Joseph Strauss, R.I.P.

…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.

Source: Derleth Collection, Water Resources Center Archives

Source: Derleth Collection, Water Resources Center Archives

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 B. Strauss January 9, 1870 — May 16, 1938 Photo © Allan G. Smorra, All Rights Reserved

Joseph B. Strauss
January 9, 1870 — May 16, 1938
Photo © Allan G. Smorra, All Rights Reserved

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.”

  12 comments for “Joseph Strauss, R.I.P.

  1. May 17, 2013 at 5:59 AM

    I have a cousin who’s a mechanical engineer. He was involved, though tangentially, in the construction of the Hyatt Regency walkway that collapsed in Kansas City. I remember his response when he got news of the collapse – as though every death were his responsibility.

    It’s easy to underestimate the toll such projects take on those who are responsible for them – both their failures and their successes. Having the vision is one thing. Having the intellect and emotional strength to bring it to life is another.

    Great post!

    Like

    • May 17, 2013 at 7:11 AM

      Thank you for sharing this story about your cousin. I hope that he eventually came to terms with that accident, I remember it well.

      The author, Gay Talese, wrote a great book about the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows bridge in New York in the early Sixties called, The Bridge. In it he talks about how engineering progress is made thru failure.

      The engineer whose design fails is investigated by other engineers who use the findings to patch up their work. One such engineer was Leon Moisseiff, who was a consulting engineer on the Golden Gate Bridge.

      His next job was the infamous “Galloping Gertie” bridge over Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. He went a bit too far with what he learned on the GGB and the Tacoma Narrows bridge collapsed during a wind storm in 1940

      I have a lot of respect for Mechanical Engineers. The mantle of responsibility is heavy on their shoulders.

      Allan

      Sent from my iPhone

      Like

  2. May 16, 2013 at 4:24 AM

    Can’t be done, by those without vision. Great history lesson, thanks.

    Like

  3. May 15, 2013 at 11:02 AM

    A man after my own heart. I have zero tolerance for “can’t be done” attitudes. Allan, I learn something each time I visit. Exceptional post today. (every day actually) !!

    Like

  4. May 15, 2013 at 5:24 AM

    We’d still be stuck waving at each other from across the bay without Strauss – I doubt this kind of thing could be done today without massive overruns, committee delays and general bureaucratic red tape… More of us should be “…out of sympathy with the ‘Can’t be done’ policy'”!

    Like

    • May 15, 2013 at 7:59 AM

      When I started at the bridge in 1999 it was said that it would take 9 years to get the permits today. The bridge was built in 51 months!

      Sent from my iPhone

      Like

      • May 15, 2013 at 11:28 AM

        Never mind getting the bids from a reputable steel supplier…

        Like

        • May 15, 2013 at 1:50 PM

          I’m sure there was a “Good ‘Ol Boy” network back then, and fortunately for us they erred on the side of caution.

          Like

  5. May 15, 2013 at 5:16 AM

    Very nice memorial, and an interesting history lesson. Great men of vision seem to be in short supply these days.
    Excellent post,
    Bill

    Like

    • May 15, 2013 at 8:03 AM

      Thanks, Bill.

      You have a good point about Men of Vision. They are gone all too soon, but it gives the rest of us a chance to catch up to their vision before the next guy takes us to the next level.

      Always good to hear from you, Allan

      Sent from my iPhone

      Like

  6. May 15, 2013 at 1:41 AM

    Awesome. Thanks for sharing and reminding the world that, yes, it can be done.

    Like

Questions? Comments? Let's talk...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: