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Golden Gate Bridge marks 75 years since opening against steep odds

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The Golden Gate Bridge was a larger than life engineering project undertaken against dangerous odds and it opened 75 years ago on Sunday against vehement protest, at the cost of 11 lives.

A view of the Golden Gate Bridge after a fireworks show during the 75th anniversary celebration of the iconic span in San Francisco, California May 27, 2012. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

One of the most astonishing and admired man-made wonders of the world, gracing millions of postcards, featured in countless films, the bridge was not at first welcomed with open arms.

Ferry operators and environmentalists opposed it, and many engineers doubted such a daring leap over a treacherous Pacific Ocean strait could be built. The military worried a collapsed Golden Gate span could block access to the Bay in war time.

Some San Franciscans even fought against it because they thought a bridge might ruin the view, according to historians.

Kevin Starr, author of “Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge,” said 2,000 related court cases were filed over nearly a decade.

But Starr said litigation and regulatory scrutiny largely concluded in the 1920s allowed builders to move quickly once bank funding was nailed down in 1932, in an early form of public-private cooperation.

“President Obama talks about shovel-ready projects,” Starr said in a phone interview. “This was shovel ready.”

The less than two decades between conception and completion means the Golden Gate compares well with the new quake-proof second span of the Bay Bridge a few miles away, he said. That $6.2 billion project is due to be done in 2013, 24 years after a deadly earthquake literally jolted the authorities into action.

Yet building the Golden Gate, at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion in current dollars, was a Herculean task. While the idea took hold in the prosperous 1920s, by the time ground was broken the Depression had left many people desperate for jobs.

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“Launched midst a thousand hopes and fears; Damned by a thousand hostile sneers,” was how the head engineer for the bridge, Joseph Strauss, described the bridge in a poem he wrote to mark its completion in 1937. He died less than a year later.

Even the bridge’s arresting dark orange color was an accident, first used as a primer while designers decided what to paint it. The Navy had argued for black with yellow stripes, to ensure it could be seen in a strait hostile to mariners, with dense fog, heavy winds and strong ocean swells.

In the end, bridge authorities decided they liked the color - known as International Orange - and stuck with it.


Starr speculated that some early opposition from locals may have been due to the original styling, which was likened to an “upside-down rat trap”, before it was altered to the sweeping suspension bridge design.

“Its elegance is derived from its structural efficiency,” Paul Giroux, from the American Society of Civil Engineers, said at a panel discussion hosted by San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. “It’s a perfect blend of form and function.”

Construction began in 1933, 14 years after Strauss was first approached. Bank of America archivist David Mendoza said it took a personal appeal from Strauss to Amadeo Giannini, founder of the then-San Francisco-based bank, to secure funding.

“Strauss was worried it might not get built,” Mendoza said of that fateful meeting, now commemorated on a plaque.

After opening on May 27, 1937, thousands of people walked, roller-skated and stilt-walked across. Cars came the next day.

Celebrations for the 50th anniversary became infamous for the frightful swaying of the bridge under the weight of 300,000 people. This time round, the bridge will be closed to cars and pedestrians during a fireworks show that will cap a day of festivities along the bay waterfront on Sunday.

Beyond the revelry and Tributes, the bridge’s dark side will lurk in the background: An estimated 1,400 people have jumped off the bridge to end their own lives, a grim reality brought to the attention of many people with a 2006 documentary film, “The Bridge,” by Eric Steel. The filmmaker secretly captured more than 20 suicides from the bridge.

“Four seconds drop and you’re done,” Starr said. “A few people have survived, but not many.”

The Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District is now studying the costs and feasibility of draping nets along it to catch any jumpers, a twist on the nets deployed during construction, which saved the lives of 22 workers.

Of the 11 men killed from falls during construction, ten were killed after a net failed under stress from a fallen scaffold when the bridge was near completion.

Safety was a serious concern during construction, with hard hats widely used for the first time and workers forced to drink sauerkraut juice if they arrived at work hung over, Starr said.

Living memory is limited. The San Francisco Chronicle reported the last two known surviving builders, Jack Balestreri and Edward Ashoff, died in April, within a week of each other.

Reporting by Braden Reddall in San Francisco; editing by Todd Eastham