Early Concepts for Bridging the Golden Gate

By Robert L. Harrison and Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society

The following article was written by Robert Harrison for the Anne T. Kent California Room’s website: https://annetkent.kontribune.com/articles/9074.

For more than 100 years European colonizers of the Bay Area dreamed of a bridge across the Golden Gate.  Some would stand at Fort Point in San Francisco or at Lime Point in Marin and imagine a mile-long structure linking the two counties. At the same time people possessing a more practical nature strongly believed that such a bridge could never be built.  The view that it was not possible to bridge the Golden Gate persisted into the early 20th century.

In 1869 “Emperor Norton” was one of the first to publicly call for a bridge across the Golden Gate.  Joshua Norton arrived in San Francisco in 1849 planning to make a fortune in California’s gold rush.  By 1869 he was bankrupt and had gone mad.  He declared himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States and began issuing decrees.  Most found him harmless and amusing and he gained considerable notoriety before his death in 1880.

Charles Crocker is reported by many sources as the first, in 1872, to propose a tangible bridge across the Golden Gate.  Crocker was a Director of the Central Pacific Railroad and one of a group of men known as the “Big Four” who oversaw the completion of the railroad across the continent to California. The Central Pacific was looking for a route into San Francisco and to block other railroads from entering the city.

James H. Wilkins, editor and publisher of the Marin County Tocsin, described Crocker’s bridge proposal to the Marin Board of Supervisors in an article published on September 2, 1916.  Wilkins noted, “In 1872 I was present at a session of the Marin supervisors when Charles Crocker explained his plans, among which was a suspension bridge across the Golden Gate.  Detail plans and estimates for such a bridge were actually made by the Central Pacific engineers.”

While Crocker made his proposal in 1872, an earlier description of a possible bridge at the Golden Gate appeared in March 1868 editions of the Marin Journal.  Four years prior to Crocker’s presentation and almost 70 years prior to the 1937 opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin Journal reported a company was formed to build a bridge connecting Marin County with San Francisco.  The Journal indicated that, “The idea was suggested by the necessity which exists of connecting San Francisco with the mainland, so that the coast and valley railroads may terminate in the city of San Francisco.”  The planning for this connection preceded the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad.

According to the Marin Journal of March 1868, the span would be “…. a magnificent suspension bridge across the entrance to the harbor, from Lime Point to a place just below Fort Point.”  Details of the bridge design included an immense oval center pier 200 feet across and rising to 175 feet above the Bay.  The Journal continued, “The span on either side, reaching to the shore abutments, would be 2,000 feet long and 175 feet above the high-water line, affording space below for the largest ships to pass. The body of the bridge to be of iron, sustained on the suspension principle, with wire cables.  It is proposed to construct a double railway across, and to have a lighthouse on the central pier.”

Photo Courtesy of Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library  Golden Gate from Meigg's Wharf, San Francisco in the 1800s

Photo Courtesy of Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library

Golden Gate from Meigg's Wharf, San Francisco in the 1800s

That such a bridge could not be built in that era may have been known even to the engineers who drew the plans. The depth of the channel between Fort Point and Lime Point virtually eliminated the possibility of a middle pier. The proposed 2,000-foot spans exceeded what was considered possible in 1868.  Prior to the 1883 opening of the Brooklyn Bridge with its 1,595-foot center span, no more than about 1,000 feet was regarded as the maximum span for a suspension bridge. 

The plan for the 1868 bridge was overly optimistic at best.  San Francisco was never directly connected by rail to the north or east.  A railroad bridge was never constructed across the Golden Gate.  As late as 1962 the Directors of the Bridge District prohibited the use of a second deck on the Golden Gate Bridge for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) trains. 

To read more about the history of the bridge, go to http://www.sausalitohistoricalsociety.com, scroll down to the Search window, type in Golden Gate Bridge, and hit Return.