On 5 January 1933, construction on the Golden Gate Bridge officially began. A variety of engineers, architects, geologists, hydrologists, and city and state administrators had been working on the project for over a decade by that time, with surprising shifts in the final design rather late in the process. The bridge was to be the longest bridge in the world and had the unique challenge of standing over the only access to one of America’s most significant bay areas. The pressure to get it funded and get it done right was extreme, but the rewards were the accomplishment of a lifetime and an American marvel of engineering.
The Golden Gate Strait of the San Francisco Bay needed a bridge. Ferries ran regularly from San Francisco to Marin County, California, starting as early as 1820, but as the city became more congested with road and people traffic, the idea for a bridge grew more and more popular. The distance between the south shore and the north shore of the Golden Gate Strait is only one mile, making it a candidate for a bridge, but would still require a feat of engineering that had never been tested at that length before.
In 1916, James Wilkins, a structural engineer and newspaper editor, brought about a renewed interest in a bridge with an article he wrote in the San Francisco Call Bulletin. His suggestion for a Golden Gate bridge captured the attention of San Francisco City Engineer Michael M. O’Shaughnessy.
In August 1919, city managers gave O’Shaughnessy the green light to start seriously investigating a bridge building project, and he sent requests to potential engineers across the United States. One such feasibility request went to Joseph B. Strauss, an up-and-coming bridge designer who was rather prolific at designing drawbridges across the country. Most of the proposals estimated the cost to be around $100 million and doubted such a bridge could actually be built. But Strauss responded with a preliminary sketch of a bridge design on 28 June 1921, which featured a “hybrid cantilever-suspension” bridge and had an estimated cost of $17 million. When O’Shaughnessy publicly shared Strauss’ design, there was not much public opposition to the cost or the project, although newspaper articles suggested the bridge design to be less than beautiful as a mar to the natural beauty of the strait.
The project moved forward in 1922, and Strauss took it upon himself to promote the bridge and suggested the bridge would ultimately pay for itself with a toll system. He spoke publicly about the benefits of the bridge connecting northern California more directly with the bridge, bringing economic advantage all along the coast. He addressed concerns about naval access, the bridge’s vulnerability to attack in case war broke out, and how it might impede the whole bay if it was bombed or collapsed. He responded to every concern, becoming the project cheerleader and ringmaster.
The city and state government entities moved forward with plans for the bridge, but the War Department had the final say on the construction as it concerned national security. The Army Engineers held a hearing in San Francisco on 16 May 1924 where opposition was voiced, most notably by a number of ferry owners. However, Secretary of War, John W. Weeks, announced the approval of the project on 20 December 1924. The official incorporation of the “Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District” was delayed by litigation until 3 December 1928. Once incorporated, it was the sole entity responsible for the design, construction, and financing of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Some time after 1925, but before 1929, the bridge design shifted from the hybrid cantilever-suspension proposed by Strauss to a full suspension design, which is what was built. There is no record to explain why the shift was made, but the design was informed by engineers Leon Moisseiff, Charles Ellis, O.H. Ammann, and Charles Derleth. The September 1937 Chief Engineer Report indicated the suspension bridge design may have been chosen for its simplicity.
Engineer Charles Ellis was responsible for a significant number of calculations required for the gargantuan structure, which he undertook with tireless commitment until 5 December 1931, when he was pushed to take a vacation by Strauss. While he was on vacation, he was notified that he was fired. He was devastated at the dismissal and continued to work unpaid (independently) until he was satisfied with the calculations. It is unclear why he was fired, but the rumors say that Strauss felt threatened in his position as Chief Engineer by Ellis, while other rumors say Ellis was spending too much money sending telegrams to Moisseiff between New York and Chicago while they worked out the calculations of the suspension design. Ellis’ assistant, Charles Clarahan, Jr., took over.
Irving Morrow joined the project in 1930. He performed an architectural study for the bridge and is responsible for the appearance of the bridge as we know it. Morrow added art deco features to the towers, lighting, railings, and benches, and he is credited with making the decision on the bridge’s famous color. Maybe when we were children, we might have expected the Golden Gate Bridge to be “gold,” but of course we know it by its iconic bright orange red—a color known as “international orange.” The color is actually very close to the color of the primer that came on the steel to protect it from the elements. Morrow found the color to be a good match with geological features and a nice, visible contrast from the water and the sky, without being garish like the black and yellow stripes that had been suggested by the Navy.
