90 years ago today, on January 5, 1933, construction began on what was then to be the longest bridge in the world, the Golden Gate Bridge near San Francisco. After several years of experts convinced that the strong currents in the bay and the great depth (102 meters) made it impossible to build a bridge there, engineer Joseph B. Strauss proved the opposite.
(text: Wim Meijer)
Until 1937, crossing the peninsula from San Francisco to Marin County north of metropolitan San Francisco was a time-consuming affair. The only way was by ferry, which took about 20 minutes. With the increasing traffic, this cried out for a solution. It happened when the American engineer Joseph B. Strauss created a design in 1916 for a bridge that would withstand the forces of nature, such as wind and earthquakes. However, this design could not withstand one force: the force of opinion of the people of San Francisco, who could not agree with the appearance of the bridge. Another design by Strauss, this time with architect Irving Morrow, gained popular appreciation in 1930.
The only hurdle that still needed to be overcome was funding. The cost of the bridge was estimated at $35 million. The stock market crash in 1929, however, prevented the government from financing the construction. In the end, it was Bank of America based in San Francisco that raised the necessary money.
Construction began on January 5, 1933, which would take a total of 4 years, after which the bridge was completed and opened to the public on May 27, 1937. Since then, the Golden Gate Bridge has become the symbol of the city of San Francisco and an icon of bridge building art.
Film from construction to now, set to music by the other (Johann) Strauss
Most preferred place to die
As well as being declared one of the ‘modern seven wonders of the world’, the bridge, which is crossed by 120,000 cars every day, has also become ‘the most preferred place to die’. The bridge seems to exert an irresistible attraction for people with suicidal tendencies. Since its opening in 1937, 1,700 people have attempted suicide by jumping off the bridge. This bridge seems to have it all for this morbid purpose: it has an iconic look and ‘success’ is almost guaranteed. While the success rate for other suicide attempts in America is 43 percent, only 25 of the Golden Gate Bridge jumpers survived, which equates to a 98.5 percent success rate.
These numbers have long been reason for the government to think about a safety net under the bridge. However, such a safety net would have a price tag of (it was thought at the time) tens of millions. This plan therefore met with massive opposition from the people of San Francisco, who believed that the government, and indirectly the citizen, was not responsible for suicidal people, under the motto ‘he who wants to know for himself’.
But when a record number of 118 deaths were counted in the year 2013, the discussion about installing safety nets was revived. It finally took until 2017 for this approval to come. And now, at the start of 2023, the nets are almost ready. An operation that ultimately cost $398 million, which is more than 11 times the original cost of building the entire bridge ($35 million).
Whether these networks will actually reduce the number of suicides remains to be seen. Because if you really don’t want to move on, you should probably find another place.
Nevertheless, the cost of the nets is still relatively low compared to other costs that must be incurred to maintain and secure the bridge. Since 1997, people have been working to make the bridge even more earthquake resistant. It is now 117 years since San Francisco was hit by a devastating earthquake measuring around 8.0 on the Richter scale. This means that another similar earthquake is lurking. To ensure that the bridge can handle such a force, the bridge is being modified, incurring a cost (budgeted in 1997) of no less than $660 million.
Can even longer
With that kind of amount, the question may arise as to whether it would not be better to build a brand new bridge right away. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Perhaps a nice comparison: In Japan, the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge was built in 1998, which with a span of 1,990 meters is now the longest suspension bridge in the world and can withstand earthquakes up to a magnitude of 8.5 on the Richter scale. The cost of this bridge was no less than 4.3 billion dollars. That’s about 4x the total construction and renovation costs plus the cost of safety netting for the Golden Gate Bridge.
That the Golden Gate Bridge, in addition to being a jewel for the efficiency of road traffic and the ultimate place for a ‘last goodbye’, is also a place where you can impressively see nature and the hustle and bustle of the city merge together, like timelapse -the video below clearly shows.