The year was 1933. FDR was sworn into office for his first term. The 21st Amendment ended Prohibition and the New Deal began. It was also the year construction commenced on one of the nation’s most recognizable man-made landmarks, the Golden Gate Bridge. The historical events that occurred during the building of the bridge include some of the most significant moments in American history: the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the establishment of the F.B.I., the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, and the Hindenburg disaster, to name a few.
The interesting thing about living through such a prolific time in history, is that you don’t always appreciate the events as they unfold. During the 1930’s, most people were so busy trying to make a living that they could not pause to consider that they were experiencing some of the darkest chapters in American history, and some of the most exhilarating. Today, I’d like to tell you about the men who built the Golden Gate Bridge, the workers who made history, whether they knew it or not.
Men of Steel
For the men fortunate enough to land steady work on the bridge’s construction, it was a golden opportunity! 1933 union salaries ranged from $4 to $11 per day. To put that into perspective, those wages would have had the same buying power as $73 to $201, today. And to put it in even greater perspective, it was the GREAT DEPRESSION! One quarter of American men were unemployed. People were desperate and those salaries meant family safety and security during a time filled with poverty. This was quite an incentive, and the opportunity of a lifetime.
When word got out that ironworkers were being hired in San Francisco, men came from far and wide searching for their pot of gold. Workers were required to belong to local unions, and that meant they had to be residents of San Francisco. But that didn’t stop the out-of-towners from coming in droves. They purchased addresses and Social Security numbers from locals. The fact that many of the men didn’t have any actual experience in ironwork didn’t stop them either. Applying for a job in the days before Google existed was quite different. Lumberjacks, farmers, cab drivers, cowboys, and paper pushers all magically became men with “previous experience” as ironworkers.
Heart of Gold
The Chief Designer of the bridge, Joseph B. Strauss, had a heart of gold when it came to the safety of the bridge builders. It may sound like a no-brainer, but Strauss demanded that all workers wear safety helmets, glare resistant safety goggles, and safety lines. Mining equipment was specially modified for the task. The hardheaded workers who refused to wear the safety equipment found themselves standing in soup lines! Safety wasn’t optional if you wanted to work for Strauss. You might say safety was the Golden Rule and men who didn’t adhere to that burned their bridges!
Strauss went beyond some of the more obvious safety measures. Creams for the hands and faces were provided to help protect skin from the biting San Francisco winds. He even insisted on special diets for the men, to combat dizziness. And any man who dared show up to work with a hangover was given a sauerkraut juice cure. (That should have put a halt to drinking before a workday!) Riveters were provided with respirator masks to prevent the inhalation of the fumes created when the hot rivets stuck to the lead paint of the towers. There was also a well-staffed, on-site hospital.
The greatest safety measure was a $130,000.00 safety net – – $2,378,050.00 in today’s dollars – – under the entire expanse of the bridge and extending ten feet beyond on each side. The idea was reminiscent of a net for circus acrobats. Hey, there was no need to be one of the Flying Wallendas . . . nets are a good thing! As someone who gets sweaty palms while standing on a balcony, I can say with complete confidence that nets are a very good thing, no matter what the cost! Regardless of how high the workers were, or how strong the wind that blew them from their perches, the net was supposed to catch them.
Bridge Over Troubled Water
It was expected that lives would be lost. They calculated that the life of one bridge worker would be lost for every million dollars spent. That didn’t bode very well for the workers on the $35 million Golden Gate Bridge. Fortunately, that innovative safety net and other safety precautions did help. (And never underestimate the power of sauerkraut juice!) But for all of the precautions, accidents did happen. The first fatality occurred in October 1936. And then, in February 1937, the unthinkable happened when a section of scaffold fell through the safety net, plunging twelve men into the water 746 feet below. Miraculously, two of the twelve men survived. A plaque honoring the men whose lives were lost is located at the south side entrance to the bridge’s west sidewalk.
An elite group of bridge builders formed a club no one wanted to join, the Halfway-to-Hell Club. Oh, I’m sure the club members were lovely men, but the initiation was insane! In order to become a member of the group, workers had to fall from the bridge, putting the safety net to the test. All told, the Halfway-to-Hell Club boasted 19 members, proving that the net was worth its weight in gold!
Don’t Keep Me In Suspense: Fun Facts about the Golden Gate Bridge
- The Golden Gate Bridge was designed to withstand 8-point earthquakes. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake is estimated to have measured 7.8. It can also withstand winds of 90 mph. Strong winds have only caused a bridge closure three times since its construction. In fact, the bridge has closed more times for visits of political figures than for weather.
- Prior to the bridge, the only way across the bay was by ferry. Wanting to remain the “only show in town,” ferry companies spent six years in court trying to prevent the bridge from being constructed.
- The bridge weighs in at 887,000 tons and is 1.7 miles in length.
- The toll to cross the bridge was originally $0.50. Commuters paying with FasTrak now pay $6.25 to cross.
- Each of the two towers is held together with 600,000 rivets. Riveting!
- The bridge’s two main cables contain 80,000 miles of wire! If laid end to end, the wire could circle the globe three times.
- Joseph B. Strauss’s original plans for the bridge called for “suicide-proof” pedestrian fencing in excess of 5-ft. That height was later lowered by the designer of the bridge, Irving Morrow. Today, the bridge is the site of an average of three suicides each month. In July 2014, the Golden Gate Bridge Board of Directors approved a $76 million funding package to erect and fund a suicide deterrent net on the bridge.
- At least three babies have been born on the Golden Gate Bridge.
- The Golden Gate Bridge has been featured in so many movies and television shows that there isn’t an accurate count. My personal favorite use of the bridge by Hollywood is in the Hitchcock film Vertigo, even though the lack of traffic on the bridge makes me chuckle every time I watch it.
- One of the most obvious facts is that the Golden Gate Bridge is not gold. It is orange. The U.S. Navy had wanted the bridge to be painted with black and yellow stripes, like a giant bumblebee! The Army Air Corp had wanted it to be red and white striped like a candy cane. Ultimately, safety orange won out. What a fitting tribute to a bridge that revolutionized safety measures.
I think that you will enjoy this fascinating video, which has original film footage from 1930s of the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge from the beginning to completion.