Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


THE GOLDEN GATE

By Stewart McBrideStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 3, 1983



San Francisco

Eddie Souza suddenly felt dizzy but wasn't sure why. Inside the Marin Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge where the square-jawed 23-year-old worked, it was black as a coal mine. Today he was wedged in a corner of this 20,000-ton steel honeycomb, tightening bolts with his spud wrench, but for some reason his stomach kept screaming, ''Eddie, we're on a trawler crossing the North Sea!''

Skip to next paragraph

Souza hoisted himself to daylight to see what was going on. Up on the tower's saddle, 74 stories above the Pacific, not a whisper of wind was coming through the Gate. But why were all the ironworkers hanging on for dear life? Why did the tower appear to be swaying like a birch tree? Souza, a man who rarely made hasty judgments, jerry-rigged a five-gallon bucket of bolts on a rope inside the tower. When the makeshift pendulum started banging against the walls, confirming Souza's hunch, his bolting crew went down the safety ladders like firemen on their way to a five-alarm.

''The boys on the ground said an earthquake had hit the bridge and the tower was swinging 30 feet in each direction,'' recalled Souza, now solidly planted on his orange shag living-room rug in Sausalito. ''We were risking our lives for a dollar an hour,'' said the Portuguese whaler's son. ''Back then I was an orphan and lived at the fire station with my uncle. I knew the head rigger on the bridge and got hired. That was the depression, and lots of unemployed men out of work were hanging on the fence by the bridge waiting for one of us to get fired or get hurt. When I saw that first paycheck I thought I was a millionaire.''

Eddie Souza is one of the few dozen men still around who helped erect that elegant stretch of steel, the Golden Gate Bridge. A half century ago, that pretty piece of engineering - sneered at today by many an impatient commuter as the troublesome turnstile that sells $2 admission tickets to San Francisco - was still a dream, an architectural impossibility.

Even on Feb. 26, 1933, after San Francisco Mayor Angelo Rossi's golden spade broke the ground for construction, even after Herbert Hoover's congratulatory telegram, even after the Marine Corps honor guard had paraded and the sky-writing barnstormers had sketched smoke suspension bridges in the sky-blue yonder, even after all that, San Francisco was full of doubting Thomases.

In the '30s, pop-up toasters were the modern inventions of the day, and many thought it foolhardy to attempt a mile-and-a-quarter bridge across a leg of the Pacific Ocean. The Golden Gate channel is the funnel for California's biggest rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin. Forty percent of the state's acreage drains into San Francisco Bay and out to the ocean. The straits are a chaos of eddies and boils, with an average flow that is seven times the Mississippi's and alternating tidal currents of 7 1/2 knots. It is frequently shrouded in impenetrable fog and buffeted by gusts of wind up to 70 miles per hour.

The dreamers and schemers proposed to span the Golden Gate, a few miles from the San Andreas Fault, with the longest and tallest suspension bridge ever constructed. No higher structure would stand between the Pacific and Atlantic, save the Empire State Building. Shipped piece by piece from Pennsylvania's Bethlehem Steel Works through the Panama Canal, each of the bridge's steel towers would weigh as much as a battleship. The suspension system, 80,000 miles of cable, would be sufficient to circle the equator three times. The concrete poured in the bridge's piers and anchorages could have paved a five-foot-wide sidewalk from San Francisco to New York.

As if that weren't enough, the Golden Gate Bridge was going to be the only major US public project ever completed without federal dollars. At the height of the depression, destitute taxpayers in the Bay Area were asked to underwrite private construction bonds to the tune of $35 million. Today, it costs that much just to build and equip a 747 jetliner. But in the '30s, with bread lines around the block, those were big bucks, and raising the money took old-fashioned arm-twisting and jaw-boning. Joseph Baermann Strauss, chief engineer on the bridge, used to say: ''It took two decades and 200 million words to convince people the bridge was feasible.''