Once the construction began in 1933, the project moved forward smoothly. The construction was notable for its safety practices, requiring all workers to wear hard hats and other safety gear. A safety net was employed underneath the bridge “floor,” which is credited for saving the lives of 19 men. Unfortunately, 11 men did lose their lives during construction. Ten of those men died in a single accident right at the end of construction in February 1937, when a work platform fell, crashing through the safety net.
On 28 April 1937, the ceremonial last rivet (which WAS made of gold) was driven into the bridge and the structure was complete, six months ahead of schedule. One month later, on 27 May 1937, the opening ceremony of the world’s longest and tallest bridge was held. Dubbed “Fiesta Week,” a week of celebrations opened with Pedestrian Day, a parade, marching bands, and fireworks. People ran, roller skated, and walked on stilts in an attempt to be the “first” to do it crossing the bridge. The 28th of May was automobile day, marked also by the arrival of the first fleet and a huge flyover conducted by the Navy. President Roosevelt officially opened the bridge to everyone with the press of a telegraph key from the White House.There were speeches by the Governor of California, Frank F. Merriam, and the Mayor of San Francisco, Angelo Rossi. The “father of the Golden Gate Bridge,” Joseph Strauss, even read one of his poems, “At Last the Mighty Task is Done.”
Sadly, Joseph Strauss passed away just one year after the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge, on 16 May 1938. He was 68. He has as his legacy, however, a bridge that was the longest in the world at the time of its construction and today is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, as selected by the American Society of Civil Engineers, and what is popularly accepted as the most photographed bridge in the world.
The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire: Research Amongst the Rubble and Ashes
On 18 April 1906, the initial foreshock was felt through the San Francisco Bay area at 5:12 a.m. and within seconds the ground began to shake and buildings crumbled The earthquake epicenter was near San Francisco in the Pacific Ocean; however, the tremors were felt from southern Oregon to Los Angeles and inland into central Nevada. Though the most violent shocks lasted less than a minute from onset, the impact of the fault rupture on San Francisco was disastrous. Not only were structures left in rubble, the massive earthquake ignited several fires which burned for three days, annihilating almost 500 San Francisco city blocks. The disaster claimed the lives of almost 3,000 people and left over 400,000 San Fransicans homeless.
It is a common misconception that this devastating natural disaster prohibits pre-1906 research in San Francisco due to the loss of the courthouse and its records. Fortunately, that is not the case! Not all was lost and some of the records survived! In addition, some of the records were re-recorded after the disaster and in other cases alternative records can be utilized. This article is not comprehensive of all available records, but instead represents a sampling of some records that are available to aid family historians with San Franciscan roots.
Land records can be a valuable resource for genealogy research and early land records for San Francisco County are available beginning in 1824 almost continuously through 1997. Another under-utilized resource are the extant coroner records for the county. Scant few pre-earthquake records are included in the collection (first quarter 1906), but those following the tragedy are largely complete. Though many of the deaths immediately following the earthquake and fires were “John or Jane Does” who died due to asphyxiation or impact injuries, there are many for identified individuals. In addition to cause of death and accident information, the reports provide details such as age, marital status, nativity, address of residence and occupation.
In some instances, young children were left orphaned by the disaster. The Orphan and Half-Orphan records are available for 1905-1910 and can include information on, not only the child, but the name(s), nativity and dates of death for their parents. Funeral Home records for San Francisco begin as early as 1835 and continue through 1979. Though not a comprehensive source for deaths, they can provide valuable information about our ancestors who died in the area including the dates and locations of birth, occupations and that of marital status.
Other records of interest resulting from the earthquake and fire include the Patient Case Files encompassing the years of 1898-1913. These records include both the military as well as a significant number of civilian patients treated at the Letterman Army Hospital as a result of injuries received during the disaster. In addition to the medical data, the files may include the name and age or other biographically-pertinent details for the patient. If an ancestor was a San Franciscan in 1906 this collection of correspondence, memos and reports regarding the federal emergency response to the disaster can provide great context to their story and insight into the fear and devastation they may have experienced. For additional contextual information, refer to the index-card collection of news articles about the earthquake, which can provide abstracted information about the earthquake, as well as publication outlet and date.
To this day, the earthquake is considered one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States, but all of the genealogically-pertinent pre-1906 details were not lost for the savvy and tenacious family historians. Best of luck finding a gem or two among the rubble and ashes!
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USGS (https://earthquake.usgs.gov/ : accessed 7 January 2022), “The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.”
National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/l : accessed 7 January 2022), “San Francisco Earthquake, 1906.”