San Francisco’s Gold Standard: The Golden Gate Bridge & Its Historic Glory

Golden Gate Bridge

A sea salt wind has been whipping through your hair for days. As you curve around yet another hairpin turn, you’re greeted by a new Pacific Ocean view, the likes of which you’ll never tire. You’re cruising up California State Route 1 – the ultimate West Coast vacation.

You and your wheels have seen the mind-boggling congestion of Los Angeles, the picturesque cragginess of Big Sur, the humble history of Monterey… But the piece de resistance of California’s coast is still just around the bend.

Enter the postcard-worthy prospect you’ve been waiting for: the Golden Gate Bridge. The Bay Area’s trademark fogs have started to roll in, and the bridge’s iconic vermillion towers rise out of the mists like a modern Avalon.

Indeed, this is an otherworldly view, and a fitting introduction to San Francisco. In spite of its controversial beginnings and constant need for maintenance, the Golden Gate Bridge has firmly planted itself in the hearts of citizens nationwide and in the annals of great engineering landmarks. Don’t believe us? Ask the tens of thousands who attended the bridge’s 75th anniversary festival in 2012.

Stretching 4,200 feet over the Golden Gate Strait, this classic suspension bridge connects San Francisco to Marin County via not only California State Route 1, but also U.S. Route 101. The American Society of Civil Engineers has dubbed it one of the Wonders of the Modern World, and its innovative design and once record-breaking length surely make the title well-deserved.

Visit the Golden Gate Suspension Bridge

The bridge played a critical role in San Francisco’s growth in the early 20th century. For several decades, furious debates swirled around the Golden Gate Strait – named by an army captain who compared the bay to a similar body of water in Istanbul – and how to cross it. Many claimed the area’s strong winds, torrential currents, and ultimate depth of 372 feet would make erecting a bridge impossible. So, for over one hundred years, the Golden Gate Ferry Company, owned by Southern Pacific Railroad, reigned supreme.

But, necessity is the mother of invention, and in 1916, an ambitious engineering student’s proposal prompted the San Francisco City Engineer to solicit plans for a cost-effective bridge design. Though the student’s article recommended a course of action that proved too expensive for the city to undertake, the gears for a feasible solution were finally turning, and the result was the road beneath your very feet.

Driving across the bridge in the fog gives you a keener eye for its architectural details, as segments glide in and out of sight through the low-rolling clouds.

You first notice that the bridge’s unmistakable red color is actually a vibrant shade of orange – International Orange, to be specific. Contributing architect Irving Morrow, an undecorated resident of the area, selected the paint precisely so it would stand out amongst the fog – and you can now count your blessings that it does!

During construction, the U.S. Navy actually recommended the bridge be painted in an even more visible color scheme of black and yellow stripes, but Morrow’s aesthetic vision triumphed and on clear days, the bridge now cuts a bold figure against the warm tones of San Francisco and Marin County.

Golden Gate Bridge's Art Deco DesignMorrow is also responsible for the Art Deco styling you can see all over the bridge. From the modest pedestrian railings and angular lampposts, to the vertical ribbing on each of the bridge towers’ horizontal bracing, Morrow’s eye for design made the Golden Gate Bridge the impressive landmark it is today – one that catches the sunlight perfectly, one that makes the towers seem to rise majestically above the fog, as they do now.

As you near the second and final tower on your crossing, you spy the riveting holding the bridge together on its concrete base. These are, in fact, only a few of the 1,200,000 rivets contributing to the bridge’s structure, and the cables gracefully arcing overhead are comprised of a whopping 80,000 miles of wire.

As you find yourself back on solid ground, you’ll be not in San Francisco, but in neighboring Marin County. Don’t turn around and head into the city yet, though. The nearby town of Sausalito is home to several artisan shops, while the Marin Headlands hold the area’s best hiking, where you can snap your own interpretation of that famous Golden Gate view against the San Francisco skyline.

While it may not hold the record for the world’s longest suspension bridge main span anymore, you can imagine how remarkable its length was upon its opening on May 27, 1937, and how impossible it seemed upon the project’s beginning in the late 1910s.

It was engineer Joseph Strauss who headed up the bridge’s plans and, until recently, was given sole credit for the bridge’s design. While Strauss had a great deal of assistance from Morrow and other experts, including Manhattan Bridge designer Leon Moisseiff and fellow engineer Charles Alton Ellis, it was he who initially proposed a suspension bridge design and successfully combatted numerous legal complaints during the project’s conception.

As you end your hike and return across the bridge to San Francisco, paying the small toll on your way, you consider those early days of the Golden Gate Bridge. Not just an American, but an international icon of this caliber is so deeply ingrained in our cultural landscape, it seems strange that its origins should have been so controversial. But, Strauss did meet a great deal of opposition from many corners.

The Southern Pacific Railroad was not enamored with the idea of their ferry service across the Golden Gate Strait suddenly having competition, and they lobbied against the project with all their might. Labor unions worried that steelworkers wouldn’t be fairly compensated if construction began, while the Department of War was concerned the bridge would interfere with ship traffic, as San Francisco’s maritime locale did make it an important military site.

You don’t think of San Francisco as a place with much of a military history, but once you’re in town, you stop briefly at Fort Point, and learn it protected the city during the American Civil War. It’s not open on weekdays, so you make a note to return for one of their Civil War reenactments at a later date.

