The Golden Gate Bridge, a wonder of the world for 75 years

On May 27, 1937, the public for the first time could drive, walk, or bicycle directly from San Francisco to Marin County in the north. Now, 110,000 cars pass over the bridge a day.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
This Sunday, the Golden Gate Bridge turns 75. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--It's one of the wonders of the world, and one of the most photographed things on the planet. And this Sunday, the Golden Gate Bridge turns 75.

While New York may have dozens of world-famous landmarks, and Paris is, well, Paris, San Francisco -- a great city in its own right -- may be best known for its outstanding red bridge, a masterpiece of workmanship that connects the city to its northern neighbor, Marin County.

75 years of the Golden Gate Bridge (pictures)

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In the late 1800s, the only way to cross the Golden Gate was by ferry, and those who ran the local vessels were among the region's elite. But starting in the late 1860s, there began to be calls for a bridge. And in 1872, railroad tycoon Charles Crocker told the Marin County Board of Supervisors that plans and cost estimates had been prepared for a suspension bridge that would span the strait and that could carry passengers and rail cars.

The die was cast. In 1916, ten years after the devastating earthquake that leveled San Francisco, San Francisco Call Bulletin editor James Wilkins publicly proposed a design for a bridge crossing the strait. But World War I was on, and the public's attention was elsewhere, according to a history of the bridge put together by the Golden Gate Bridge Highway & Transportation District.

On May 23, 1923, California's legislature passed the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District Act of California. This enabled the creation of new district that would build what eventually came to be known as the Golden Gate Bridge. And on December 9, 1929, less than two months after the start of the Great Depression, twin dedication ceremonies were held, one in San Francisco, and one in Marin, to mark the commencement of borings for the new bridge tower piers. As chief engineer Joseph Strauss put it at the time, "This is a day of big projects, and the building of the Golden Gate Bridge ranks among the biggest."

The Golden Gate Bridge, as seen from the Airship Eureka. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The pace of building such a project is slow, of course, and it took until 1930 for the U.S. War Department to finally issue a permit for the construction of the bridge. It would have a 4,200-foot main span, and vertical clearances of 220 feet at its midspan and 210 feet at its sidespans, according to the bridge history document.

On January 5, 1933, the first work on the bridge began, and nearly two months later, on February 26, 1933, politicians and workers held the official ground-breaking ceremony.

As construction progressed, things did not always go well. On at least three occasions in 1933 alone, disaster struck. First, a steamship on its way to Portland, Ore., crashed in heavy fog into the just-finished access trestle -- which was extending 1,100 feet into the Golden Gate Strait. Then high seas smashed and destroyed several sections of the bridge. And lastly, another storm battered the construction, wrecking 800 feet of access trestle.

Still, work went on. And in November 1934, and then in June, 1935, the two towers were completed.

Work had been underway for more than three years when a traveling derrick toppled in October, 1936, killing a worker named Kermit Moore. He was the first to die during the construction. Ten more would perish in a scaffolding collapse in February, 1937.

But work was already nearly done. On November 20, 1936, the two sections of the main span were connected, creating one single roadway. A few months later, on April 27, 1937, the last rivet was driven into the bridge, and on May 27, 1937, it finally opened, connecting San Francisco and Marin for the first time, and beginning what so far has been a 75 year love affair between the world and one of its most famous constructions.

This Speck iPhone 4/4S case is a prize for the first person to identify the picture of the Golden Gate Bridge in the accompanying gallery that has Blue Angels planes in it. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Today, the Golden Gate Bridge, which contains 1.2 million rivets and requires constant repainting to maintain its famous rust-red color in the face of never-ending onslaught of fog and wind, is crossed by about 110,000 cars each day.

But it can be easy to forget that the bridge is meant for cars. It is visible for miles in many different directions, and stands as one of San Francisco's calling cards to the world. In daylight, it stands tall and proud, its rust red a world-famous color. At night, it is lit up, a quiet monument on the horizon for those that can see it.

On Sunday, it turns 75. Happy birthday, Golden Gate Bridge.

Note: The iPhone case to the left is a special, limited edition Golden Gate Bridge 75th anniversary case from Speck. I will give it to the first person to send me an email (with "Blue Angels" in the subject line) that identifies the photograph in the accompanying slideshow that has Blue Angels planes in it.