Rocky Road to Golden Gate Bridge

By Jack Tracy and Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society

The Golden Gate Bridge is generally considered the top tourist attraction in the Bay Area, and was

declared one of the Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers. As a major artery into and out of San Francisco, the Bridge carries about 112,000 vehicles per day.

With all its modern popularity, it’s hard to imagine that many Sausalitans fought against the building of the Bridge. Jack Tracy told the story in his book Moments in Time.  Here are some lightly edited excerpts:

PHOTO COURTESY OF SAUSALITO HISTORICAL SOCIETY  In this photo from  Moments in Time , work continues on the San Francisco side of the bridge, while the Marin tower nears completion


In this photo from Moments in Time, work continues on the San Francisco side of the bridge, while the Marin tower nears completion

Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge during the Depression was a symbol of hope. The national economy was in shambles, but work on the bridge continued, inspiring those who watched the colossal towers rise day-by-day from the bay waters. The $35,000,000 bond issue to build the Golden Gate Bridge had been approved by voters on November 4, 1930, just short of a year after the stock market crash.

Sausalitans, for the most part, supported the plan to build a bridge. Completing the last link in the Redwood Highway would not only end traffic congestion in Sausalito but boost the economy of Marin County. In a 1926 editorial, the Sausalito News expressed confidence in Sausalito's future: "If you hold business property on or near the Redwood Highway, hold on to it. Buy more. Prosperity and increase in value are headed this way. The Redwood Highway will become one of the most famous highways of the world. A nation a-wheel will pass this way. And with a Golden Gate Bridge at one end of this road, the world would flock to our front yard." The local newspaper even went so far as to predict a boom equivalent to that occurring in Los Angeles at the time: "Prominent local real estate men are confident that the coming spring will see much Sausalito property turned, and at high prices. A walk or ride through any section of Sausalito will reveal the number of new houses, garages and new buildings. In time to come this city will be built back many miles, into what is now hill land considered good only for cow pasture. Those who own this acreage will become wealthy sub-division plutocrats after the manner of some Hollywood folks. A little of the right kind of advertising and promotion will hasten the day of this prosperity."

Of particular interest to locals was early consideration by the bridge planners of a primary approach to the bridge through Sausalito. A water-level approach had considerable merit but was rejected when costs for property condemnation were projected. It was decided that the main approach would be a long, direct highway up from Waldo Point, to be known as the Waldo Grade. The route had some disadvantages: huge cuts through rock would have to be made, and the hilly area was subject to dense fog and high winds and landslides. For these reasons, a second approach, or "lateral," would be necessary. The Redwood Highway would have a by-pass through Sausalito, and a new road would be cut through Fort Baker connecting with the Golden Gate Bridge. Sausalito would be linked to the bridge after all. (On Monday, April 22 at 6:30 pm, Sausalito historian Mike Moyle will explore the history of the Waldo Grade at the Marin County Library’s Map & Special Collections Annex at 1600 Los Gamos, Suite 182, in San Rafael.)

After the California legislature passed the Golden Gate Bridge Highway Act in 1923 that authorized creation of a special bridge district with power to levy taxes, the legal battle began. Joseph Strauss, still an unpaid engineering consultant, refuted the arguments that a Golden Gate span would be unsafe. Sausalito attorney George H. Harlan, also an unpaid consultant, successfully battled in the courts on behalf of the bridge. At last, on December 4, 1928, the Golden Gate Bridge District was incorporated. Incorporation led to a new wave of litigation.

The propaganda campaign supporting a bridge over the Golden Gate took a vicious turn after it was revealed that Southern Pacific-Golden Gate Ferries, Ltd., was party to a lawsuit attempting to block the bridge project. Southern Pacific warned that a bridge would be an enormous cost to taxpayers. The Sausalito News hired well-known landscape painter and Sausalitan Maynard Dixon to draw editorial cartoons depicting Southern Pacific as a villain.

Some Sausalito residents were content to see the swarms of weekend visitors pass right through, fearing what might happen to Sausalito if it were "discovered." Mabel K. Eastman wrote in 1927 her view of "the only undiscovered suburb of San Francisco”:

"To the majority in San Francisco or anywhere, Sausalito is just some place to go through... the entrance to beautiful Marin. And we, sitting on the hill, hold tight for fear they will find us. The day we are discovered we are lost."

But most of Sausalito's 3,000 residents sympathized with "Marvelous Marin," a countywide boosters' club incorporated in 1927 to promote the bridge and publicize the wonders of Marin County. Editors of the Sausalito News expressed the popular sentiment of the time: "Let's help San Francisco to discover Sausalito. Sausalito is the most accessible of any residential suburb to the city of San Francisco… It is the cream suburb of the Bay region. It is time to tell the world about Sausalito."

And so they did.