The backstory: In 1987 – I, as a Reno member of a San Francisco writing group and in an effort to get the membership off their butts and give up their Dick-and-Jane level of prose, challenged them to write a piece about what would happen should the Golden Gate Bridge fall into the Bay. As part of the challenge I wrote the first chapter, trying to inveigle some of them to get aboard and write a second, third, final chapter, each independent of the preceding author’s work. I threw down the gauntlet, but none came forth with any subsequent chapters. I said to hell with it and forgot about it until I was recently invited to write a SF-based piece on the Ol’ Reno Guy thing. I dragged the following out – it was typewritten, so I just recast it on my laptop exactly as I wrote it originally. Anybody want to add a chapter? Go for it; I’ll gladly make some space available here!
It was created on a tide-swept body of water a hundred feet more than a mile across, with currents ravaged by the influx of fresh water from nine major California rivers.
Eleven-hundred feet south of the San Francisco Presidio Joseph Strauss, generally credited as the designer of the project, began work on an Art Deco tower which, in the ensuing two years would rise 746 feet above the high-water line of the Bay. The tower would be built of steel boxes, three-and-a-half feet square, welded together in multiples and form the massive base, to then taper off as the tower rose above the water. It was topped with a flat plate, upon which would rest ten round steel pipes and a saddle to support a cable. The pipes and saddle were to roll freely during construction.
On the dry land of the Marin shore 4,200 feet to the north, another like tower was built, a duplicate of the one rising out of the water. When completed, skeptics swore that the two towers, viewed from a distance, had a noticeable lean away from each other toward their respective shores. In fact, each tower was 12’-6” off plumb; the cagey engineer knew that the massive load each tower would bear would tug the tops of the structures together to form straight lines. What the critics missed in the years to come was that the towers remain slightly off-plumb inward, to compensate for the curvature of the earth and thus appear parallel from a distance.
One morning a slim galvanized wire, about the diameter of a pencil lead, was stretched across the water, lifted to the top of the north tower, then allowed to sag across the span and rise back up to the top of the south tower. The wire, by then over 7,000 feet long, was connected to a steel eye in a 60,000-ton concrete block on the Marin shore. The spinning machine then pulled a like wire back along the same route, and it was connected to another anchor block adjoining Fort Point in San Francisco’s Presidio. When the spinning machine had made 432 trips across the bay, it had completed a 2-7/8-inch cable. It would make 60 more like cables on each side of the towers. With the completion of each cable, the saddle resting on the pipes atop each tower would be moved hydraulically slightly toward the center of the span, so that when all 61 cables were complete, the resulting two 37” main cables for the bridge would be exactly centered on the top of both of the towers. Both of the sets of 61 cables were spread from the main cables and anchored at the Fort Point and Marin (Lime Point) anchorages.
The two main cables, originally hexagonal, were compressed to round with hydraulic presses and wrapped with light wire. The pipes at the top of each tower, placed to enable moving the saddles, were grouted into place permanently.
Lighter galvanized cables, woven on shore in a plant on the Marin side, were suspended down from the main cables every 72 feet in groups of two, holding a steel structure which would soon support a roadbed six car-lanes wide and a sidewalk on either side. Consideration was give to the fact that most of the weight would be borne on one side of the bridge during the morning commute and transferred across the span in the evening as automobiles returned to Marin County.
The pavers followed, and the electricians placed the revolutionary sodium-vapor lights in the bridge’s Art Deco theme [pictured left]. While this work proceeded, the untold story remained the construction of roads leading through the Presidio and Waldo Grade, where a tunnel had to be bored. The access roads accounted for a major part of the expenditure for the bridge, but lacked the flair and excitement of high-steel work over a body of water!
The two slim towers, out of plumb three years before but now bearing the weight of 96,000 tons of steel plus 24,000 cubic yards of asphalt paving, pulled together to appear truly vertical. The massive concrete anchors for the main cables at either end of the span yielded, according to the best surveying techniques available in 1936 – and later confirmed by more modern techniques – not a fraction of an inch [the north anchorage is evident just to the north/right of the Lime Point landing in the photo below].
