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Happy 75th Birthday, Golden Gate Bridge

I’ve been driving over the Golden Gate Bridge all my life and nearly every day for the past 40 years. Often, the drive is exhilarating, especially when there are boats in San Francisco Bay. Sometimes, particularly on foggy mornings, it’s routine. When I was a child, the toll was 25 cents. Today it’s $6.

For its 75th birthday on Sunday, the bridge’s management is planning a celebration that includes music, art shows, lectures, a new book and a new visitor center. But one thing won’t happen: Nobody gets to cross the bridge on foot on the big day.

As illustrated here by Spencer, tourists at the Golden Gate Bridge can pose in front of a green screen, dressed for a climb, to be edited into a photo showing them scaling one of the 746-foot towers.

When the bridge opened in 1937, walkers were allowed to cross first. A day later, the bridge opened to cars. When the bridge turned 50, that routine was duplicated. Traffic was stopped and pedestrians were allowed to cross in the middle of the roadway. About 800,000 people tried to cross, and 300,000 actually stood on the deck at the same time. Their weight flattened out the bridge, which normally rises slightly in the middle. The roadway began swaying, and officials, already overwhelmed with people, tried to get the crowds off the bridge.

It took a while, but the bridge — and all the people on it — survived. But it could have been a disaster, so today’s management decided not to tempt fate. Though the party won’t be on the bridge, gridlock is expected as thousands will want to cross in celebration.

Why Celebrate?

The Golden Gate Bridge is more than a way to drive to and from Marin County, Calif., which sits just north of San Francisco and is home to charming sites such as Muir Woods and Sausalito. The bridge’s early designs were ugly, utilitarian and nothing to celebrate. Spanning the Golden Gate, which connects the San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean, would be a way to avoid three-hour waits for the ferry boats that connected San Francisco with Marin. Thousands of San Franciscans took the ferries every weekend to hike on Mount Tamalpias.

Marin landowners, and those farther north, saw the bridge as a way to increase their property values. Developers stretching to the Oregon border expected to cash in on new homes, since commuting to work would now be possible. Auto dealers wanted a bridge so buyers would have a nice place to drive. And the bridge, when it was finished, accomplished all those things.

Plenty of people and organizations opposed the bridge’s construction, from environmentalists, ferry boat owners and even the War Department, which worried the bridge would succumb to a bomb attack and block the harbor.

The Golden Gate Bridge became much grander than a transit route: a national source of pride. The design was changed in the 1920s after engineers pointed out they could eliminate clunky structures and instead substitute sleek, tapered towers that would better withstand the wind, rain and powerful currents that push through the Golden Gate.

An American Icon

The bridge became an object d’art, something to rival earlier bridges such as the George Washington and the Manhattan bridges in New York City. Despite the Navy’s request that the bridge be striped yellow and black, it was painted an outrageous shade called International Orange. The bold color choice worked; it complimented San Francisco as well as the brown and occasionally green hills of Marin County. No one would dare suggest it be changed today.

These days, the bridge is hailed as the West Coast version of the Statue of Liberty and a symbol of America. Historians call it a remnant of the Progressive era, when big public-works projects showed Americans how they had conquered the continent and improved on its natural beauty. The Golden Gate Bridge is used in movies, commercials and promotions for travel. It attracts thousands of tourists who have a hard time finding a place to park so they can inspect it close up. And remains what it was sold as: a crucial link between San Francisco and the north.

Moving Forward

I had a friend who, while visiting me, told me he could never live in Marin County. He asked, “What would happen when the bridge fell down?” He wasn’t kidding.

Some San Franciscans live in fear of earthquakes, a fear that isn’t too unreasonable. So far, the bridge hasn’t fallen down despite occasional 80-mph winds, some heavy quakes and the 300,000 people who descended on it 25 years ago.

Bridge officials fully expect the bridge to last another century, barring acts of war. They are constantly maintaining it: painting it that strange shade of orange to protect the steel and replacing the cables, a little at a time.

Even though the bonds that financed the bridge were paid off in 1969, the $6 toll pays for maintenance and for subsidies for buses and ferry boats, which siphon off 13,000 cars that would otherwise crowd the roadways. To save more money, the toll collection process will soon be automated, and toll takers will be laid off.

But as one historian told me, nothing lasts forever. One of the wonders of the ancient world, the Colossus of Rhodes, is at the bottom of the Aegean Sea — a victim of an earthquake. The Golden Gate Bridge has been designated one of the wonders of the modern world — and I drive over it nearly every day.

Happy Birthday!

On Wednesday’s PBS NewsHour, watch Spencer Michels’ profile of the Golden Gate Bridge on the 75th anniversary of its opening.

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