The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was built during the toughest of economic times -- the Great Depression. When it opened in 1936, it was the world's longest and costliest bridge.
The Bay Bridge took two years to design and a little more than three years to build, finishing ahead of schedule and under budget. The project was a magnet for jobs during a period when the U.S. unemployment rate hovered around 20 percent. More than 8,300 people helped build the bridge, working 30-hour weeks for an average daily wage of $7.75, about $105 in today's dollars.
"They didn't want overtime. They wanted to employ the maximum number of people. They wanted to complete it as quickly as possible. They had to get cars going across to pay back the loan," said John Nelson, who has studied the history of the Bay Bridge.
Nelson is president of Murakami/Nelson, the Oakland architectural firm that was the lead consultant on an award-winning
$500,000 project to record the Bay Bridge's history. The preservation project, required by the retrofit of the Bay Bridge's western span and replacement of its eastern span, provides a revealing look at the "Gray Lady."
"It will explain to future generations why the Bay Bridge was built and what it looked like before the changes were made," Nelson said.
The Bay Bridge filled a transportation need, linking Oakland and San Francisco at a time when cars were becoming increasingly popular and political support was strong.
"It got built during the Depression," Nelson said. "Funds were scarce. They had to borrow money from the federal government."
Nelson's team analyzed the Bay Bridge's history from three angles -- engineering, politics and transportation. The team included historian Stephen Mikesell, historical architect Dan Peterson, Mark Ketchum of OPAC Consulting Engineers, aerial photography firm HJW GeoSpatial and photographers Frank Deras and Dennis Hill.
They examined the bridge from top to bottom, taking pictures, reviewing documents and looking at more than 2,000 drawings. Here are some highlights of their 415-photo, 273-page, 20-drawing report:
The Bay Bridge (and Transbay Terminal) cost $77.6 million to build, or about $1.1 billion in today's dollars. By comparison, the Golden Gate Bridge, which opened in 1937, cost about $35 million to build.
The Bay Bridge was initially 81/4 miles long, extending from Fifth Street in San Francisco to San Pablo Avenue in Oakland. Most of the long Oakland approach is gone, but some of the original concrete roadway still exists near the East BayBridge Shopping Center in Emeryville.
When the Bay Bridge opened, it had the deepest bridge pier (242 feet below water level), the largest bore tunnel (76 feet wide and 58 feet high), its western span was one of the first dual suspension bridges, and the cantilever-and-truss eastern span was one of the longest cantilever bridges.
The Bay Bridge originally carried cars on the upper deck (three lanes each way) with trucks and rail on the lower deck. The bridge was reconstructed between 1959 and 1963 to carry westbound car and truck traffic on the upper deck and eastbound car and truck traffic on the lower deck.
The Bay Bridge's original toll was 65 cents, or nearly $9 in today's dollars.
An analysis of Transbay's 968 bridge workers found that 849 came from the Bay Area. Laborers were paid $5 a day, carpenters $8 a day, piledrivers $9 a day, welders $11 a day and divers $26.67 a day. In today's dollars, that's about $68 a day for laborers and $363 a day for divers.
Perhaps the best Bay Bridge perspective comes from Al Zampa, namesake of the new Zampa Bridge. The report includes a 1986 quote from Zampa, an ironworker on the Carquinez Bridge, Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge, who said: "My favorite? Bay Bridge. Jesus, look at her. Two suspensions end to end, six different kinds of bridges, 81/4 miles long, deepest piers in the world. We lost 24 men; we'd dangle up there like monkeys driving shot iron. No net. You fell, that was it. They thought we was all crazy."
The Bay Bridge Recordation report can be viewed online. Visit memory.loc.gov, search for "Bay Bridge and San Francisco," and click on the first choice.
Alec Rosenberg can be reached at (510) 208-6445 or [email protected].