By Heidi Noroozy
It’s impossible to imagine San Francisco without the Golden Gate Bridge. The city’s most famous icon is a thing of beauty, soaring effortlessly out of the ever-present California mist. Not only does the structure’s graceful design catch the eye, but the rocky landscape all around it offers unforgettable views. The bridge spans nearly a mile of ocean at the mouth of the San Francisco Bay, from Fort Point in the south to the Marin Headlands in the north. And like so many places in San Francisco, it has a fascinating history.
Built between 1933 and 1937, during the Great Depression, the Golden Gate Bridge celebrated its 75th birthday this year. Yet the idea for its construction was first raised 65 years earlier, in 1869, when Joshua Abraham Norton proposed building a bridge across the straight. Norton had earned a fortune in the Gold Rush and lost it all through unfortunate investments in the rice market. He dealt with his loss badly and later went insane, so perhaps his contemporaries had good reason to dismiss his proposal. But for decades, engineers thought the prospect of building a bridge across the straight to be an impossible feat—the distance was too long, the winds too strong, the ocean too choppy.
A team of architects developed the concept that overcame these obstacles. The project’s chief architect, Joseph Strauss, came up with a basic design then hired two architects, Irving and Gertrude Morrow, to “make it beautiful.” In the end, the team designed a suspension bridge that was not only aesthetically pleasing but also had the tallest towers, thickest and longest cables, and biggest foundation piers at the time.
The construction project also set unprecedented safety standards. Strauss insisted that workers wear protective headgear and glare-free goggles, not at all common practice at the time. A safety net that stretched from one end of the bridge to the other saved the lives of 19 men, who became known as the Halfway-To-Hell Club. Until just a few months before the bridge was completed, only one man died on the job. But on February 17, 1937, ten men fell to their deaths when their scaffolding collapsed and ripped the safety net.
One of the biggest misconceptions about the bridge is how it got its name. When I take out-of-town guests to see the bridge, someone inevitably exclaims, “But it’s not golden at all!” In fact, the structure is painted a color called “international orange,” a rusty reddish tint, chosen because it complements the natural surroundings and is easily seen in the fog—a boon to incoming ships. The bridge is named after the Golden Gate Strait that it spans, which, incidentally, got its own moniker in 1846 when the explorer, Captain John Fremont, found that the surrounding landscape reminded him of Istanbul’s Golden Horn.
The Golden Gate Bridge also has a dark side: It is the world’s most popular spot for suicides. Since 1937, an estimated 1,600 people have jumped to their deaths from the bridge. The reasons for this sinister statistic are varied, everything from the bridge’s iconic status to the fact that death by falling 200 feet into a churning sea is a pretty sure thing—the survival rate is a mere 2 percent. But probably the main reason is the bridge’s easy accessibility. The railing along the pedestrian walkway is only 4 feet high, low enough for anyone to climb over. To combat the high suicide rate, the bridge has a hotline with telephones that connect the caller to a crisis center. And there are plans to place a net under the bridge, similar to the one that saved the lives of the Halfway-To-Hell Club, but made of stainless steel.
This darker history, tragic as it is, doesn’t detract much from the structure’s fascination. I live barely an hour from the Golden Gate and have long lost count of the times I’ve visited the bridge. And yet I can still sit for hours watching its ever changing moods. One day it rises out of the mist, another time its Art Deco towers disappear into the clouds. And on a rare sunny day, the orange-tinted span even seems to sparkle with a hint of gold.