The Golden Gate Bridge and The Defining of Marin

By Jim Holden and Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society

The following is excerpted from a new book, It Happened in Marin, by Jim Holden, a resident of the County for over 45 years.

 The Golden Gate Bridge under construction  Photo by Dulce Duncan, courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

The Golden Gate Bridge under construction  Photo by Dulce Duncan, courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

San Francisco has long dominated the story of the Golden Gate Bridge and claimed it as the City's symbol, but the story on the Marin side is even more interesting. The bridge changed Marin more than any event in its history. Then, years later, the bridge forced Marin to make another choice about its future—a choice that has differentiated it from other Bay Area counties and defined Marin ever since.

Before the bridge, Marin County was a virtual island, surrounded by water except to the unpopulated north. Until automobile travel became common, Marin's separation from San Francisco was mostly a benefit.

The bridge brought soaring growth to Marin after World War II ended. Greenbrae, Marin's largest development at the time, broke ground in 1946 for 197 lots and added more the next year. The Kent Woodlands, begun shortly before the bridge was completed, was expanded significantly after the war. Sleepy Hollow, the Fair Hills in San Rafael, and smaller developments in southern Marin also emerged shortly after the end of the war.

Terra Linda, Marin's largest subdivision with authorization for 5,700 homes, began development just north of San Rafael in 1953. Joseph Eichler built some 900 homes there between 1955 and 1965. Terra Linda eventually reached a population of approximately 10,000. In 1973 it was annexed to San Rafael.

Construction of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge began in 1953 and was completed in 1956. It provided automobile access directly between Marin and the East Bay and added impetus for more homes, particularly in central Marin. Peacock Gap, Glenwood, and other San Rafael subdivisions sprang up in the 1960s, while the Kent Woodlands and Greenbrae continued to expand.

However, the assumption that growth was good for Marin also began to change in the 1960s. Early in the decade Marin rejected BART. As population and bridge use continued to climb, Marin residents increasingly suffered the frustration of traffic congestion. In 1940, 4 million vehicles crossed the Golden Gate Bridge; in 1970, 32 million poured across it.

Marin residents could do little about congestion on the bridge and Highway 101, but they were determined to restrain its primary cause, the county's population boom. From 1940 to 1970 Marin's population had quadrupled, increasing from 52,907 to 206,038.

At the end of the 1960s and continuing into the 70s, the Marin populace took matters into its own hands, voting in supervisors who campaigned against proposed highways and large residential projects. In 1970 the Board of Supervisors withdrew its support for Marincello, a proposed project for 25,000 residents in the Marin Headlands. In 1971 the Board of Supervisors requested that the state withdraw its plan for Highway 17, an expressway from the Richmond Bridge to Olema, and repealed its own West Marin General Plan, which envisioned 150,000 residents in the Tomales Bay area.

The decisive blow against growth was initiated in 1971 with the issuance of a Marin Planning Department report that proposed preserving Marin's lands except along the Highway 101 corridor. Entitled "Can the Last Place Last?" the report took its theme from Lew Welch's 1969 poem "The Song Mt. Tamalpais Sings" The poem lamented the "hordes" that were "now piling up" and contained a refrain that captured perfectly the sentiment in Marin: "This is the last place. There is nowhere else to go."

The Planning Department report pointed to the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge as the turning point in Marin's development and advocated ending unrestrained growth to preserve Marin's beautiful, livable environment. The report illustrated graphically that road access spawns development and opposed any addition to Marin's primary road infrastructure. It proposed preserving Marin's inland rural agricultural and coastal recreational corridors and restricting any significant growth to the Highway 101 corridor.

The report was adopted by a 3—2 vote of the Board of Supervisors in 1973 as the Marin Countywide Plan and has been implemented ever since as the foundation of Marin land use policy. It halted the population boom that from 1940 to 1970 had added 150,000 new Marin residents, quadrupling the county's population in just three decades. In the following four decades, from 1970 to 2010, Marin gained only 46,371 inhabitants, less than a 23% increase over the 40 years, or about 0.5% per year.

The Golden Gate Bridge was a major cause of the county's growth spurt and later played a big part in bringing it to an end and saving Marin. The bridge provided Marin with much-needed road access to San Francisco and growth when the county needed it. The growth led to inevitable bridge and Highway 101 gridlock, and with it the realization that Marin needed to restrain growth to preserve its essence.

The Golden Gate Bridge signifies different things to different people. As drivers cross the bridge, most see its beauty. Some see it as a roadway. Others may think of the bridge's iconic status or its worldwide fame.

For Marin residents, the bridge separates the county from the densely populated rest of the Bay Area. As the bridge carries residents toward Marin and on to its shore, they feel something deeper and warmer—they are home.

It Happened in Marin is available at Book Passage and other bookstores, and on loan from Marin libraries.  Jim will read other excerpts and discuss his book May 2 at the Mill Valley Historical Society.