Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Before the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, the only practical short route between San Francisco and what is now Marin County was by boat across a section of San Francisco Bay. Ferry service began in about 1820 but, with San Francisco emerging as a major American city, its further growth and development was being stymied by the fact that the city was still reachable primarily by the ferry boats.

For many decades, the feasibility of building a bridge across the Bay was doubted by experts, who noted, among other issues, the strong winds blowing across San Francisco Bay; the powerful currents and tides in the Bay and the 500-foot depth at its center; the frequently blinding fog that would make construction particularly difficult; and the fact that it would have to span the greatest distance ever. Moreover, they claimed, even if all these issues could somehow be resolved, raising sufficient funds for this unprecedented project would be impossible.

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Enter Joseph Baermann Strauss (1870-1938), an American structural engineer who revolutionized the design of bascule bridges (which used a pivoting section that was raised and lowered using expensive counterweights to create clearance for boat traffic). He was also a poet who became a well-known businessman and supporter of the Jewish community in San Francisco.

Born into a German-Jewish family in Cincinnati, Strauss’s father was a writer and painter and his mother was a classical pianist. His original career plans were to follow in his parents’ steps and become a writer and a concert performer, but his career path took an unexpected and serendipitous turn while he was attending the University of Cincinnati.

Strauss’s interest in bridges began when the 5’3” undergraduate, manifesting the determination for which he would later become renowned, had the brashness – and, as it turned out, the foolishness – to try out for the University football team and sustained injuries so serious that he had to be hospitalized. Looking out through the window of his hospital room, he was taken by the beauty of the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, which spanned the Ohio River and connected Covington, Kentucky, with Cincinnati. Completed in 1866, it was then the longest suspension bridge in history. (Roebling became particularly renowned as the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883.)

Strauss’s senior thesis at the University of Cincinnati, which he graduated with a degree in civil engineering in 1892, was a proposed 55-mile railroad bridge across the Bering Strait. (In 1907, Tsar Nicholas II actually approved the project for construction, which was estimated to cost $300 million, but World War I intervened.) His first position was at a firm that specialized in building movable bascule bridges, but he set out on his own and founded the Strauss Bascule Bridge Company of Chicago in 1904.

Before becoming involved with the design and construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, Strauss was involved in the design and construction of over 400 drawbridges. His aereoscope, which was based upon the same principle as his folding bridge, lifted passengers 265 feet up on a car balanced on a 380-ton counterweight and was the highlight of the 1915 Panama-American Exposition in San Francisco.

The first meaningful design for a bridge across San Francisco Bay did not actually come from Strauss but rather from James Wilkins, a structural engineering student, who published an article in the San Francisco Bulletin in 1916 touting the possibility of building such a bridge. After M. M. O’Shaughnessy, the San Francisco city engineer, estimated that the cost of implementing Wilkins’s proposal would exceed $100 million, he consulted with Strauss, already a renowned bridgebuilder. Strauss responded that his own bridge design, which proposed an enormous cantilever (a long projecting beam fixed at one end) on each side of the Bay connected by a central suspension segment, could be built for $17 million.

After conducting lengthy studies and analyses, Strauss submitted his preliminary sketches in 1921. Although this first proposed design was rejected by almost everyone – the press referred to it as “an upside rat cage” – local authorities agreed to commence the project with Strauss, but only after receiving his assurance that he would consult with other experts and agree to adopt a suspension bridge design. Unwilling to accept failure, he retained a number of exceptional consultants to work with him, which yielded a new design for a suspension bridge that critics characterized as “engineering as high art.”

The Golden Gate Bridge under construction

Opposition to the bridge project, which was massive and often hostile, came from many quarters. The War Department feared that the bridge could be blown up by saboteurs, thereby effectively blocking American warships and commercial trade from passing through the harbor. (The Department, which controlled the relevant land and the strait, did not issue its final approval for the bridge construction until August 11, 1930.) Powerful and influential unions demanded ironclad assurances that its local workers would receive most of the construction jobs, and the Sierra Club and other environmentalists complained that the steel towers would forever mar the pristine landscape.

Significant opposition also came from the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad, which opposed the bridge because it would take business away from its ferry fleet and destroy many ferryman jobs. The railroad commenced litigation that tied Strauss up in knots for six years, until he finally prevailed in the United States Supreme Court on July 31, 1932.

It was common in 1920s and 1930s America to exclude Jews from social, political and economic life, and California was at the time the epicenter of the eugenics movement. Some of the opposition apparently had its roots in anti-Semitism and dislike for the Jew Strauss, who was actively involved over the course of many years in trying to raise funds for the bridge. For example, Miner Chipman, a consulting engineer, wrote that there were bad leaks in the bridge organization and that “the engineering department” should keep its nose out of the financing problem: “The Chief Engineer (i.e., Strauss) is already under fire as a promotor, a Jew, and an alien. If he butts into this bond matter, it will confirm the promotion assertion and provide more ammunition to the opposition.”

However, the project did have its supporters, including the nascent automobile industry, which understood that the expansion of roads and bridges would increase the demand for cars and, perhaps most importantly, the general public, which tired of the often interminable wait due to congested ferry crossings.

