Despite their city's obvious need to expand, a number of San Franciscans opposed Joseph Strauss' quest to build the Golden Gate Bridge. Their reasons ranged from the practical to the emotional.
Strauss' rough estimate of construction costs was $25 million, a price equivalent to the appraised value of two-thirds of all property in San Francisco. In the summer of 1929, eight years after Strauss had presented his blueprints, city officials asked the Hoover administration to help fund the bridge's construction. By October of that year, the nation plunged into a major economic depression and the government declined San Francisco's request. Money for the bridge would have to be raised locally.
Administrators feared that bridge tolls would be insufficient to recoup an initial investment, and worried that already overburdened taxpayers would resent having to shoulder the debt. The tax-resistant San Francisco Board of Supervisors opposed Strauss' plans. But Strauss was not easily deterred. He hired a political "fixer," H. H. "Doc" Meyers, to bribe members of the board. Bridge cable supervisor Charles Kring recalled, "[Strauss'] secretary told me... that every month someone would show up, pick up a paper sack with $400 in it. Well, $400 in those days was the equivalent of about $2,000 today." Strauss eventually cleared away resistance among the elected officials.
Too Environmentally Harmful
Still, other prominent area organizations opposed the bridge. The Sierra Club feared it would cause environmental damage (one of the club's most enthusiastic members, San Francisco native Ansel Adams, would take a bittersweet photograph of the Golden Gate in 1932, on the eve of the bridge's construction).
Operating in one of America's busiest ports, local shippers fretted that bridge construction would negatively affect their businesses. Golden Gate Ferries, owned by Southern Pacific, California's largest and most influential corporation, was concerned the bridge would steal customers, usurp millions of dollars in revenue, and undermine the lucrative ferry business. The U.S. War Department, which owned the land on both shores of the Gate, was equally opposed to the bridge, fearing construction would interfere with military operations and that, once completed, the bridge might be blown up by enemies and obstruct the harbor.
Unsafe, or Ugly
Bridge opponents voiced concerns about the Gate's geographical situation. Many engineers doubted that a bridge could be designed to withstand such a notoriously violent environment. Critics attacked Strauss' engineering abilities, and described his initial design as "an upside-down rat trap." Still more criticism came from residents who did not wish to disturb the aesthetic beauty of the Gate. Opponents of the bridge's construction were collectively known as the "Old Guard."
A Boon -- or a Burden?
Californians in the northern counties were of two minds about the proposed bridge. While it would certainly bring economic benefits, the bridge might also cause property taxes to go up. Only six of the twenty-one counties to be invited ended up joining the Golden Gate Bridge District. The other counties withdrew their support in 1926, leaving Strauss with less than the required 10% to form the district. Strauss lobbied heavily for the bridge, pleading with residents to approve a bond issue. His efforts paid off: on November 4, 1930, voters approved, by a margin of 3 to 1, the $35 million bridge bond.
A Financing Hurdle
The bond issue was not the last hurdle, however. Strauss need to find a bank to accept the bonds. A year passed, as Americans struggled to survive the Depression's hard times. In that economic climate, the bridge's future seemed increasingly tenuous. At last, Strauss approached produce-worker-turned-financier A. P. Giannini, the founder of the Bank of America, and won his approval. Construction could finally start. The tenacious Strauss compared his struggle to "a 13 years' war... a long and torturous march."
The Ultimate Refutation
Sixteen years after Strauss had first presented his design to city officials in 1921, the spectacular -- and universally beloved -- bridge opened to the public. As Strauss announced triumphantly, "The Golden Gate Bridge, the bridge which could not and should not be built, which the War Department would not permit, which the rocky foundation of the pier base would not support, which would have no traffic to justify it, which would ruin the beauty of the Golden Gate, which could not be completed within my costs estimate of $27,165,000, stands before you in all its majestic splendor, in complete refutation of every attack made upon it."
My American Experience
From the Empire State Buiding to the carvings on Mount Rushmore, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Space Needle, the U.S. has dozens of impressive, important, and iconic structures. Which ones have you been to? Which has had the biggest impact?