s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe
You've read 3 of 10 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to Petaluma360.com, the Argus-Courier e-edition and our mobile app starting at just 99 cents per month!
Already a subscriber?
You've read 6 of 10 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to Petaluma360.com, the Argus-Courier e-edition and our mobile app starting at just 99 cents per month!
Already a subscriber?
We hope you've enjoyed reading your 10 free articles this month.
Continue reading with unlimited access to Petaluma360.com, the Argus-Courier e-edition and our mobile app starting at just 99 cents per month!
Already a subscriber?
We've got a special deal for readers like you!
Get unlimited access to Petaluma360.com, the Argus-Courier e-edition and our mobile app starting at just 99 cents per month, and support community journalism!
Already a subscriber?
Thanks for your interest in award-winning community journalism! To get more of it, why not subscribe?
Get unlimited access to Petaluma360.com, the Argus-Courier e-edition and our mobile app starting at just 99 cents per month, and support community journalism!
Already a subscriber?
Want to keep reading? Take the next step by subscribing today!
Starting at just 99 cents per month, you can keep reading Petaluma360.com, the Argus-Courier e-edition and our mobile app, and support local journalism!
Already a subscriber?

Golden Gate Bridge shaped Petaluma’s history


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.”

The Petaluma school board suspended classes for the opening day, and the Petaluma High School band would perform in the bridge parade.

Opening day, May 26, was for pedestrians only. The following day would be for automobiles. The biggest display of naval power ever gathered in peacetime graced San Francisco Bay on those two days.

Warships of the Pacific fleet were not only showing off, they were sending a message to the rest of the world that we were not just a bunch of lilies, blowing in the wind over here. Fifteen admirals, 30,000 officers and men and 300 Navy fighter planes were in attendance. Japan took notice — it was only five years to Pearl Harbor.

The next day, more than 28,000 cars crossed the bridge. Petaluma set a couple of records that day, as the first person to cross the span was Raymond Tholson, a junior at Petaluma High. Also in the news was Petaluman John Gray, who was involved in the first automobile collision on the span. He was “just shaken.”

In the week following, the Argus-Courier editorial echoed the city council and chamber of commerce that: “Northbound traffic to Petaluma must now demand a four-lane highway from the bridge to, at least, Santa Rosa, if we are to fully realize all the benefits that should now accrue to us.”

Some things never change. And, of course, that super highway construction and re-construction still continues today.

(Historian Skip Sommer is an Honorary Life Member of Heritage Homes and the Petaluma Historical Museum. Contact him at skipsommer@hotmail.com.)