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Golden Gate Bridge went from 'ugly' to a lasting landmark

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The Golden Gate Bridge was never a given. In fact, it was downright controversial. Cost concerns, distaste for the original design, lobbying from distraught ferry companies and worries about hindering Bay navigation all had to be overcome before a plan could be set in motion with the creation of the  Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District in 1928.

Click on the photo to the right to see more pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Even then, the bridge we know today was years from materializing. The transition from Chief Engineer Joseph Strauss’ original, symmetrical cantilever-suspension design — an ungainly, off-balance hybrid derided in the press as “ugly” — to a graceful suspension bridge wasn’t complete until 1929. And funding wasn’t secured until 1930, when voters agreed to put up their homes, farms and business properties as collateral for a $35 million construction bond.

Finally, it wasn’t until after construction began that the bridge acquired its color. Plans for black or gray paint — or the Navy’s dubious preference, black-and-yellow stripes — were abandoned for International Orange when architect Irving F. Morrow became inspired by sheer circumstance: The steel for the bridge arrived from a plant in Pottstown, Pa., with a light coat of red primer. That led Morrow to choose the bridge’s signature orange for its ability to complement the bridge’s rugged setting and stand out against sea and sky.

Harry Fogle knew the color as well as anyone. After starting on the Bay Bridge in 1934 at the age of 22, a job for which he moved from Wisconsin to San Francisco, Fogle began painting the first coats of International Orange onto the Golden Gate Bridge in 1935 or 1936.

Unlike construction, which began Jan. 5, 1933, and concluded 250 million man-hours later on April 19, 1937, the painting of the bridge never stopped. Damp, salty air continually works away at its steel components, and a two-part system of primer and topcoat is needed to protect those parts from rust and corrosion.

Contrary to a popular myth, the bridge is not painted on a continual basis from end to end. Instead, all portions of the bridge are regularly inspected and priorities are assigned wherever new paint is needed.

With the exception of a stint working on the Carquinez Bridge, Fogle, who died in February 2011, painted the Golden Gate Bridge eight hours a day, five days a week, rain or shine, for four decades. When it really poured, he and his crewmates painted inside the towers.

“It was pretty cold, but he said that when you got up to the top on a beautiful day, it was quite a sight,” noted his widow, Marie Fogle, who lives in the Sacramento area. “Heights never bothered him.”

The completed Golden Gate Bridge was immediately heralded as a marvel of engineering. Its main suspension span was the longest in the world until 1964, and its suspension towers were the tallest until 1998. It was built to withstand punishing winds, fog, currents and, despite a lack of seismic knowledge, even earthquakes.

“These people did an amazing job,” said current Chief Engineer Ewa Bauer. “This bridge was considered such an ingenious undertaking.”

Eleven men lost their lives during construction, a significant improvement over the industry norm of one death per $1 million spent. Ten of them died in an incident in February 1937, when a section of scaffolding fell through the safety net suspended beneath the bridge from end to end. Over four years of construction, that net saved 19 lives.
The last of the original bridge workers died last month, weeks shy of the landmark’s 75th anniversary.

Edward Ashoff, who carried rivets and bolts during construction of the south tower and went on to work as a toll collector and captain, died at age 97 on April 14. Jack Balestreri, who poured concrete for the south tower and anchorage and later worked as a draftsman in San Francisco, died at 95 on April 21, the end of an era.

Spanning the years

  • June 1921: Joseph Strauss submits preliminary sketches for hybrid cantilever-suspension span
  • December 1928: State Legislature forms Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District — now the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District — to construct bridge
  • January 1933: Construction starts
  • May 1937: Bridge opens to traffic
  • May 1962: 25th anniversary celebration
  • September 1962: Reversible lanes introduced
  • October 1968: One-way toll collection introduced
  • 1973 to 1976: All vertical suspender cables replaced due to corrosion
  • November 1977: Bridge toll reaches $1
  • December 1983: Bridge closes to traffic for 3½ hours due to 75 mph wind gusts
  • February 1985: 1 billionth vehicle crossing
  • 1986 to 1987: Decorative lighting that was part of the original design is finally installed on the towers
  • May 1987: 50th anniversary Bridge Walk packs more than 300,000 pedestrians onto the roadway
  • 1997: Seismic retrofit begins
  • July 2000: FasTrak electronic toll collection introduced on bridge
  • September 2002: Bridge toll reaches $5