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As Golden Gate Bridge Turns 75, History Revised to Honor Engineer

May 23, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Golden Gate Bridge opened to traffic on May 27, 1937. This weekend, 75 years later, San Francisco plans to celebrate while honoring the engineer whose contributions to the design were purposefully obliterated: Charles Ellis. Spencer Michels delves into Ellis' story, and into the man who did get the credit -- Joseph Strauss.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, the Golden Gate Bridge, an icon of American engineering and architecture, turns 75 this week. Its impact, its legacy and even some of the controversy that initially surrounded it are once again the center of attention.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has our story.

SPENCER MICHELS: Even before it opened on May 27, 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge was hailed as a modern wonder, a spectacular feat of engineering. In the midst of the Great Depression, the bridge, then the longest single-span suspension bridge in the world, brought hope and pride to a city and a country in need of optimism. It was far more than a roadway linking San Francisco with counties to the north.

KEVIN STARR, historian, University of Southern California: This is not just a totally successful work of engineering. It’s also a work of art, and it’s also an iconic statement about American life, American possibilities.

SPENCER MICHELS: Historian Kevin Starr specializes in California history and has written a new book on the Golden Gate Bridge, tracing its roots to the progressive movement.

KEVIN STARR: At the core of progressivism was a delight in public works, public works to finish the work of nature, public works to create employment, public works to make a better society. It was a triumph of American civilization.

It embodied the idea that an industrial culture could build something that was also beautiful and represented a form of environmental stewardship.

SPENCER MICHELS: The Golden Gate, the dramatic, often shrouded entrance to San Francisco Bay, was a tough place to build and still would be, according to writer John Van der Zee, who chronicled the bridge’s story.

JOHN VAN DER ZEE, author, “The Gate”: This is an area of high winds, thick fogs, a tidal current that runs at six knots an hour. It’s strong enough to turn a full-sized ship entirely around.

SPENCER MICHELS: But those weren’t the only obstacles, says Kevin Starr.

KEVIN STARR: Nothing is easy in San Francisco. The Sierra Club thought it profaned the site. Older San Franciscans just didn’t like it because it wasn’t part of Mother Nature.

The Golden Gate Ferry Company, owned by the Southern Pacific, understandably didn’t want to give up its monopoly on some 50,000 comings and goings on the ferry system. The War Department was insistent that certain standards be met that would not block the harbor, in case the bridge were ever bombed.

SPENCER MICHELS: Ansel Adams, who also opposed the bridge, photographed the Golden Gate before the bridge was built. His photo is on display at the California Historical Society, where Anthea Hartig is executive director.

ANTHEA HARTIG, California Historical Society: But he grew to accept it. And then the shot behind us, which I love, this is a picture he took in 1953 that was I think his kind of coming to peace.

SPENCER MICHELS: For the 75th anniversary, the Historical Society has put together an exhibit of bridge memorabilia, which includes reminders of the controversy that divided the city between opponents and those who supported it.

ANTHEA HARTIG: Every automobile association in every auto dealer in nine counties around the bay were, of course, for the bridge, because it brought in cars and it brought in people’s movements. It was a fantastic historic debate.

SPENCER MICHELS: That debate isn’t over yet, even as the birthday party revs up.

One aspect of the 75th birthday celebration that wasn’t in the plans was the rekindling of an old controversy. Who should get the credit for building and designing this spectacular bridge? The first design, from 1922, showed a bulky unattractive bridge, part cantilever, part suspension. It was the work of Chicago bridge builder Joseph Strauss, who had decided his legacy would be a span to rival the Brooklyn and George Washington bridges in New York.

But Strauss wasn’t a civil engineer. He was a builder of drawbridges, a promoter and organizer. And he organized a decades-long campaign to get the Golden Gate Bridge approved and built by him. Before construction began, Strauss’ clunky design was scrapped, though he remained as chief engineer. In its place was a sleeker structure made possible by University of Illinois engineer Charles Ellis and Leon Moisseiff, who had designed the Manhattan bridge.

