Golden Gate Bridge History

In 1916, San Francisco City officials asked Engineer Michael M. O’Shaughnessy to see if building a bridge across the Golden Gate Strait was feasible. For decades, there had been a call for a bridge like this by railroad professionals and other entrepreneurs.


So San Francisco City Engineer Michael O’Shaughnessy started to discuss the idea with some engineers across the nation to learn about cost and feasibility of such an endeavor. Most engineers he consulted speculated that a bridge across the Golden Gate Strait would be costing more than $100 million but that construction would not be possible. Joseph Baermann Strauss, though, thought that building such a bridge was possible and that the cost would not exceed $30 million.

O’Shaughnessy received Strauss’ preliminary design and sketches in 1921 and submitted these to Edward Rainey who was James Rolph’s (Mayor of San Francisco) personal secretary. Strauss estimated the cost for his original design (a suspension span bridge) to be around $17 million. Strauss actively promoted his plans with civic leaders and communities in California’s northern regions and when O’Shaughnessy released the design for the cantilever-suspension hybrid bridge to the public in December 1922, the plans were met with little opposition, though the local press described the plan for the bridge as “ugly” (how little did they know how that would be seen differently later). The plan was feasible and would be paid for solely through toll revenues.

Golden Gate Bridge & Highway District – Special District
O’Shaughnessy (San Francisco City Engineer), Edward Rainey (Secretary to San Francisco’s Mayor), and Joseph B. Strauss (the Designer and Engineer) came up with the idea to form a special district of the State of California for the construction of the bridge. They were convinced that it was necessary to create a special district to oversee the design, construction, and financing of the project so that all California counties that were affected by the Bridge would have a voice in the project.

In January 1923, Franklin P. Doyle, president of Santa Rosa’s Chamber of Commerce and a Sonoma County attorney, called a historic meeting where the “Bridging the Golden Gate Association” was established that would devote all its efforts to promoting a span across the Golden Gate Strait. The Association set up the “Bridge-the-Gate” campaign in all northern California counties and the Association additionally was set up to obtain proper legislation to carry out the impressive project.

In May 1923, the Coombs Bill was signed into law through cooperation with Frank L. Coombs (California State Assemblyman of Napa) and George H. Harlan (Marin County attorney) who was specialized in organizing tax districts. The Coombs Bill enabled the forming of a special district (the Bridge & Highway District) for the purpose of designing, planning, constructing, and financing a suspension bridge across the Golden Gate Strait. The U.S. War Department was the owner of all the land on both sides of the Strait, so only they could authorize the bridge’s construction. The War Department also had jurisdiction regarding all harbor construction that might affect military logistics and shipping traffic. So in May 1924, Marin counties and the City of San Francisco jointly made an application to the U.S. War Department for permission to construct a bridge across the Strait.

There was a hearing to discuss if the bridge would hinder any navigation and to find out if there was adequate financing. There appeared to be overwhelming testimony that favored the project, so on December 20, 1924, John W. Weeks, Secretary of War, issued a provisional permit to go on with the project. Eight years of fierce opposition and litigation were to follow, though, as very strong opposition emerged from special interest groups, in particular from ferry companies, to stop not only the construction of the bridge but also to stop establishing a special district that would be responsible for the entire project.

The Color of The Bridge
Bethlehem Steel made all the steel for the Bridge at its plants in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and when it arrived, the steel for the Bridge was coated with a typical red lead primer. Architect Irving Morrow, who lived close to the construction site in East Bay, commuted to his work via ferry and he became inspired by the emerging towers’ red lead color. Morrow studies some colors and he came up with the specification of the unique “International Orange” color for the Golden Gate Bridge as this contrasted with the sky and ocean and blended so well with the area’s nearby hills.  Morrow recognized clearly that the appearance and color of the Bridge were of high importance in relation to its beautiful surroundings.

The typical color of the Golden Gate Bridge is blending perfectly with the region’s natural tints as seasons change in the spans’ natural setting. It perfectly fits against San Francisco’s skyline and the surrounding Marin hills. Morrow said that the effect of the International Orange color is just as highly pleasing in this setting as it is highly unusual in the world of engineering. The Bridge’s color (“International Orange”) was already in existence before the Bridge was built and the color is still frequently applied in the aerospace industry and used to set objects apart within their surroundings. It is a bit like the color safety orange, but it is deeper and has a more reddish tone.

Mark Thomas