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Stories from our Travelers

Bridging History, Tragedy and Celebration

Shrouded in San Francisco fog

Golden Gate seen from the Marin Headlands
by Carolyn Clark Beedle

[Summer 2012] A hidden strait less than two miles wide challenged Miwok and Ohlone tribesmen in canoes, Spanish conquistadors, American explorers and adventurers in schooners and frigates. Where exactly did it lie amidst the fog; what might be discovered on surrounding shores; how best to navigate its legendary rough waters? In the late 18th century, the European world discovered this sparkling treasure through explorations by Portola and Ayala, and like anything of value, it has been heavily guarded over time. Spanish, Mexican and American military installations ringed the entrance and fortified the islands found within. Captain John C. Fremont first named it "Chrysopylae," meaning "golden gate," in 1846.

Soon the prospect of wealth from real gold brought droves of miners and settlers through, and overland travel around the perimeter took weeks. As early as 1820, there were ferries filled with water, travelers, and commerce crossing the opening of the San Francisco Bay.

By the late 1920’s, the Golden Gate Ferry Company ran the largest ferry service in the country, but San Francisco city growth was stunted with no bridges to connect local communities. The extremely deep water and heavy winds had challenged engineers for years, until 1928 when Joseph Strauss designed a suspension bridge with two towers set in cement piers. The $35 million construction project, delayed by the stock market crash, kicked off in 1933. The Hartford Insurance Company held the liability policy, and fatality projections were one person per million dollars for major construction at the time. (My grandfather, a Hartford agent, monitored the project.) Thankfully the Golden Gate Bridge was completed with only 11 deaths, 10 in one tragic accident. Despite all adversity, the project was completed under schedule and budget.

In May 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge opening ceremonies allowed pedestrians (including my grandparents and their children) to walk the span before any vehicle traffic. Tolls were 50 cents for cars with up to 4 passengers, 5 cents for each additional passenger and all pedestrians using sidewalks, with or without bicycles. The strength and beauty of the structure drew traffic and fame to the City by the Bay, doing everything it was meant to do and more.

Seventy-five years later, the Golden Gate Bridge has global appeal. Forty million cars use the bridge annually, 4.3 million people use the pedestrian walkways, and the grimmest statistic is one suicide about every two weeks. The Golden Gate Bridge is believed to draw the largest number of suicides in the world; unofficially there are over 1300. The first to jump was a barge worker in August, 1937; the first to survive was a young woman in 1941. Sarah Rutledge Birnbaum was the first to jump twice; the founder of Victoria’s Secret jumped in 1993; and in 2011 a local high school senior jumped “for fun” and survived. Efforts to dissuade have included signage, phones and suicide hotlines, barriers and the 75th birthday gift of a cantilevered net will soon be installed below the span.

The bridge approach from San Francisco parallels Crissy Field, an abandoned airfield built in the 1920’s. Former administrative buildings, hangars, and warehouses now house The Warming Hut cafe, bicycle shops, Pilates studios, giant trampolines, climbing walls and a swimming pool. The restored Crissy Field, an environmental showcase of reclaimed wetlands, is stunning to walk or bike with its iconic views of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge, beaches, picnic tables, tidal marsh overlooks, and world renowned windsurfing. Every day, thousands of people with children and dogs and kites, enjoy the urban nature.

At one end of the trail looms the menacing Fort Point, built at the base of a northern promontory during the Civil War to defend the California gold fields. It later served as a military prison and the Fort Point history museum tells amazing tales, while chilly views from open bunker windows catch freighters passing under the Bridge on the way out to sea. School children visit and picnic on the entry lawns, and intrepid surfers tackle waves which ultimately crash on the huge rocks below.

On top of this promontory is the bridge toll plaza, parking lots and a new Visitor’s Center full of information and memorabilia. Many pedestrian and cyclist bridge crossing adventures start there, while treks by locals often begin miles away. A rite of passage in our family was your first walk across the Bridge starting from down at the Marina.

The north side of the Bridge links to the Marin headlands above, to coves and beaches below, and always to nicer weather. In the 18th century, Spanish and Mexican ranchers occupied the headlands, eventually giving way to Portuguese immigrant dairy farmers. The green rolling hills afford spectacular views of San Francisco and miles of trails. On clear days, from the top of the headlands there is a panoramic view including out to the Farallon Islands, and in to Angel Island, Alcatraz, the Bay Bridge, and more. Former military bunkers, batteries, forts and even missile silos, all built to prevent hostile ships from entering San Francisco Bay, dot this side of the Golden Gate. All are decommissioned and open to visitors. After some ill-fated development attempts and a great deal of advocacy, the Marin headlands are now part of the 75,000 acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

If You Go
For more information on the Golden Gate Bridge, see Visitors

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