Fifty years ago this May, when the Golden Gate Bridge was opened to the world, Joseph Strauss, the chief engineer of the project, wrote a poem of jubilation:
Strauss was seldom modest, and he never minimized his role in the construction of the longest and most beautiful suspension bridge on earth. There is a statue of him in the parking lot at the south end of the span. Strauss is standing like a tourist posing for a photograph, with his back to the mile-wide strait that had separated San Francisco from the country to the north. The statue is labeled simply—and more or less correctly—“The Man Who Built the Bridge.”
But, in a sense, the building of the bridge had scarcely started on that crisp spring day in 1937 when two hundred thousand celebrants, infected with a sense of historic destiny, seized the opportunity to be the first to walk, crawl, dance, sprint, peanut-push, or roller-skate across the Golden Gate. Although the bridge was physically complete, it has continued to grow in grandeur during its first half-century from an awesome curiosity into an essential of survival, carrying an average of sixty thousand vehicles a day and occasionally enjoying even more overwhelming popularity, as on a Friday last summer when 129,746 cars, trucks, vans, and motorcycles inched between San Francisco and Marin County. The bridge continues to astonish San Franciscans like me, who can remember when the titan piers and piercing towers were lumpish caissons tossing in the tide and the first thin cables swung like gossamer in the howling wind.
The bridge has embedded itself in our lives, and the memories are rich with mystery and sadness. I remember when war extinguished the lights, and families in stuccoed bungalows in Berkeley and San Mateo stood on their porches, staring up at the night sky and listening for aircraft. Liberty ships built at the Kaiser yards in Richmond slipped under the bridge in darkness, headed for the South Pacific. Later, transports from Korea came home in daylight, surrounded by fireboats jetting spray, and eased against the piers at Fort Mason, where the people in the sheds were crying and waving signs. At some unrecorded moment the first cargo of Toyotas slithered under the shadow of the towers. (“What kind of American is going to buy a Japanese car?”) We have gone out the Gate in boats at sunset with ashes sadly offered to the sea.
I will not forget our neighbor who began to cry as she was telling us about her niece (the one we never met), who was driving home to San Rafaël one night (no fog, clear as a bell!) when suddenly this other car—no warning—crossed over the center line; nor can I drive over the bridge without encountering the lonely ghost of my friend John, whose car was found one morning in the lot above Fort Cronkhite and whose jacket turned up later, with a letter to his mother, on the walkway near the north pier, 220 feet above the water.
By its very existence the bridge has silenced skeptics who argued that it could not be built, could not be paid for, and would spoil the most romantic view in North America. No other project, not even the rebuilding of the city after the disaster of 1906, ever was so challenging, so divisive to the willful people of San Francisco. Against the advice of bankers, lawyers, engineers, and aesthetes, they pledged themselves to build the bridge. Although these builders are not commemorated in statuary, their bridge has become one of the best-recognized, most photographed of human monuments, the inevitable accompaniment on the picture screen of the last line of “America, the Beautiful.”
For those of us who find the semicentennial of this exquisite structure a shock roughly comparable to reaching that age ourselves, it is consoling to discover that the bridge at fifty, like a well-bred dowager, is more appropriate, more graceful, more beloved than she was in infancy.