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From "The Bridge Builders" When They Built the Bridge
At age 21, Peter Stackpole began photographing the construction of the original Bay Bridge, a work that set the stage for a distinguished career in photography showcased in the pages of Vanity Fair, Life, Time and other notable publications. This chapter from Stackpole's book of bridge photos details his early days on the span and offers a glimpse of the skill, toil and occasional terror playing out above the water in the early Thirties.
Excerpted from the book "The Bridge Builders" by Peter Stackpole, 1984, Pomegranate Artbooks.
"It will never work."
The old ones on the ferry boat, commuting to work every day, watched the towers rise in disbelief. The same words came from the derelicts on the waterfront. They stood in little groups, in their soiled and torn overcoats, and watched the Bay Bridge grow.
It was the fall of 1934, and the effects of the Great Depression were visible everywhere in the groups of middle-aged men with nothing to do.
At the age of twenty-one, I was two years out of high school, without work, and facing uncertain times. On this particular day, I was riding the Oakland-San Francisco ferry boat - a good place to think things over. I wore a dark blue corduroy jacket with big pockets into which I had placed film and my prized possession: a Model C Leica camera. The small camera was new then, and I had been using it candid-style on people. Mostly experimental.
From the port side of the ferry I watched the beginning of the bridge tower and the swirling smoke from the rivet oven. Suddenly the notion came to me. It came so clearly it seemed already a fact that my camera work would take a new direction. It was just a matter of doing it.
Soon the ferry docked at Pier 24 where a sign read "American Bridge Company". Red and black painted tugs were taking workers out to the five bridge piers in the Bay. I sat for a long time on an iron cleat watching the bridgemen with a sort of boyish admiration, and the camera around my neck made me noticeable before long. One of the bridgemen asked, "Why don't you shoot some pictures of the job, kid?"
"But how?" I inquired.
"Hell, kid. Just hop on the launch the next time the gang goes out. Nobody will bother you."
His name was Joe Walton and his advice was good, because soon I was on my way out to tower W-3, where the steel was already up to road level.
The roar from the riveting was deafening, and everyone was so busy I went unnoticed when I took the first few pictures. Those first exposures told me that the impulse I had felt - telling me to go out to the bridge site - was correct, and I became wildly excited.
At quitting time we returned to Pier 24 and my friend Joe Walton introduced me to three more bridgemen: Jeff and Hank, and Whitey Reeves. They all wanted me to come back and take their pictures at work.
One day I followed Joe up some shaky steel ladders inside the box truss which zigzags between the tower legs.
"Just keep one hand and one foot on the ladder at all times and don't look at anything except what you are doing," advised Joe.
I followed him to the top, panting and sweating. Joe grabbed a wooden box with signal switches and put on some earphones and a mouthpiece. He began talking to the hoist operator far below, giving him the white light to start raising another forty-ton tower section.
"Big load coming up," said Joe. Jeff and Hank and the others waited with their tapered pins and buckets of bolts and nuts while the hammerhead crane slowly raised and placed the heavy section in place. All the holes lined up perfectly, and soon the air became noisy again with bolt-tightening guns securing the huge member in place. Later, the bolts were removed one by one to be replaced by rivets. With that section in place, it was lunchtime. Jeff emerged from an opening in the heavy member with his lunchbox, which he'd tied inside the load when it was down on the tower base.
The sweat on my skin had turned to chill, but I had become so engrossed in photographing that it hadn't occurred to me to be frightened by the height. There was something reassuring about being accepted by Joe and the others.
"Hey, take my picture," came a voice from above. We were sitting on the cross member at the top of the tower - some 530 feet above the Bay - and here was this guy at the very top of the stationary derrick boom above us, ready to slide down a cable out to the end of an I-bar stiffener, which extended about thirty feet out in space away from the tower top.
In time I learned that it wasn't uncommon for a bridgeman to grow impatient with waiting for the elevator and to slide down a bare cable to catch an earlier boat to shore. This practice stopped when one day a guy was sliding down a cable from the top and his gloves hit an oily section. He couldn't break his speed. The cable burned through his gloves and he hit the tower base.
There were so many casualties from falling objects. Walking around the base of the towers was particularly dangerous, as I was advised one day when I encountered a formidable Irishman named Jim Ward. He was the boss of the raising gang.
"Hey you!" he hollered. "What are you doing out here without a hard hat, and what are you doing here anyway?" This was about the third time I'd sneaked out, and I feared right then that the end had come. I showed him a couple of pictures I'd taken and threw some names at him like Tim Pflueger, architect of the bridge approaches, who had liked some of my pictures.
Somehow he warmed a bit, but he warned: "Don't come back until you have something to put on your head, even if it's a chamber pot - and you'd better get a pass, too."
Jim Ward is today a legend among high-steel men. He was tough, respected, and somewhat feared. Ward lost his life on the job a few years later when a huge cantilever section fell into the river near Hartford, Connecticut, with him on it. "He lost the job," is the way bridgemen put it.
Alone, one day, I found myself on the catwalk which was made of nothing more than heavy cyclone-fence wire suspended on four support cables. I was heading between towers W-5 and W-6, when at the bottom of the dip there was an incomplete section about eight feet long with no fence wire to walk on - just the four cables. It was quitting time, and the choice was to walk back over three tower tops and down to the San Francisco anchorage, or somehow cross that open space on the bare cables to the continued sections of fence wire, walk over the top of tower W-6 and then down to Yerba Buena Island to an earlier departure on the tug.
I sat there on the catwalk for five minutes wondering what to do, and suddenly I remembered what Joe told me. "Don't look at anything else, just watch what you are doing." I waited another few minutes until a ferry passed from underneath, so as not to be distracted, and began to shinny across, worrying mostly about losing things from my pockets. It was a great relief to finally sink my fingers into the wire mesh at the other side.
Payday meant many things to the bridgemen. At Pier 24 they spread out in many directions, eager for another fling at their fun city - "Frisco," as they called it. They came from Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa, and there were a few Mohawks from upstate New York. In front of Pier 2, horns would toot in the waiting cars because the prostitutes knew it was payday too, and the bridgemen would pile into their cars in threes and fives to be carted off to South of Market hotels for a little diversion.
What joys we had in those days, despite the Depression. We rode that Key System train down a spit of land, holding our noses as we passed the sewer gas rising up from the mud flats on our right, while out of the train window on the left we'd see clumps of California poppies.
We walked with our group off the train down the ramp to the squeaking gangplank and onto a vibrating ferry with its churning propeller pushing it against the narrow end of the slip. Once inside we sought out familiar faces in the dining room to join for coffee. A dish of corned beef and poached egg didn't cost more than 35 cents, and it was the best around. I sometimes sat down and chatted with Bart Crum, a local attorney, and Joseph Henry Jackson, literary editor of the Chronicle. It was a rewarding, much anticipated, beginning and ending to a day.
Inside the entrance to the Ferry Building in San Francisco was a juke box that featured a violin, and the place smelled of popcorn, except when the fragrance of flowers at the stand outside drifted in. Suddenly the door slid open and we walked beside a drafty freight area to board the ferryboat, Hayward.
Looking upward from the aft top deck, an old man looked at the bridge and the following gulls, until the Hayward passed under the span. Instinctively, he put his hat back on his head and went inside, walking past the reddish color contoured cherry and mahogany benches, the white-enameled walls, and the neatly folded life preservers.
Perhaps he knew that we would lose these things to inevitable change, and that his commuting days on the bay were almost over. As the ferry passed under the span's shadow, he may have chilled at the thought that a way of life he had taken for granted was about to end.
--Reprinted with permission of Pomegranate Artbooks