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The Existing Bay Bridge at a Glance
From "High Steel" — The Building of the Bridge
From "The Bridge Builders" — When They Built the Bridge
From "The Bridge Builders" — Looking Back at the Building of the Bridge
From "We're Building a Bridge" — Hurtling Bolts and Red-Hot Rivets
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In Memoriam

From "The Bridge Builders" — Looking Back at the Building of the Bridge

By Joe Walton as told to Peter Stackpole

In 1934, bridgeman Joe Walton befriended photographer Peter Stackpole and introduced him to the new bridge taking shape on the Bay. Walton also worked on Golden Gate and Richmond-San Rafael bridges. He died at age 80 in 1984.

That year, Stackpole's book featuring Walton, "The Bridge Builders" was published. In the book's dedication Stackpole wrote, " Joe Walton's story tells a lot about the itinerant American high-steel men of the thirties: the kind of men they were, going from job to job during the hard times, accepting low pay and real danger. They were the elite group of specialists who accepted the risks associated with their tremendous projects. I still have feelings of hero worship toward these men, because I was privileged to get close to them, to watch them perform, with their nerves of steel, and I want to show in this book the faces of these long-forgotten men."

It was Friday night, payday, and you know Tower W-3, if you were walking down the catwalk from Tower 2? You can go down from Tower 3 to Tower 2 on the catwalk and then down to the Embarcadero. If you done that you'd have to wait in line to get your check, so Hank, he decides to climb down where an inch-and-a-half line was hanging down all the way to the pier - about 520 feet.

He got ahold of this hemp line. I just come by when I saw him climbing over the rail, and says, "Hank, I wouldn't do that if I was you." I says, "That's a new hemp line and has quite a bit of oil in it." (It's the hemp itself.) He starts down and he came down maybe two hundred feet o.k., then all at once he started to twirl - it's only natural for a line to go the lay of the rope.

Then he goes faster. Then he started to burn, see, and he had his gloves on, and then he really went. He hit the pier and that was all. The leather on his gloves was burned, and all the flesh off his hands to the bone. His legs were wrapped around the line and it burned right through to the leg bone. We used to slide down the lead cables on the jumping falls, and they were five-eighths inch apiece. At quitting time we'd climb down inside the hammerhead and then grab them two cables and slide down from 500 feet every night. These were steel cables.

After all the cable was spun, they took the shims out of the outside shoes - the shoes were oval shaped fittings that held loops of cable wire - on the center anchorage. The shoes were offset like in an eccentric, and then after all the cable was spun they'd take the shims out for final adjustment. But what happened one day in the morning, the sun came up towards Oakland and that side of the cable, the sun heated it, see, and a sudden cold spell came in from the Golden Gate, and it hit the other side of the cable.

Expansion caused that shoe to flip over off that eccentric and when it did I was just crawling underneath the main cable on the catwalk. It sounded like a missile going off. When that cable slipped off, the whole 472 wires in that strand came loose. That ruined that cable strand. They condemned it, and they had to take it all out and re-spin the whole strand. When they cut it out they threw it in the Bay. Then they had to send divers down and get it all out because the ships would come in and anchor, see, and when they would go to pull up the anchors, up would come the cable wire. The shipping companies started raising hell, and the American Bridge Company had to pull it all out. Each single wire was as thick as a lead pencil and there were 17, 464 of them in each cable.

We had two guy derricks up there on the center anchorage, and Pacific Bridge Company wanted to use those derricks to pour concrete with. They hoisted it up from the barges down below, you know. American Bridge Company men on each derrick.

So one night they had the forms all finished. We found a pair of shoes, and just for the hell of it we packed these shoes on the outside face of the anchorage with the soles facing so that when they stripped the forms there would be these shoe soles. After they poured the concrete and stripped the forms, they saw these two shoes there and said, "My god, there's a man in there." So they got the jackhammers and everything. They had to strip all the concrete and all they got were two shoes. That's when the work got around to the newspapers that a man was buried in the center anchorage.

-- Excerpted from "The Bridge Builders: Photographs and Documents of the Raising of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, 1934-1936. By Peter Stackpole. Pomegranate Art Books, 1984. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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