Opening the Golden Gate

On a recent weekend I was in San Francisco to do a presentation at the Disney Family Museum and, after months of drought, it rained all weekend. Still, it was atmospheric and there is one landmark that retains its glamour and grandeur in all winds and weathers: the Golden Gate Bridge.


 

Though that weekend I was not able to get close to it, there is a magnificent view of bridge and bay from the second level of the museum (which is in the Presidio), a thrilling panorama to which I kept returning each day.

And every time I marveled at how such a superstructure was constructed in the first place. When I was back in Ventura, in one of the coincidences that sometimes mysteriously happen, I came across a fascinating documentary among E.P. Foster’s varied collection of DVDs. The “American Moments” disc, The Golden Gate Bridge, covers the raising of the structure from the initial planning stages (and there were many) through construction and opening day.

The 30-minute DVD features a brief introduction which leads into the main section, a vintage (and mostly unrestored) film which condenses the years of labor on one of the most challenging construction projects of the 20th century into about 25 minutes.

The film was produced by Bethlehem Steel, who supplied most of the steel for the bridge, and I was amazed to discover that much of it was produced in Steelton, Pennsylvania, a steel town a little south of Harrisburg, where I grew up (I remember seeing the frightening slag heaps at night, like waves of glowing lava, in the steel mills of Harrisburg).


The steel mills of Harrisburg, PA, late 1940s. View from the State St. bridge, steel corporation sign in the background. The Steelton steel mills which produced steel for the Golden Gate were south of Harrisburg. KODACHROME photo by Ross J. Care.

 

The Steelton steel was then shipped through the Panama Canal to SF where construction slowly began.

Inch by inch the two huge towers were raised and work on the suspensions and roadway began. Dizzying shots of men on girders, towers, and suspension cables alternated with views down into the turbulent waters of the bay.

The grainy, sometimes fuzzy black-and-white archival footage is also a vivid reminder of the early days of cinema itself, and has a ghostly “You Are There” quality. It’s in stark contrast to the sleek, iconic lines of the finally realized project, a still-Golden Gate that retains its sense of wonder to this day, even when partially shrouded in fog.


 

-Text and recent photos by Ross  B. Care