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 California's dominion over nature, creating 1.7 miles of new coastline where God had not bothered. After a centurylong westward push, it was a fitting high hat to American expansionism -- and on the eve of its 75th anniversary, it is a perfect party hat for all Californians.
The twin spires of the bridge support cables containing 80,000 miles of steel wire, each individual strand only 0.196 inches in diameter. Together, these great braids weigh 49 million pounds, steel filaments spun in place to last a thousand years, then lowered from their towers, like Rapunzel's hair.
It remains California's defining icon -- as visionary bridge builder Joseph Strauss and his dream team of engineers and designers intended -- breathing life into the region by attracting 10 million visitors a year. But the bridge is also a place where more than 1,600 people have gone to die, making it by far the leading venue for suicide in the world.
After three quarters of a century its towers still evoke the striking verticality of the state's urban centers, while the rising arc of its suspension cables hint at the high Sierra. Part Parthenon, part parkway, the bridge symbolizes the "paradox of California," according to historian Kevin Starr's "Golden Gate," a celebration of the bridge's bewitching dualities.
Surely, Kate Curry was in its thrall when she had the bridge tattooed on her right leg. "Both my parents were addicts when I was a child," says Curry, 22, who has had 16 addresses in the Bay Area. "No matter where we lived, the Golden Gate Bridge symbolized home to me." She spent two years preparing her own drawing of the steel span, which incorporates detail down to the bridge's streetlights. The tattoo is black and white because the radiant "international orange," mixed specially by Sherwin-Williams, was impossible to duplicate.
When Curry's parents got sober, they moved to the North Bay, which the bridge connected to San Francisco and other places she had lived. Every New Year's Day, she returns to it with the mother and father she waited most of her life to know. "The bridge represents the crossing over to a better life for me and my family," she says. "Now we walk the bridge to enjoy its beauty and each other."
Until the Golden Gate and Bay bridges opened -- almost in unison -- knitting the Bay Area together, San Francisco remained a great, international mercantile center, limited by being bounded on three sides by water. Nearly half the state's population lived around the bay, but with 300,000 cars crossing the strait between Marin County and the city by boat each year, the Ferry Terminal was the second-busiest transportation hub in the world, after London's Charing Cross Station.
Liz Bernier recalls Sunday drives from San Francisco to Sausalito with her family in the 1930s, dreading the hour idling in line before returning on the car ferry. "The waits were terrible coming back," says Bernier, now 92. During four years of bridge construction, she and her father sometimes skipped the drive and headed to San Francisco's Crissy Field. There they watched, along with other awed families, 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 a meeting in the middle, there was always a feeling of unease among the crowd. "We could see all the men waiting to get jobs," she says. "I didn't realize at the time how desperate they were."
One of the men who built the bridge was Charlie Heinbockel, who -- but for a lucky twist of fate -- might have perished there in 1936. Instead, he enjoyed a long life. Before his death at 96 in 2007, Heinbockel returned to the bridge for a final visit, 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. Heinbockel made $5.50 a day during the depths of the Depression, he told the men, proudly bringing every penny home to his mother and father.
"He knew he was lucky to have a job," says Heinbockel's daughter, Arlene Gordon, of San Bruno. Day after day, concrete was poured into the anchorages that would hold the towers in place under the channel's swirling waters -- 182,000 cubic yards in all, or two 10-story buildings, constructed upside down, one underwater. "His first job," Gordon recalls, "was spending all day smashing around in the cement footings to get the bubbles and rocks out."
The bridge's construction required precise calculations involving huge numbers, which were then carried out using brute force and the sort of manpower that built the great pyramids of Egypt, many of the men equipped with tools that had not changed much since the Stone Age. Charles Alton Ellis, a bookish engineer hired by Strauss 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 for two weeks. Before he could return, Strauss fired him. 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. "There was not a supercomputer to be found," says Anthea Hartig, executive director of the California Historical Society, where the exhibit "A Wild Flight of the Imagination" tells the bridge's story.
Ellis' calculations eventually were rejected by designer Leon Moisseiff, who came up with the elegant suspension design. But Strauss was worried enough that Ellis might be right that he commissioned a "test tower," built to 1/56th scale, at Princeton University. Ellis was never officially credited for his work, and at his death in 1949, it was unclear if he had ever even seen the bridge in person. On Friday, the American Society of Civil Engineers will redress that slight by adding his name to a plaque on the south tower.
In anticipation of the 75th birthday party, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy has refurbished trails for the nearly 6,000 bicyclists -- bridge workers call the most remorseless of them "Spandex warriors" -- and up to 10,000 pedestrians who cross the span daily. The one thing that hasn't improved at the south approach is parking, which remains almost nonexistent.
"There are people who went to the bridge to jump but didn't because they couldn't find a parking place," says John Bateson, author of "The Final Leap," a new book about suicides at the bridge, and a former director of the Contra Costa Crisis Center. In 2011, there were 37 suicides on the bridge and about 100 others were stopped before they could climb over the rail. Put another way, every third day, someone went to the Golden Gate intending to die there.
The Coast Guard's Golden Gate station has one of the service's highest turnover rates, presumably because crews are required to recover so many bodies. "There is this perception that it's a quick, easy and virtually painless way to die," Bateson says, "and in fact that's far from the case." About 5 percent of those who jump survive the fall and end up drowning, their organs exploded and bones shattered. Determined to avoid that fate, one woman who jumped shot herself in the head on the way down.
Heinbockel came close to falling to his death from the bridge he helped build. 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 in the bay's icy waters. Heinbockel avoided the tragedy only because he had returned to college weeks before the accident.
Seventy-five years later, the Golden Gate Bridge remains a living, swaying, heaving, breathing organism. Maintenance rarely ceases beneath the roadway, where the constant rumble of traffic and at least two distinct microclimates take their toll. "The north end is like the bloody Riviera," says Denis Mulligan, general manager of the bridge district, "compared to the south, which can be foggy, windy and miserable."
It's not uncommon to see the bridge's orange towers rise like steeples from a white cathedral of fog, seeming to unmoor themselves from the land -- a dazzling trick for a structure weighing 1.8 billion pounds.
Before cars were allowed on the Golden Gate Bridge, a day was set aside for people to walk across it, and Bernier was there. The nuns dismissed classes so everyone could take part in the excitement. Bernier paid 25 cents for a pedestrian pass that took her to the Marin Headlands, then she and her friends walked down to Sausalito, where they waited for a ferry back to San Francisco. Old habits died hard.
From below, she could take it all in: the breathtaking orange rainbow riding at the edge of sea and sky, people waving at her. "To this day, driving across the bridge, I get a funny feeling in my stomach," she says. "It will always be there, I hope. I guess I'm very proud of it. It's almost like I built it."
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