The bridge that couldn't be built - research project Golden Gate Bridge

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

14 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)



Historical Background

Politics and Financing


Design and Construction

The Bridge as a Symbol

The Dark Side of the Bridge-Death at the Golden Gate



It is possible to bridge San Francisco Bay at various points. But at only one point can such an enterprise be of universal advantage -- at the water gap, the Golden Gate, giving a continuous dry-shod passage around the entire circuit of our inland sea.

¨ James Wilkins San Francisco Bulletin, 1916[1]


In the late 1800’s traveling to San Francisco has not been easy. By sea the city was always readily accessible, from the south, land travelers could journey uninterrupted up the peninsula that separated the Pacific from the Bay. But travelers from the north and east did not have such ready access to the city. They could turn southward when they came to the water and make the arduous two-day journey around the Bay and up the peninsula, or they could seek conveyance by water across the unpredictable and sometimes treacherous tides of San Francisco Bay.

There was a ferry service provided and the boats ran on a regular, planned basis and carried tens of thousands of people across the Bay to work in the morning and returning home in the evening. However, the ferries were quite slow and unpredictable. If the seas were high ferries might not sail or at least be terribly off-schedule. The tricky Bay fogs sometimes made the journey frightening and dangerous. In heavy seas and high winds, the ferryboats sometimes pitched and tossed wildly, leaving the passengers ill and terrified. The need for a bridge over the Golden Gate was obvious and many people might have wondered at that time if the narrow passageway of sea between Lime and Ford points would be ever bridged.

The unimaginable eventually became functional and tangible: As early as 1869 there was talk about "bridging the gate". On August 18, 1869, Emperor Norton I caused to be printed in the Oakland Daily News a proclamation commanding that a great bridge be built across San Francisco Bay. It read:

Now, therefore, we, Norton, Dei Gratia, Emperor of the United States and protector of Mexico, do order and direct, first, that Oakland shall be the coast termination of the Central Pacific Railroad; secondly, that a suspension bridge be constructed from the improvements lately ordered by our royal decree at Oakland Point to Yerba Buena, from hence to the mountain range of Saucilleto [sic], and hence to the Farallones, to be of sufficient strength and size for a railroad; and thirdly, the Central Pacific Railroad Company are charged with the carrying out of this work, for purposes that will thereafter appear. Whereof fail not under pain of death.


Three years later, in 1872 railroad owner Charles Crocker proposed a train to be built where the Golden Gate now triumphs, but city officials thought this would be too risky and others thought it would be impossible. The continued push for development of Marin County, however, led to the consequence that that the ferryboat for the sole commute was no longer adequate. James Wilkins was one of the few who realized the development of Marin was very dependent of its relationship to San Francisco. Wilkins, raised in San Rafael and a graduate of Berkeley’s engineering school also was one of the many people who lived across the Bay but worked in San Francisco. Although he studied engineering, James Wilkins took employment with the San Francisco Bulletin and in 1916 began an editorial campaign to bridge the gate, because he could no longer tolerate the delayed time it took a ferryboat to cross the bay, when an automobile could transport a man 20 miles in a half an hour. He pointed out that more than 200,000 people lived in the Northern Counties with no direct access to San Francisco, and decried the inconvenience and delay that travelers from the north had to endure. Wilkins estimated the costs for the bridge at about $10,000,000 by comparing his plans to the costs of other bridges of that type. This was the kind of bridge Wilkins imagined:

Such a bridge, would be, of course, of the suspension type, almost 150 feet above high water, sufficient to clear the tallest ships…the abutments and backstays would be located, respectively, on the rocky bluff of Lime Point and on the high ground above Fort Point. The breadth of the Gate is 3800 feet. The towers, over which the cables pass, would be so located as to give a central span of 3000 feet, and side spans of approximately 1000 feet. The catenary or curved line formed by the suspended cable would have a central dip of approximately 65 feet. Therefore, the elevation of the towers must be 215 feet to secure the clearance required. The southern abutment…would descend by a three-quarters of one percent grade, bringing it precisely to the elevation of the intersection of Chestnut and Divisadero.[3]

Wilkins’ crusading and controversial editorial had created a sensation in San Francisco. Thanks to his vision, the desirability and feasibility of a Golden Gate Bridge were, from that moment on, matters of open discussion everywhere in the city. Still, a lot of doubts about bridging the Gate remained. First of all, people were used to see the Gate as it has always been: beautiful, majestic and unadorned. They could not imagine how it would look like with a network of steel and concrete.

However, Wilkins was soon able to attract the interest of San Francisco City engineer M.M. O'Shaughnessy. O'Shaughnessy being a civic authority, would be key in promoting such a span. Throughout the depression and WWI O'Shaughnessy continued to believe in and support the idea. As a practicing engineer himself he assessed many different opinions from other engineers. The general opinion was that the cost would be astronomical with estimates as high as $100,000,000. Until finally O’Shaughnessy invited Joseph Baeman Strauss, a Cincinnati-born bridge engineer, to tackle the problem. For many years, Strauss, a distinguished engineer with many bridges all over the world to his credit, had dreamed of raising a span across the Golden Gate. Strauss evaluated Wilkins' ideas for O'Shaughnessy and proposed the initial project for $17 million. In the process other estimates figured were between $25million and $30million. The project ultimately cost $35million. Finally, on December 4, 1928, the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District were formed to oversee and manage the building and funding of the Golden Gate Bridge. At last, on May 27, 1937. The Golden Gate Bridge was officially opened.


[1] In: Adams, Charles, F. Heroes of the Golden Gate. Pacific Books. Palo Alto. 1987. P. 66

[2] Oakland Daily News, August 18, 1869, p. 11. In: Adams, Charles, F. Heroes of the Golden Gate. Pacific

Books. Palo Alto. 1987

[3] In: Adams, Charles, F. Heroes of the Golden Gate. Pacific. Books. Palo Alto. 1987. P. 66

Excerpt out of 14 pages


The bridge that couldn't be built - research project Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco State University  (Englsih Department)
San Francisco
1 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
438 KB
Double spaced.
Golden, Gate, Bridge, Francisco
Quote paper
Sandra Beyer (Author), 2003, The bridge that couldn't be built - research project Golden Gate Bridge, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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