It was called the most stunning feat of engineering in the world. It took five years to complete and cost 11 lives in the doing.
Eighty years ago this winter, the Golden Gate Bridge radically changed the face of Sonoma County and Petaluma. It was the longest suspension bridge in the world and it revolutionized the delivery of goods both north and south on our coast.
A bridge over the entrance to San Francisco Bay had first been proposed as early as 1869. But the idea became seriously studied in 1917, when San Francisco hired famed engineer Joseph Strauss to look into the possibility. In 1921, Strauss submitted estimates, but it wasn’t until January of 1933 that actual construction started on the $35 million project.
The bridge was scheduled to open May 27, 1937 and it took the joint bond issue effort of the counties of San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, Del Norte, Mendocino and Napa to fund the construction. Strong tides, bad weather and the challenge of going 65 feet below the water to anchor earthquake-proof foundations made the project immensely dangerous. No one had ever built a bridge this big before.
Work on the bridge gained world-wide attention. The towers were 746 feet high, the main span was 4,200 feet long and the concrete surface was 250 feet above the water. It was to be 10,000 tons of steel literally floating in the air. The winds often blew 40 to 60 knots, and the danger of falling off the construction was so great that engineers affixed a netting below the working areas to catch errant workmen who may fall.
The first four years of construction were amazingly safe. However, the winter of 1936-37 was a terrible one. In January and February, the Petaluma turning basin nearly froze over from shore to shore. The Petaluma Argus-Courier said that the storm of Jan. 28, 1937 was the “worst in 20 years” and on Feb. 3, two inches of rain fell in one day here. One can only imagine how tough it was, working on those bridge towers.
And then came the disastrous day of Feb. 17, 1937. Only months from completion, a giant platform under the bridge collapsed, cutting right through the safety netting, as if it were butter, and plunging 12 men toward the ice cold water, 20 stories below. Two of them were able to grab netting, slow their fall, and survive. Ten men perished on the bridge that day.
The news sent shock waves around the Bay Area, and around the world. It knocked Adolph Hitler, who was making noises of invading Spain and France, off the front pages of newspapers. The Bay Area was more worried about its “Great Bridge” and the tragedy of that day.
San Francisco was the core of the bridge activity. As that tragic February passed and opening day approached, chambers of commerce all the way to Seattle in the north and San Diego to the south, wanted to get into the celebration of joining a great highway for the entire West Coast of the United States.
Our Petaluma Chamber of Commerce was anticipating “untold possibilities, as this community is the gateway to the Redwood Empire.” The trucking of poultry and dairy goods would increase immensely and the members of the chamber voted to send a float to the “biggest, most spectacular celebration that San Francisco has ever known.”