Before you get back in the car, a red plaque bearing the silhouette of two handprints catches your eye. Commemorating bridge ironworker and volunteer rescue worker Ken Hopper, “Hoppers Hands” reminds you that the bridge’s troubles didn’t end when Strauss overcame his opposition. Over 1,400 people have jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge to their deaths, making it the second most used suicide site in the world. You realize that as you crossed the bridge earlier, those blue signs for “Crisis Counseling” were advertising the special suicide hotline telephones affixed to the bridge, and the emergency services personnel on patrol were there to watch for potential jumpers.

Though sobering, this double-edged sword of the Golden Gate Bridge’s fame is an important piece of its history, and you find yourself regarding its beauty with a new tragic complexity.

After a quick jaunt into the Roadhouse – former restaurant, now gift shop – for a few cheesy souvenirs, you leave your car at the bridge’s recreation area parking lot for a small fee and swap four wheels for two. The weather has markedly improved and you look forward to stretching your legs on a cycling tour of Crissy Field.

Cyclist - Golden Gate

You’re joined by several other cyclists, pedestrians, and even folks on roller blades. Families with dogs frolic along the beach and you see why this Marina attraction is so popular, as the Golden Gate Bridge remains your constant backdrop while you pedal along the waterfront.

As you enjoy the view, you think of the hundreds of people crossing the bridge now. In addition to six lanes of vehicle traffic, you know the bridge is open to pedestrians and bicycles from 5am to 9pm. In fact, at the time of its 1937 opening, the bridge was open exclusively to pedestrians, and it was only the next day that Mayor Angelo Rossi led a motorcade across the bridge into San Francisco to the fitting soundtrack “There’s a Silver Moon on the Golden Gate.”

The city reenacted this special opening day ritual by closing to vehicle traffic once again in observance of its 50th anniversary in 1987. But, ineffective crowd control meant 300,000 people unexpectedly swarmed onto the bridge at once, ultimately flattening its center span. Fortunately, Strauss’ masterpiece was built to flex under heavy loads, but now pedestrian-only days are a thing of the past.

As you turn back towards the bridge so you can retrieve your car, you spy ferries crossing the Golden Gate Strait as well. Despite the 19th century monopoly’s fears, this historic mode of transport was never fully wiped out. You also see city buses, tour buses, and even the occasional limousine crossing the lengthy span. For a moment, you harbor hopes of a celebrity spotting before remembering that some specialty tour operators let regular Joes like you rent a limo to tour San Francisco in luxury.

After hopping back in the car and heading to Hyde Street Pier and Coit Tower for a few more photo ops of the Golden Gate Bridge in all its glory, the ground beneath your feet begins to quiver. The incomparable rumblings confirm you’re in the middle of a bona fide San Francisco earthquake. As the San Andreas Fault ceases its shift for the time being, you realize earthquakes and severe weather must pose a serious threat to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Golden Gate Strait

The 320-foot arch over Fort Point, where you earlier found Civil War history and Hoppers Hands, has experienced support failure before, proving that this giant of American history is not indestructible. A complicated and costly seismic retrofit was added to the bridge’s maintenance roster in the ‘00s.

The bridge has also had to close on three occasions due to severe winds – nothing like the moderate gusts you feel now while navigating San Francisco’s famous hills. Speeds of up to 75 miles per hour have been recorded on the anemometer halfway between the bridge’s two towers.

And, of course, painting is a constant point of concern. Contrary to popular belief, the bridge is not painted from end to end once a year, or indeed on any kind of schedule. Rather, painting the bridge is a process of constant ongoing touch-ups with acrylic topcoat to combat corrosion.

It’s a pricey venture, that’s to be sure. While Strauss initially projected a cost of $17 million – worth over $350 million today – the 1929 stock market crash threw a wrench into financial proceedings and the bridge’s construction wound up clocking in at over $35 million – worth over $750 million today.

Add in a $30 million movable median system, installed earlier this year, the $392 million required for the seismic retrofitting project, and countless other maintenance costs, and you’re quite thankful you’re not part of San Francisco’s city finance department.

All thoughts of dollars and cents vanish from your mind, however, when you flip on the hotel television to find Mrs. Doubtfire airing on cable. Robin Williams’ beloved housekeeping character rides bicycles in Crissy Field with his children as the Golden Gate Bridge sits stalwartly in the background. “I’ve been there!” you think fondly.

You remind yourself of all the other films the bridge appears in – from Indiana Jones flying over the newly completed structure in 1936 to countless futuristic visions of the bridge in the Star Trek franchise. Innumerable pop culture iterations of the Golden Gate Bridge are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to recognizing its firm place in American history.

As you drift off to sleep, you look forward to exploring other San Francisco landmarks the next day. Riding a cable car, exploring Chinatown, and getting groovy in Haight-Ashbury top your list. You’d like to cross the Golden Gate Bridge again before you leave, but you’re in no hurry.

Its infamous cable-strung, International Orange towers are sure to be around for a while.

Danielle Bricker
Danielle Bricker is the girl you see smelling the pages of Pride & Prejudice in the corner of a used bookstore. She is an avid reader, occasional hiker, and an obsessively neat eater. Between her day job in nonprofit management and various freelance gigs, she is planning a year-long tour around the world and aims to visit 30 countries before she turns 30.