SAN FRANCISCO -- A magnificent ongoing act of defiance against the forces of nature, the Golden Gate Bridge symbolizes the scope and fragility of American greatness.
I grew up near the bridge, commuting across it every day when I was in high school. My father, who drove me, called it the most spectacular commute in the world. I once suspected him of hyperbole, but passing years and travels taught me otherwise.
No bridge is as elegant as the deep red Golden Gate. None matches its splendid setting. With the precipitous Marin Headlands on one side and the craggy face of San Francisco on the other, it is a perfectly cut ruby set in gold.
From this bridge, sublime vistas shimmer across the water at every compass point: the tree-studded peninsulas of Marin; the prison island of Alcatraz; the high hills of Alameda; and the skyscrapers of San Francisco. On clear days, the distant Farrallons loom above the Pacific like mirages on the horizon.
The most commanding sight, however, is the bridge itself. It is a ribbon of concrete suspended by threads of steel, hanging down from parallel cables that are three-feet wide and nearly 8,000 feet long. These cables ascend from building-sized concrete piers at either end of the bridge, and then form matching upside down arches strung between twin towers rising 750 feet above the sea.
Almost two miles from end to end, the roadway sits 220 feet above the water. The foundation of the south tower lurks 110 feet in a murky deep churned by ceaseless tides.
No wonder many engineers said a bridge could not be built here. According to a history of its construction on the Website of the transportation district that runs the facility, the bridge was championed, starting in 1916, by a now-defunct newspaper, the San Francisco Call Bulletin, and, later, by an indefatigable engineer named Joseph Strauss, who wanted to build it himself.
Even in the boom times of the 1920s, however, neither the federal nor the state government would finance it. A rival project had already monopolized the government money. "There was no federal or state funding to build the Golden Gate Bridge because the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which was being promoted during the same time period, had already received the limited funds available," says the bridge Website.
The lack of state and federal funding did not stop the bridge builders, however. They formed a special transportation district -- comprising all of four Northern California counties and parts of two others -- to move the project forward. They planned to fund the bridge by selling bonds to be paid off by toll proceeds.
Their opponents planned litigation.