JOHN VAN DER ZEE: The theory was devised by Leon Moisseiff, who believed that bridges in high-wind areas didn’t have to be rigid and ponderous if they were designed so that all the components worked together. Bridges could be lighter, they could have longer spans, they could more graceful than had ever been thought possible before.

SPENCER MICHELS: Construction took four years and was incredibly complex. Towers rose 746 feet from the water anchored in rock on both sides of the gate. Cables more than a mile-long were strung between them.

San Franciscans lined the shore to watch as the bridge took shape. Strauss insisted on safety measures, including a net, which prevented serious accidents until the bridge was almost completed.

Then, in February of 1937, a five-ton platform holding a dozen workers gave way, crashing into the net, ripping it, and then smashing into the ocean below. The one survivor, foreman Slim Lambert, recorded what happened years later.

SLIM LAMBERT, accident survivor: I think the men slid off of the staging, and then it fell on them in the net. So I think some were probably badly hurt before they ever hit the water.

I knew that to have a prayer to survive, I had to hit the water feet first. And I managed to do it. I was caught in the net and the net was headed for the bottom. I finally calmed down and began to wiggle. And I slid right out of it.

SPENCER MICHELS: Ten men died in that accident, but the work went on. A few months later, the bridge was finished amid much hoopla.

And Strauss was touted then and for decades afterwards as the designer. His statue is on prominent display near the toll plaza, and his photo graces a visitors center opened for the anniversary.

But Van der Zee argues he doesn’t deserve it.

JOHN VAN DER ZEE: The design was largely done by Charles Ellis. He was the designing engineer. That was his job title and that’s what he did.

Working 14 hours a day in a period of four months, he either did or oversaw all the computations. This is 10-and-a-half volumes of pre-computer higher mathematics.

KEVIN STARR: Without Ellis’ work, we wouldn’t know whether the bridge would have worked or not. We could have built it, and it would have collapsed. But Ellis said, this will work. And he proved that mathematically.

SPENCER MICHELS: Before construction had even started, Strauss had had an argument with Ellis and fired him. Nobody knows exactly why.

JOHN VAN DER ZEE: After he had completed the design and written the specifications, he was fired, and his name was removed from all bridge and historical promotional material for more than 50 years.

SPENCER MICHELS: The bridge management admits that, for years, it did rebuff efforts, mostly by John Van der Zee, to give Charles Ellis the credit owed him. That will be remedied when a new plaque is unveiled during the celebration honoring Ellis’ role for the first time.

Why does it matter today, 75 years after this bridge opened, as to what happens to Charles Ellis’ memory?

JOHN VAN DER ZEE: The Golden Gate Bridge is America’s Parthenon. If we knew who really designed the Parthenon, wouldn’t that be a significant part of history?

SPENCER MICHELS: Meanwhile, the bridge faces new challenges; 1,400 people have leapt from the bridge to their depths. And Mary Currie, the bridge spokesperson, says a metal net is planned to discourage such suicides.

MARY CURRIE, Golden Gate Bridge spokesperson: If you fall into it or jump into it, you will actually get hurt. So we’re hoping that the combination of the net being there and the fact that you would get hurt will literally solve the suicide issue here at the Golden Gate Bridge.

SPENCER MICHELS: Currently, there is no money for the $45 million it will cost. And nonstop painting of the bridge using its unique international orange color continues, the key to preserving the span from the weather.

Traffic keeps increasing. About 40 million cars cross the bridge every year. There has been talk of another span or a second deck. But, for now, the district is relying on buses and ferry boats to help handle the commute.

The 75th birthday celebration occurs on Sunday, May 27.

GWEN IFILL: Online, Spencer reflects on the bridge as both a critical transportation link and an icon of American ingenuity. Plus, see our slideshow of images before, during and after its construction.