The Golden Gate Bridge represents a multitude of experiences and emotions. For some, it’s a sign of homecoming, to others, it’s an escape. For thousands, it’s part of a daily commute. But to everyone, it is an icon which that celebrates its 75th anniversary on May 27.
The bridge was completed in an exceptionally fast four years, with cutting edge calculation devices that included an abacus and a slide rule. Connecting San Francisco and Marin counties, the Golden Gate Bridge has withstood countless earthquakes, the daily strain of thousands of cars, and perhaps most perilously, nearly 800,000 people on its deck during the last anniversary celebration 25 years ago.
More than 3,000 miles away in Roebling, New Jersey, the company that made the thick cables for the bridge – John A. Roeblings’ Sons – are showcasing the spinning technique patented by the company and used for the Golden Gate. Patricia Millen, executive director of the Roebling Museum and curator of Spinning Gold, said that the wheels that were brought over to San Francisco for the project could spin up to 1,000 miles of wire in an eight-hour shift.
“Each cable was made up of 27,572 individual wires, each the size of a pencil,” Millen said. “Each cable measured three feet in diameter. On the 50th anniversary, that was the most weight the bridge had ever experienced, and the Roebling cables held.”
Many companies, like Roeblings’ Sons, can boast the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge in their history. But to a select number of people, the Golden Gate Bridge is deeply intertwined in their family’s history, a bridge that not only connects two counties but also generations.
The descendants of these engineers maintain a fascinating oral history of the bridge that most of us recognize from postcards and history books. Their family treasures include original photographs of the bridge under construction.
“My grandfather showed up on Valentine’s day in 1933 and he took care of the men, made sure they all worked, wore their leather hard hats,” recalled Lucinda Cone, granddaughter of Russell G. Cone, the resident engineer for the project. “My grandfather was the advocate for putting a net underneath the bridge and the extra safety measures. It saved many men’s lives.”
Mr. Cone was also key in preventing any of any sort of slacking. Lucinda Cone said that her grandfather used to make hungover men drink sauerkraut juice to keep them working. However, even with strong safety measures danger was always looming in one form or another as evidenced by Russel Cone’s harrowing tale of getting the bends when he had to dive to inspect the bridge’s foundations.
Susan Morris is the granddaughter of Harry Hilp of Barrett & Hilp, the construction firm that won the bid to build the two anchorages and piers of approach spans. A historian herself, Morris said the company was young when they put in their bid, but they felt they had the necessary experience after constructing the Third Street Bridge over the China Basin, now neighbor to AT&T Park.
Both Frank Barrett and Harry Hilp were born and raised San Franciscans, and Hilp lived every day in view of the Bridge that he helped build.
“To him, and what was passed onto our family, was a tremendous sense of civic pride,” Morris said. “It was extraordinary to be able to gather funds and put people to work in the depression. Every time I go over the bridge, I feel pride for our city and what we gave to the world. I’m proud of my grandfather and his partner too; they had this entrepreneurial spirit that I think is embodied in the bridge and its history.”
When Lucinda Cone crosses the bridge, she thinks of the homecomings, the weddings, the departures that the Bridge has seen and represented to so many over the years. For her, the bridge provides a connection to her past.
“Every time I drive across it, I talk to my grandpa.”
For Lucinda Cone, granddaughter of Joseph Strauss’s Resident Engineer Russell G. Cone, they are particularly excited to celebrate a new addition to that plaque. Charles Ellis was the designer and architect of the bridge. It was his job to build a structure that would withstand earthquakes, winds, tides and whatever else nature (and man) would throw at it over the years. He succeeded, but has never been recognized because he was fired before construction began in 1933.
Cone and her family have been advocating for his recognition for years, and she said the addition of Ellis’s name on the plaque will make the celebrations of the bridge much sweeter.