One of the seven wonders of the modern world, the Golden Gate Bridge was the life mission of an engineer who had never designed or overseen the building of a suspension bridge. At the time of its construction the Golden Gate Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world, built hundreds of feet above the dangerously churning waters of the entrance to San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate.
Joseph Strauss, a bridge builder from Chicago, had been visiting San Francisco for several years to supervise work on a small drawbridge, one of four hundred he had built around the world. But Strauss’s ambitions far surpassed any work his firm had ever attempted.
Bridges have long been an interest to us a family and we enjoy spending the weekend in the big city of San Francisco whenever possible. We watched the new Bay Bridge as it was constructed but the red hue of the Golden Gate Bridge has always captivated us.
Joseph Baermann Strauss was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on the 9th of January 1870. He loved poetry and hoped to pursue a career in the arts like his mother, a pianist, and his father, a painter and writer. Though he never became a fine artist, he would help create one of the most famous bridges in the world.
Following his college graduation, Strauss worked as a draftsman for the New Jersey Steel and Iron Company, and the Lassig Bridge and Iron Works Company in Chicago. Seven years later, he was named principal assistant engineer in the firm of Ralph Modjeski, a Chicago engineer. While working for Modjeski, Strauss developed his trademark “bascule” drawbridge design. Strauss’ bascule was a utilitarian structure, practical but unlovely.
Strauss eventually left Modjeski’s company, forming the Strauss Bascule Bridge Company in 1904. A prolific engineer, he constructed some 400 drawbridges across the U.S. Yet he dreamed of building “the biggest thing of its kind that a man could build.”
In 1919, San Francisco’s city engineer, Michael O’Shaughnessy, approached Strauss about bridging the Golden Gate, the narrow, turbulent passage where San Francisco Bay meets the Pacific Ocean. Strauss campaigned tirelessly over the next decade to build the bridge. He faced enormous opposition from the “Old Guard” — environmentalists, ferry operators, city administrators, and even the engineering community. Yet in November 1930, a year into the Great Depression, voters at last supported a bond issue for Strauss’ bridge. The ambitious project finally had its green light.
Strauss alienated many people in his quest to build the structure, his first suspension bridge. Obsessed with claiming credit as the span’s creator, he minimized the contributions of Charles Ellis and Leon Moissieff, the two visionaries who actually worked out the significant engineering challenges of building the bridge.
On May 27, 1937, the bridge opened to the public. Returning to his other great love, poetry, Strauss composed verse for the occasion, exulting, “At last, the mighty task is done.” It would be the last mighty task of his life. Exhausted, Strauss moved to Arizona to recover. Within a year, he would die of a stroke.
Bring it Home
- Read about some of the opposition to the bridge. Then prepare a poster expressing either support for, or opposition to, the Golden Gate Bridge project. Your poster should reflect one of the arguments made for or against the bridge at the time it was being debated. Illustrate your poster with a drawing of the benefit or harm the bridge would bring to your community.
- During his campaign, Strauss had bribes distributed to members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to secure their support for the project. Imagine that you are a young newspaper editor in San Francisco at the time and you have just learned about these bribes. How could you respond in a way that would be in the city’s long-term interest? Write an editorial condemning the bribes or praise the project as necessary regardless of the maneuvers that might be necessary to make it happen.
- Read about Irving Morrow, about the man who designed the Golden Gate Bridge’s distinctive Art Deco features. Find a photo of another building or other object designed in the Art Deco style and explain what you like about the style. Alternatively, choose another bridge or building structure, find out what style of architecture it represents, and explain why you like it.
- Coordinate a toothpick bridge building competition amongst your friends.
- People love suspension bridges for many reasons: their beauty, their utility, their mathematical elegance, their long spans, or even for the regional bragging rights they confer. Research other suspension bridges around the world and create a PowerPoint or a webpage to share with others what you learned.
- Learn how the Golden Gate Bridge was financed. What is a bond? Why do governments issue bonds? Why do voters have to vote to approve a bond issue? What is “collateral” and what did these six counties use as collateral for the bonds?
- Visit the Golden Gate Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge Pavilion yourself and learn more about the construction of this Strauss’ first suspension bridge.
- While in San San Francisco, enjoy the Golden Gate Treasure Hunt in honor of the 75th Anniversary.