Joseph Baermann Strauss was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, just ten years after the Civil War. Raised in an artistic family, Joseph loved poetry and hoped to pursue a career in the arts like his mother, a pianist, and his father, a painter and writer. Though he never became a fine artist, one day young Joseph would help create one of the most famous bridges in the world.
An Inspiring Bridge
At the University of Cincinnati, Strauss developed lifelong interests. He continued writing poetry, but mostly studied commerce and economics. Standing five feet, three inches tall, Strauss struggled to overcome the limitations of his slight frame. After trying out for the football team, Strauss ended up recovering in the school infirmary, spending his time gazing out the window at the Cincinnati-Covington Bridge, America's first long-span suspension bridge. Strauss developed a deep fascination with bridges.
Earnest, Determined, Ambitious
A tenacious campaigner, Strauss was selected by his peers as both class president and class poet. For his commencement address in 1892, Strauss penned a 21-stanza poem titled "Reveries," and presented his senior thesis, an outlandish proposal to construct an international railroad spanning the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia. Alfred K. Nippert, Strauss' fraternity brother, recalled, "Before a crowded house, a bewildered faculty, and a distinguished group of visitors and speakers, this modest, soft-spoken young graduate unfolded his Utopian dream." Though Strauss' plan was unorthodox, his earnestness won over the skeptical audience.
Following his college graduation, Strauss worked as a draftsman for the New Jersey Steel and Iron Company, and the Lassig Bridge and Iron Works Company in Chicago. Seven years later, he was named principal assistant engineer in the firm of Ralph Modjeski, a Chicago engineer. While working for Modjeski, Strauss developed his trademark "bascule" drawbridge design. Strauss' bascule was a utilitarian structure, practical but unlovely. Strauss eventually left Modjeski's company, forming the Strauss Bascule Bridge Company in 1904.
The Biggest Thing
Strauss was a prolific engineer, constructing some 400 drawbridges across the U.S. He dreamed of building "the biggest thing of its kind that a man could build." In 1919, San Francisco's city engineer, Michael O'Shaughnessy, approached Strauss about bridging the Golden Gate, the narrow, turbulent passage where San Francisco Bay meets the Pacific Ocean. Strauss caught fire with the idea, campaigning tirelessly over the next decade to build the bridge. He faced enormous opposition from the "Old Guard" — environmentalists, ferry operators, city administrators, and even the engineering community. Yet in November 1930, a year into the Great Depression, voters at last supported a bond issue for Strauss' bridge. The ambitious project finally had its green light.
Strauss alienated many people in his quest to build the structure — his first suspension bridge. Obsessed with claiming credit as the span's creator, he minimized the acknowledgement given to Charles Ellis and Leon Moissieff, the two visionaries who actually worked out the significant engineering challenges of building the bridge. Strauss' detractors blocked a statue of the chief engineer proposed for the bridge plaza; his widow would eventually fund its creation in 1941, inscribing it, "Joseph B. Strauss, 1870-1938, 'The Man Who Built the Bridge.'"
During the bridge's construction, Strauss started to feel unwell, both mentally and physically. He disappeared for more than six months -- causing rumors to spread that he had suffered a nervous breakdown. During this time, Strauss divorced his longtime wife and married a young singer, many years his junior.
On May 27, 1937, the bridge opened to the public. Returning to his other great love, poetry, Strauss composed verse for the occasion, exulting, "At last, the mighty task is done." It would be the last mighty task of his life. Exhausted, Strauss moved to Arizona to recover. Within a year, he would die of a stroke.