouth of San Francisco Bay. Southern Pacific didn’t want one because it promised to threaten their ferry operation, and the U.S. Navy objected because it believed a bridge would be shelled during wartime and collapse, thereby blocking the harbor. Meanwhile, the initial design for the Golden Gate was anything but awe-inspiring. Starr describes it as clumsy monstrosity, and it has also been referred to as an upside-down rat trap.

But after decades of false starts, construction finally got underway in January 1933, the low point of the Great Depression. The author, a professor at the University of Southern California, spends the lion’s share of the book recounting how the Golden Gate got built, devoting entire chapters to the site, design, politics, and financing. Readers unfamiliar with the history of the bridge should find “Golden Gate” a fascinating read, especially the sections geared towards engineering, construction, and safety initiatives.

As it happens, eleven workers lost their lives during construction, but not for lack of attention to worker safety. Chief engineer Joseph Strauss established a hard-hat requirement (soon to become an industry standard) and spent more than $130,000 on a safety net a web of six-inch squares woven from manila rope, cantilevered and suspended beneath the roadway—which provided a sense of security and thereby increased productivity. Nevertheless, on February 17, 1937, a five-ton platform beneath the north tower broke loose from its moorings and ripped the net, killing ten workers who plunged into the water below.

As we now know, those men wouldn’t be the last to die via that route. The penultimate chapter of Golden Gate addresses the dark subject of suicide, noting that approximately 1,300 people have jumped off the bridge since it opened, an ongoing problem that inspired Eric Steel’s documentary The Bridge (which includes footage of successful suicide leaps), and prompted the approval of funds to design a suicide net.

Arguably the most compelling bit in the book, however, is Starr’s discussion of the fiftieth anniversary celebration, held on the morning of Sunday May 24, 1987, when the Golden Gate was closed to automobile traffic and pedestrians were encouraged to walk across from either side. Instead of passing each other on either side of the roadway as planned, the two phalanxes ran into each other head-on and came to a standstill, recounts Starr, causing pedestrian gridlock—the weight of an estimated 250,000 people noticeably straining the bridge, the packed-together-like-sardines crowd unnerved by the decided sway of the roadbed, which was exacerbated by thirty- to thirty-five mile per hour winds.

“It is virtually beyond comprehension to contemplate what might have happened—possibly the greatest man-made accident in human history—had the bridge not been strengthened the previous year,” writes the author. “But we now look back on that day as testament to the popularity of the Golden Gate as icon and destination,” declares Starr, “a hectic, perilous, yet joyful morning, [when] a million people celebrated their identification with a bridge that conferred upon their metropolitan region its most compelling symbol of urban achievement.”