Homage to the Gate

The Golden Gate Bridge is the most beautiful bridge in the world. An icon of the Western World, it is the emblem of the city of San Francisco, which has one of the most spectacular locations of any city in the world.

The bridge straddles across the narrow strait between the San Francisco peninsula and the Marin Headlands. Inside the Gate is the scenic sheltered San Francisco Bay and outside the Gate is the wild and beautiful Pacific Ocean, which stretches over 3,000 miles to the islands of Hawaii and Asia beyond.

The architect and engineer who designed the Golden Gate Bridge was Joseph Strauss. Many people said it was impossible to build a bridge across the mile wide Golden Gate Strait from the city to the Marin headlands, so the project was controversial and not very popular. His bid at 30 million dollars was much cheaper than all the others and was greeted with incredulity by many of his contemporaries. The support of an influential Irishman helped Strauss fulfill his dream and build the famous bridge that is now considered one of the wonders of the modern world. Limerickman Michael Maurice O’Shaughnessy (The Chief) was the San Francisco City Engineer (from 1912-32) and he commissioned Strauss to build the suspension bridge and helped rally public support for the project. The Chief’s other major claim to fame was the Hetchy Hetchy project, an innovative series of dams, tunnels and pipelines that brought drinking water from the O’Shaughnessy dam in the Sierras to the city. This has been heralded as one of the major civil engineering achievements of the 20th century.

It took only four years to construct the Golden Gate Bridge and it was first opened to traffic in May 1937. During construction a safety net that spanned the bridge caught 19 workers who would have fallen to certain death. These workers formed what has been famously coined the “Halfway to Hell Club”. At the time it was the longest suspension bridge in the world with a span of 4,200 feet. The longest suspension bridge is now in Japan. The Golden Gate Bridge is about 1.7 miles long and the distinctive Art Deco towers stretch over 700 feet high. Two hundred and fifty high-pressure sodium lights are used to illuminate the bridge at night.

The Golden Gate Bridge is an important part of American heritage. If the bridge were destroyed by some catastrophe, then it would cost 1.4 billion dollars to replace. It has recently been highlighted as a possible potential target for a rogue terrorist group and security in the area has been tightened. The bridge has a 27-foot sway and was built to resist the worst weather that the Pacific Ocean can muster. Although it is claimed the Golden Gate Bridge would easily survive a 100 mph headlong wind, so far it has only had to deal with 75 mph gusts and has not suffered major structural damage. The most likely natural disaster to hit the Bay Area is an earthquake and a big one is due soon. Two major fault lines pass in close proximity to the city of San Francisco – the San Andreas and the Hayward faults. The inhabitants of San Francisco are almost on a constant state of heightened alert, but few locals even talk about the likelihood of a quake. The bridge was built to withstand the shake of a minor earthquake. In October 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake that was measured at 7.1 on the Richter scale did not damage it. This quake caused part of the Bay Bridge (on the other side of the city) to collapse. But if a really massive earthquake struck the city then it is unlikely that the bridge would survive. So an ambitious plan to strengthen the bridge using a technique called seismic retrofitting has been undertaken at a cost of 340 million dollars. It will be completed in 2006 and the bridge will be able to withstand an 8.3 magnitude earthquake and not buckle. The Golden Gate Bridge did buckle slightly once in strong winds when, in 1987, 300,000 people held a sunrise party on the bridge to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Up to 125,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day, but the four traffic lanes mean that there is usually not too long a delay outside rush hour. There is a one-way three-dollar toll on your way into the city, but it is free to cross for traffic heading the other way. A walk across the bridge and back will take about an hour and provides spectacular views of the city beyond. Unfortunately, the place on the bridge with the best city view is also San Francisco’s most popular suicide spot. Most of the unfortunates face the city to make their last golden leap into the freezing bay nearly 300 feet below.

The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most photographed man made objects. The Golden Gate name of the narrow strait refers to its similarity to the Golden Horn of Istanbul in Turkey. The bridge is not actually golden, but a special orange-vermilion colour called International Orange. It was originally painted with over 2,000 gallons of paint. The first coats (with retouching) lasted nearly 30 years, but in 1965 the erosion was so bad that it was decided to repaint it with a special resistant emulsion. Over the next thirty years the bridge was gradually repainted and it has been repaired and retouched since then by a team of 38 painters and 17 ironworkers. Because of erosion the car deck has been reinforced and some corroded iron railings have had to be replaced. In true Californian style, the iron has been recycled and incorporated into designer furniture. So you can buy your designer table with legs of International Orange steel, which have been etched and weathered by wind and sea from the Golden Gate Straits.

Hundreds of yachts brave the bizarre sailing conditions in the San Francisco Bay from May to October. In contrast to the unpredictable squalls of Dublin bay the winds that blow through the Golden Gate straits are remarkably predictable. Every afternoon a strong and steady consistent breeze blows in practically the same direction. One of the most remarkable views is when you sail under the bridge and look up at the orange steel against a blue sky above you. From this angle you really get a feel for the magnificence of the bridge. In the summer a massive fog cloud will edge slowly along the Marin Headlands towards the city, so sailors will often make a dash out to the mile mark before they turn to face the city again. It is an exhilarating place to view the city in the distance beyond the bridge. Almost in an instant you are right back by the city, as the favourable wind fills your sails. The fog often seems to stop momentarily right at the Gate and pay homage to the bridge before it envelops the infamous island prison Alcatraz and then Downtown San Francisco. In the summer one of the characteristic sounds of the city are the bridge foghorns that warn vessels to steer clear and inhabitants of the city that the fog is on its way. This summer fog led Mark Twain to utter those immortal words: “The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco.”


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