• Erecting three connected 2,400-foot suspension bridges across the East Bay required building an artificial island in the middle of the bay to act as an anchorage for two of them . The bridge deck above the bay ’ s shipping channel would have to be a record 227 feet high to allow for commercial and military traffic to pass under it .
• To accommodate the anticipated traffic flow , the Yerba Buena tunnel would have to be 76 feet wide , 58 feet high and 540 feet long , making it the largest such tunnel in the world .
• The bridge from Yerba Buena to Oakland would be the longest of its kind , requiring 22 piers and including six separate truss sections in addition to the two towers supporting the cantilever sections . One of its piers would have to be sunk more than 240 feet below the water level , setting a record for underwater construction . And its approaches would have to connect with several major highways built on that side of the bay during the 1920s .
• The entire bridge would have to include tracks for four separate interurban railway and trolley systems that were still thought to be important elements of the Bay Area ’ s transportation network .
Wind and water conditions that plagued the Golden Gate Bridge ’ s construction were not quite as bothersome to the workers building the Bay Bridge . But
the work was still hazardous . Twenty-four men died during construction , including at least one deep-sea diver who succumbed to a bad case of the bends . In March 1936 , construction was held up for several hours when the final section of the cantilever bridge across the East Bay did not fit into place . The combination of warm sun on one side of the span and cold wind on the other had caused the steel to expand . Workers had to use powerful jacks to move part of the structure by 10 inches in order to accommodate the last piece of this steel jigsaw puzzle .
The cities of San Francisco and Oakland celebrated the opening of their new highway connection on November 12 , 1936 . It had been completed six months ahead of schedule and a cost of only $ 53 million , thus yielding the Bridge Authority a substantial surplus .
Finished , But Not Completed
In one sense these two projects were finished : construction was complete , traffic began to flow and the bridge districts began to collect tolls . Just as their organizers had predicted , both districts used those tolls to pay off their bonds ( Golden Gate ) or RFC loan ( Bay Bridge ). But those designers would likely have been disappointed that neither the Golden Gate Bridge District nor the California Toll Bridge Authority would ever be able to stop collecting tolls . Bridge authorities have been using those funds to re-paint , re-configure , re-deck , re-light and retrofit these structures ever since they opened . In addition , taxpayers had to spend $ 6.5 billion to replace the Bay Bridge ’ s East Bay section after the damage caused by a 1989 earthquake . One suspects it will never be possible to say that these iconic structures have been “ completed .”
Michael A . Martorelli is a Director Emeritus at Fairmount Partners and a frequent contributor to Financial History . He earned his MA in History from American Military University .
Dillon , Richard H . High Steel : Building the Bridges Across San Francisco Bay . Celestial Arts . 1979 .
The Hoover-Young San Francisco Bay Bridge Commission Report . San Francisco . 1930 .
Loomis , Richard Thomas . The History of the Building of the Golden Gate Bridge . Ph . D . Dissertation , Stanford University . 1958 .
Mikesell , Stephen D . A Tale of Two Bridges : The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridges of 1936 and 2013 . University of Nevada Press . 2017 .
Petroski , Henry . Engineers of Dreams : Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America . Alfred A . Knopf . 1995 .
Van der Zee , John . The Gate : The True Story of the Design and Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge . Simon and Schuster . 1986 .
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