At last the mighty task is done; resplendent in the western sun, the bridge looms mountain high; its titan piers grip ocean floor, its great steal arms link shore with shore, it’s towers pierce the sky.
Beneath, fleet ships from every port, vast landlocked by historic fort, and dwarfing all — the sea.
It’s an excerpt from the poem The Mighty Task Is Done, written by Joseph P. Strauss, the visionary and chief engineer for the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
The tribute was written in 1937, upon the opening of the majestic and delicate-looking structure. It celebrates a project that took more than four years and 805,000 tonnes of steal to complete, and claimed 11 lives during its construction.
The Golden Gate Bridge celebrated her 75th birthday in May, marked by an impressive fireworks show, a giant parade and a citywide celebration. Considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, if these rivets, cables and towers could talk, what a story they would tell.
“Its rugged beauty is remarkable,” said Patrick Clemens, a San Franciscan whose apartment in the Marina District overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge to the West. “The bridge is truly more than a symbol of San Francisco. It’s a symbol of American ingenuity.”
The first automobile crossed the Golden Gate Bridge at high noon on May 28, 1937, to the sound of celebratory church bells and fire sirens throughout San Francisco. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signalled the opening of the 2.7-kilometre bridge with the push of a telegraph key that announced the event to the world, and opened a needed gateway to and from San Francisco.
“Part of (the bridge concept) was very basic,” said John King, the urban design critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. “The automobile was picking up popularity, and by all accounts, you had two-to-three-hour waits to get across the gate on a Sunday night by car ferry.”
As the only road to exit San Francisco to the north, leading to the Sonoma and Napa wine regions, the six-lane bridge served its one billionth automobile in 1985 and carries about 120,000 vehicles a day and 40 million back and forth across the
Bay every year. And with a $6 toll to take the bridge into San Francisco, the Golden Gate generates about US $85 million in revenue every year.
But the convenience and earning power of the bridge are only sidebars to the reliability story the Golden Gate has demonstrated to commuters in its 75 years of service.
Amazingly, the Golden Gate Bridge has been briefly closed to automobile traffic only three times in its history, all because of sustained winds off the Pacific Ocean in excess of 70 m.p.h. (112 km/h), but it survived all three incidents without any structural damage.
The suspension span can sway more than six metres, which gets a driver’s attention while crossing it and creates some motion sickness for pedestrians on a windy day, but the flexibility absorbs the unforgiving wind and weather this region routinely brings.
“You couldn’t have put the bridge in a more corrosive atmosphere than in the middle of the Golden Gate with that salt fog coming in,” said Daniel Mohn, a former chief engineer for the bridge and a Golden Gate historian.
During the evening commute on Oct. 17, 1989, traffic throughout the Bay Area was snarled when a 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck. Considered the most devastating quake to hit the area since 1906, the Bay Bridge to the east was shut down when two 15-metre sections collapsed, diverting about 40,000 additional drivers to the Golden Gate Bridge, which was left undamaged and operational through the memorable quake and subsequent repair period.
On Oct. 27, 1989, a record 162,414 vehicles crossed the Golden Gate Bridge while the Bay Bridge was being repaired.
Weather isn’t the only hazard the Golden Gate Bridge presents to drivers. The daily practice of changing lane patterns to help traffic flow has contributed to dozens of crashes on the bridge and endless headaches for transit district officials.
North and southbound lanes are lined and separated by 50-centimetre yellow rubber tube markers placed every eight metres. During the morning commute, four of the six lanes run southbound into San Francisco, and during the evening rush hour, the markers are reconfigured so that four lanes run into Marin County on the north side of the Bay, a traffic flow adjustment that has confused drivers through the years, and brought a push to install a movable median barrier on the bridge.
As another safety initiative for drivers, the speed limit on the bridge was reduced in 1996 to 45 m.p.h. (72 km/h) from 55 (89 km/h) and fines for speeding on the span were doubled, which officials say have reduced the number of collisions on the bridge.
Joseph P. Strauss faced many critics who told him the San Francisco Bay could never be spanned by a suspension bridge surrounded by some of the harshest winds and climate conditions Mother Nature can unleash.
But through one man’s vision and the death-defying feats of thousands of bridge workers over the decades, 75 years of service may be only the infancy for this proud bridge that is truly the Golden Standard.
Ask of the steel, each strut and wire, ask of the searching purging fire, that marked their natal hour; ask of the mind, the hand, the heart, ask of each single stalwart part,what gave it force and power.