The name “Golden Gate Bridge” was first used when the project was initially discussed by Strauss and O’Shaughnessy in 1917. That name became official six years later when the California State Legislature adopted the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District Act (May 25, 1923), and “the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District,” formally incorporated in 1928, was designated as the official entity to design, construct, and finance the bridge. Strauss was officially appointed chief engineer on August 15, 1929; he submitted his final detailed plans on August 27, 1930; and construction on the bridge began on January 5, 1933, with the official groundbreaking ceremony held on February 26, 1933.

Unlike the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which opened in 1936, the Golden Gate Bridge received no state or federal backing but was rather financed through a localized, county-driven process. Funding was always a problem, and the project almost immediately ran into even greater financial difficulties after the 1929 Wall Street crash. Bridge management lobbied for the issuance of $35 million in bonds, which were approved by the local counties on November 4, 1930, but the bonds were not actually sold until two years later, when the San Francisco-based Bank of America purchased the entire issue.

The ultimate aggregate cost of the bridge was $35 million, and Strauss brought it in $1.3 million under budget. When the bridge was completed in 1937, its 4,200-foot span made it the longest suspension bridge in the world, and its suspension towers, 692 feet above water level, also set a world record.

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Ticket stubs for the first crossing of the Golden Gate Bridge (Thursday, May 27, 1937).

There was broad debate regarding the final color of the bridge. For example, the Navy urged the use of a yellow and black striping to facilitate visibility for ships traveling through the infamous bay fog; the U.S. Army Air Corps, concerned about pilot visibility, argued that the bridge should be painted in red and white; and engineer Othmar Hermann Ammann, who designed the George Washington Bridge (opened in 1931) and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (opened in 1964), preferred the same gray that he had used in constructing his bridges. Meanwhile, to protect the bridge during its construction, Strauss used “international orange,” a reddish lead-based primer, to cover the bridge. His arguments for using that color as the permanent one for the bridge ultimately won the day, and supporters were pleased that it evoked recollections of the California Gold Rush that led to the development of the entire Bay area.

Bridge opens to pedestrians.

The bridge-opening celebration began on May 27, 1937, and the ensuing “Fiesta,” which featured a broad variety of civil and cultural activities, lasted for a week. On opening day, Strauss formally presented the bridge to the Highway District, and some 200,000 people crossed on foot the day before vehicular traffic was allowed. Strauss was awarded the right to lifelong free travel on the bridge as a symbolic recognition from a deeply appreciative city. Sadly, however, he was to use this privilege for only a very short time because he died a year after the opening of the bridge because of, according to many authorities, the incredible stress he suffered during decades of unremitting pressure and his attention to every aspect of the Golden Gate Bridge, which became his everlasting legacy.

Strauss’s detractors initially blocked a statue of the chief engineer that had been proposed for the bridge plaza, but his widow, who funded it herself, dedicated it on May 29, 1941, only two weeks after Strauss’s untimely death. The statue was inscribed simply “Joseph B. Strauss, 1870-1938, ‘The Man Who Built the Bridge.’” Later, grateful citizens erected a bronze monument to him next to the bridge.

Although some critics allege that Strauss downplayed the contributions of his collaborators who, they say, were largely responsible for the final bridge design, he is rightfully credited for the ultimate success of the project as he conceived it; tirelessly and single-mindedly promoted it; directed it using his remarkable organizational skills; raised funds for its construction; obtained building permits; negotiated contracts; administered its day-to-day construction; resolved disputes; and saw it through as the official chief engineer in charge of the overall design and construction of the bridge. Moreover, deeply concerned with the safety of his workers, he innovated safety standards, including the use of movable safety netting beneath the construction site, which is credited with saving 19 lives. There can be little question that at least some of this attempt to take credit away from Strauss was because he had become a prominent Jew.

It is true, however, that aware of his own limitations and that he lacked broad knowledge and experience with cable-suspension designs, he delegated responsibility for much of the engineering and architecture to his experts, some of whom he conspicuously failed to acknowledge. The final suspension design was conceived by Leon Moisseiff, and architect Irving Morrow designed the general form of the bridge towers and the lighting scheme, railing and footpaths.

Leon Moisseiff

Both Moisseiff and Morrow were Jews. Morrow, a young architect, was of Jewish-Russian heritage, but Moisseiff’s story (1872-1943) is far more historic. A leading and innovative American suspension bridge engineer, he is best known for the infamous collapse of his Tacoma- Narrows Suspension Bridge over Puget Sound in a windstorm four months after its completion in 1940. The stunning and frightening historic failure, which can be seen on YouTube, is used to this day in educating engineering, architecture, and physics students.

Because of Moisseiff’s role as a consulting engineer on the design of the Golden Gate Bridge, the authorities temporarily closed it down after the Tacoma Narrows fiasco, but it was deemed safe after a thorough inspection.

Born in Riga, Latvia, to a Jewish family, Moisseiff studied at the Baltic Polytechnic Institute before emigrating at age 19 to the United States as a result of his political activities. After earning a degree in civil engineering from Columbia University (1895), he quickly earned national respect as an advocate of all-steel bridges and for his design of the Manhattan Bridge over the East River, among other notable projects. Many critics argue that the collapse of the Tacoma Bridge caused his death from a sudden heart attack a few years later.

Finally, I remember a story from my days in actuarial practice regarding the insurance agent who was charged with placing the coverage and paying the initial annual premium for the Tacoma Bridge. Figuring that “in our modern world, who ever heard of a bridge collapsing in its first year,” he pocketed the premium, was publicly disgraced when the bridge fell, and was later convicted of embezzlement.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.