On May 27, 1937 the bridge opened to foot traffic, followed a day later by the first cars to cross the span. The pedestrians, on this wind-calm day absent of any vehicles, could scarcely sense that the roadway beneath their feet, at the midpoint of the span, could rise or fall 15 feet, or swing toward the blue Pacific or Alcatraz Island a distance of 27 feet.
Fifty years passed, and on a bright day in late May of 1987, the noise of cars clicking across the steel expansion joins in the roadway abated, and a pedestrian crowd returned to relive the opening of the span. It was a day of celebration; a day when the bridge reached its 50th birthday. The red-oxide paint on the structure, chosen as much for its rust-resistant properties as its Golden link to the Bay’s early heritage, appeared a little brighter than the day prior. The water below was bluer; the sun picked up the silver in the Goodyear blimp Columbia, slowly orbiting overhead, and the mufti of the ship’s company assembled on the flight deck of the carrier Enterprise, laying on the hook bayward of the Gate. The skies were clear, and the revelers could see the Farallones twelve miles to the west and the verdant hills of Mt. Diablo to the east. Indeed, not a day to be without extra film for the camera.
A two-inch valve opened in the air pipe supplying the foghorn at midspan, just as it had opened every twenty seconds during foggy days for the last 50 years. The rush of air powered the typhon to a throaty toot that could be heard to Alameda, temporarily drowning out San Francisco’s own Huey Lewis & the News, performing on a barge 220 feet below the bridge. The horn signaled that the bridge, for the first time in 50 years, was open exclusively to foot traffic.
People, eventually 800,000 of them, give or take a couple thousand, came in all shapes and sizes; in jogging shorts and late-1930s costumes. They came alone and in groups, some as snakes and serpentines, the old and the young, and those in-between, to walk the Gate. The crowd amazed even those who had years before become accustomed to the sea of humanity convening annually a few miles away during the Bay-to-Breakers footrace.
A Golden Gate District shuttle bus stopped at the Sausalito Vista Point, and deposited another 40 celebrants. Among that group was a family with Bay Area roots. Indeed one of the group – the matriarch from nearby Petaluma – had walked the bridge when it opened in 1937. Some came from near – Napa – others came over the Sierra from Reno, and one journeyed from faraway Tucson. They had come, as so many others did, to walk the bridge as a family. Some might have the opportunity to do it again 50 years hence at the bridge’s centennial. For others it was a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. They walked down the slight grade, directed by the matriarch: the large, the small, the old, young, middle-aged; the good, the bad and the ugly.
Five-hundred-ten feet above the group, far from the noise of the crowd, unseen by any living thing save for possibly a seagull resting on a cable clamp, and only a few hundred feet south of the Marin tower, a suspension cable, 2-7/8 inches in diameter plus the thickness of the galvanizing and some 25 coats of red-oxide paint; a cable, scheduled to be replaced in a dozen years pair-by-pair; a cable which, with its miles of neighbors had supported the span under which passed the soldiers and sailors who waged then returned from three world-wide military conflicts.
A cable which had tacitly overseen Marin County grow from a bedroom community to a major force in the Bay Area economy, twisted, unwitnessed. A few bright strands of wire appeared through the dull coating of paint. The family below, intent on the music of Huey Lewis and the messages being scrolled across the flank of the blimp Columbia, didn’t feel any movement under their feet, nor did they see the few falling flakes of red oxide paint, dislodged by the cable’s splaying. They couldn’t see, five-hundred feet above in the bright morning sun that a side of the cable, which had hung in shadow for five decades, had twisted slightly and was now illuminated by that sunlight.
The massive weight borne so diligently by that cable had been slightly cast onto the strands of the adjacent cable systems, and the Petaluma family far below had no way of feeling that the neighboring cables’ load had been invisibly increased, and that their strands too, had rotated, ever so slightly.
The geometry of the German engineer reliant upon every component doing its job was literally beginning to unravel. As the matriarch led her brood under the Marin tower toward the throng now approaching them from the Presidio, they missed the real drama, slowly but inexorably taking place five-hundred feet above them, that would reshape not only their lives, but the fate and future of the entire Bay Area…