The Golden Gate Bridge's Opening Day and its 50th Anniversary
On Thursday, May 27, 1937, San Franciscans threw a "Fiesta" for their new bridge. Schools, offices and stores were either closed or reduced to a skeleton staff. By 6am, the starting hour of Pedestrians Day, 18,000 people were waiting to cross the span from both the San Francisco and the Marin sides. When the hour struck, foghorns gave great blasts, the toll gates opened and the earliest and eagerest arrivals — most of them high school students — ran or walked out onto the bridge.
Sprinters, Skaters and Tap-Dancers
Thousands of people competed to be the first to cross the bridge in some unique manner. Donald Bryan, a sprinter from San Francisco Junior College, was the first person to cross the entire span. Carmen Perez and her sister Minnie were the first people to roller-skate across. Florentine Calegari was the first person to cross over the bridge on stilts -- both ways. John V. Royan and his daughter Betty, from Heckersville, Pennsylvania, carried twenty-five pounds of Schuylkill County anthracite across the bridge. People walked backwards, balanced on lines, walked dogs and cats, and tap-danced across, all setting first-time records. A man blew a tuba, people rode on unicycles and others played harmonicas while crossing, as well. Two Balboa High School girls assumed they would receive a prize and were sorely disappointed when they got nothing for being the first twins to cross the bridge.
A Triumphal Poem
More conventional ceremonies occurred at Crissy Field, a nearby airstrip. Floats, marching bands, and motoring dignitaries who had traveled a flag-decorated parade route now passed before a formal "Span of Gold" reviewing stand. It wasn't until about 10am that chief engineer Joseph Strauss arrived at the reviewing stand. Strauss made no speech, but shared his thoughts in a celebratory poem, which was published alongside his portrait in the San Francisco News. "At last," Strauss had written, "the mighty task is done."
The bridge's first day was solely for pedestrians (some 200,000 showed up). Its second was for vehicles. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pressed a telegraph key in the White House declaring the bridge open to the entire world. In the first hours of business, 1,800 cars passed over the bridge. By the end of the day, 32,300 vehicles and 19,350 pedestrians had paid tolls and crossed. San Francisco and its neighboring northern counties were linked at last. That night, the city celebrated the bridge with an enormous display of fireworks.
A Half Century Later
Sunday, May 24, 1987, marked the bridge's fiftieth anniversary. Celebration was a certainty. People traveled from all over the world to see the bridge and be part of the historical event. The day began as it had on "Pedestrian Day 1937" — with approximately 300,000 people stepping out onto the roadway for "Bridgewalk 1987." At 11am organizers cleared the bridge for a vintage automobile motorcade. The Board of Directors suspended toll collection for the day. Festivities continued into the evening on San Francisco's Marina Green and Crissy Field. A star-studded evening concert concluded with dazzling fireworks, as the original celebration had. The fireworks featured a luminous "waterfall" that showered from the bridge to the bay below. And the bridge was lit for the first time according to Irving Morrow's bold original plan.