Golden Gate & Brooklyn Bridges
& Those Who Used to Build Them
We’re slightly past the halfway point in time between the anniversary of two landmark bridges, one in each of the U.S. coasts: the Golden Gate, in San Francisco, will be 75 years old on Sunday. And last Thursday, its was the New York Brooklyn Bridge’s 129th year celebration.
Arguably the most famous crossings in the country, they’re marvels of architecture on their own distinctive styles, and, at the time of their opening, each became briefly the world’s longest suspension bridge.
Curiously, as beloved and celebrated they’re now, their construction faced fierce opposition: the Gate, for ‘ruining’ the view of the mouth of San Francisco Bay; and, this being New York, the Brooklyn Bridge, for having an ‘adverse’ impact on the area’s real estate.
Opening day for both, though, brought hundreds of thousands of people who walked on their decks with pride. Throughout the years, as they both stood longer than many others built and fallen along the way, they came to symbolize the spirit of the cities they serve.
HALFWAY TO HELL CLUB
Before May 27, 1937, when the 1.7 mile suspension bridge built by Charles Ellis, Joseph Strauss and Irving Morrow opened to the public, it’d take San Franciscans a 27-minute ride to cross the bay.
Considering its length, strong currents and 70mph winds whipping the area, construction was relatively fast, lasting four years. In the end, 11 men died during it, but 19 others, who fell from the bridge but survived, formed the ‘Halfway to Hell Club.’
Since its opening, though, the Golden Gate has been known also for a grim statistic: the 1.200 people who jumped to their death from its decks, a world record. Efforts to install barriers to prevent jumpers have so far failed to be approved by the city.
Albeit many other bridges resemble the design of San Francisco’s most famous icon, its color is definitely one of a kind: reddish-orange, known as International Orange. Used as a sealant, it was Morrow’s decision to apply a similar hue as the final color.
There’s a big party in San Francisco Sunday, with the Memorial Day weekend and Fleet Week all rolled up into one. Boat parades, riverside fairs, and fireworks over the bay will mark the date. Fittingly, it’ll also be cold and windy, so bring a jacket or something.
THE ENVY OF MANHATTAN
When the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, New York was still 15 years away from incorporating to its fold one the U.S.’s biggest cities at the time, sitting right next door: Brooklyn.
A passage over the East River connecting the two communities was long needed. But perhaps, behind some of the opposition to bridging them, was the feeling that one was bound to become a borough to the other.
It didn’t quite work that way, at least not on paper. But even born and bred New Yorkers, when they sometimes refer to ‘the city,’ their are somehow excluding everything but Manhattan.
Which didn’t rest until it also had a bridge to name its own. That certainly didn’t work; the Manhattan Bridge is OK and all, but the other one is the one that appears in most ‘Wish You Were Here’ postcards around the world. Or what passes for them these days.
For such a shorter span compared to the Golden Gate, construction of the Brooklyn Bridge was considerably more dramatic, longer, at 13 years, and with way more worker deaths, 27. Even original builder John Augustus Roebling, got hurt and died in the process.
He crushed his foot before construction began, and died from a tetanus infection shortly after. His son Washington, who replaced him, didn’t last long either. He suffered a paralyzing injury due to decompression sickness and died as the work got started.
For all accounts, it was a woman who saw the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge. Roebling’s wife Emily stepped in and mastered all the high-end math calculations that ultimately assured the bridge would withstand a century of heavy traffic without incidents.
Another difference comparing with San Francisco is that many who died jumping off the bridge, did so with no stated intent of killing themselves. At that height from the water, survival if not impossible, is improbable.
People still dive from it, climb on it, even bungee-jumped for a few nights in the 1990s, all, of course, with the NYPD going after them all. As it did last year, when it trapped and arrested almost a thousand of peaceful Occupy Wall Street protesters on the bridge’s walkaway. They’re all out, by the way.
Landmarks are always surrounded by lore and passionate arguments about their construction, their beauty, their safety record. But the Brooklyn Bridge has also something else about it: the allure it exerts on con men and their victims.
That’s probably why George C. Parker has managed to sell it twice a week for years, once for as much as $50,000, in the 1920s. Until he got caught, police had to prevent ‘new owners’ from setting up toll booths in the middle of the bridge.
One thing that both Brooklyn and Golden Gate brides seem to both have missed from their construction, though, was the involvement of Native Americans, specially the fearless ‘skywalkers‘ of Mohawks and Kahnawake tribes.
Pictures taken in New York during the heyday of steel construction in the 1920s, show them atop the George Washington Bridge, the Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, and others, all the way up to the Twin Towers in the 1970s.
They’re still considered an elite of builders and, according to Uncle John’s Heavy Duty Bathroom Reader, over a hundred ‘Mohawk were aloft at construction sites across lower Manhattan when the World Trade Center came down in 2001.’
Just like with the people who buill the tunnels for the New York subway for example, courage and a certain set of rare skills, along with a sense of compassion for that matter, seem to run in families. And tribes, too.
Still according to Uncle John, the Mohawk ‘were among the first rescuers at the scene of the Sept. 11 attacks, and worked for months to help clear away the rubble of the great towers they had helped erect.’
So before we forget it, Happy Birthday Golden Gate and Happy Birthday Brooklyn Bridge. This weekend, if you’re around one of them, take a walk through them and think about how many places you’d like them to take you in the years ahead.