…I am totally out of sympathy with the ‘Can’t be done’ policy, as evidenced by my work on the Golden Gate Bridge, which you may know was considered impossible…my first duty now is to safeguard my health, and for this reason I plan to assume no active duties until fall. —excerpted from letter, Joseph Strauss to the Pacific Seadrome Company, June 4, 1937
Chief Engineer Joseph Strauss, the man who “dared the impossible” and supervised the construction of “The Bridge that could not be built”, died on May 16, 1938 at the age of 68, less than a year after turning over the Golden Gate Bridge to the newly created Bridge District.
Joseph Strauss was a true visionary. When his bridge design met with great opposition, he put together a team to redesign and refine the structure that would span the mile-wide entrance to San Francisco Bay. Beginning in 1917, Joseph Strauss lead the effort to garner support and financing for his bridge that would connect San Francisco to Marin County. He worked tirelessly for 16 years designing and promoting his vision for Northern California until finally breaking ground for construction in 1933.
Erecting a bridge on the edge of the continent above furious tides, buffeted by gale-force winds and thick fog, during the worst economic depression in history was just the tip of the iceberg of challenges faced by Joseph Strauss. A stickler for safety, Strauss was determined to fight the rule-of-thumb for projects of this size that said “One life would be lost for every million dollars spent”. The Golden Gate Bridge was financed with the sale of bonds totaling $35 million dollars.
The loss of one life, much less 35 lives, was an unacceptable choice for the Chief Engineer. Innovations such as hard hats and a safety net kept the bridge workers safe from falling objects and from their own fatal falls. 19 men fell into the net that stretched below the length of the bridge and became members of the infamous Halfway-to-Hell Club.
Joseph B. Strauss also had a hospital staffed by doctors onsite to deal with any job-related injuries. Workers were supplied with safety goggles and skin cream to help them combat the effects of the wind that whipped through the Golden Gate Strait.
In spite of all his planning and effort, eleven men lost their lives during the construction of the bridge. Ten men died in one single accident just months before the bridge opened (click here for that story). A memorial plaque is located on the West sidewalk to honor their passing.
It was said that “the bridge demands it’s life” and Joseph Strauss did not escape it’s clutches. Strauss “disappeared” for over six months at one point during the construction period, fueling rumors of a nervous breakdown. When he re-appeared, Strauss was divorced and had a new wife who was many years his junior.
By the time the Golden Gate Bridge was completed and opened for traffic, Joseph B. Strauss was exhausted, as evidenced by his letter quoted at the of this page. Strauss moved to Arizona to recuperate his health and died of a stroke in 1938, less than a year after the bridge opened.
Joseph Strauss built over 400 draw bridges during his lifetime. Let’s back up and look at that again: Joseph Strauss built over 400 draw bridges during his lifetime. The Golden Gate Bridge was his greatest achievement — It is the bridge that is recognized around the world.
There was one dream that Strauss never got to bring to fruition: a railroad bridge across the Bering Sea linking Russia and the United States.
Joseph Strauss gave over 20 years of his life to accomplish the impossible, span the Golden Gate Strait with a bridge for the ages. Along the way he partnered with some incredibly talented engineers, architects, and high-steel workers to bring a dream to reality and benefit multiple generations of residents and visitors to the San Francisco Bay Area.
Cincinnati native, and U.S. President, William Howard Taft said, “San Francisco knows how…” Joseph B. Strauss, also from Cincinnati, “showed the world how.”