An exhibit entitled “Golden Gateway to the Redwoods: 75 Years of Bridging San Francisco and Mendocino County” opened at the County Museum in Willits on May 19 and runs through the summer. A series of display panels takes the viewer from the natural history of the Golden Gate through the growing recognition of the need for a bridge, planning stages and political controversies (see below), and on to its completed construction. Original black and white photos of the Golden Gate before, during, and after the bridge by Ansel Adams, Life photographer Peter Stackpole, and anonymous contributors are on display, as are mementoes such as an original photo signed by Bridge dignitaries and strands of suspender cable from the construction site.
Mendocino County's history, economy, and ongoing vitality owes much to the engineering and aesthetic marvel known as the Golden Gate Bridge, lying 100 or more miles to the county's south. It's even more marvelous to consider that the bridge was built entirely without federal and state funds between 1929 and 1937, when this country was in the throes of the Great Depression.
That's where the “cow counties” (as they were sometimes called), the rural areas lying north of the bridge, came in. In 1923 the Golden Gate Bridge Transportation District was formed to create a tax base and enlist Californians in the cause of building a bridge to span the Golden Gate Strait, a project that had many detractors (not least the ferry companies). Mendocino County was the first to join the Bridge District, in 1925, ahead of even Marin. Property owners in these diverse areas quickly realized their values would soar with the advent of tourists, new residents, and increased commerce. Those in the timber industry thought differently, for membership in the Bridge District would increase their property taxes and bring more visitors to witness the cutting of old-growth redwood forests,. Humboldt County voted to stay out of the Bridge District, while Mendocino County underwent a backlash that almost reversed its vote. Three out of five supervisors, pressured by Southern Pacific, Muir & Irvine, and other timber interests, rescinded their vote, setting off a legal battle that went all the way to the California Supreme Court. (The “yes” vote then hopscotched, when Del Norte County became the sixth and last county to join the district.)
Locally, A.R. O'Brien, publisher of the Ukiah Republican and key member of the Redwood Empire Association, lobbied for the bridge's construction and used the paper as a pulpit for the cause. He had to contend with Edward Morris, another member of the Redwood Empire Association, who was also a co-founder of Frontier Days, a popular annual celebration in Willits. One county resident who was pro-bridge was John McNab, from a prominent family whose holdings included present-day McNab Ranch. McNab served as a lawyer for Joseph Strauss, chief engineer of the bridge, and had to sue the bridge district at one point to complete the payment due to Strauss.
Securing approval for the mammoth project, after years of wrangling among citizens and officials from San Francisco to Crescent City, was only the beginning. Building a bridge of this magnitude that would span a major harbor had never been done; for one thing, the structure had to be high enough to allow for the passage of large ships. The Golden Gate is geologically wild and unique, a gap in a mountain range linking ocean to bay, 12 miles from the volatile San Andreas Fault, and subject to gale-force winds. So much steel was required that planners were unsure whether suppliers in Pennsylvania could keep up. To construct the underwater pier on which the towers would rest, scores of workers were loaded into a chamber the size of a football field and lowered 107 feet beneath the bay. Near the end of the bridge's construction, a safety net collapsed, killing 10 workers.
In the end, after years of high-wire and deep-sea labor by hundreds of skilled workers and the wizardry of engineers Joseph Strauss, Charles Ellis, and Irving Morrow, the bridge materialized, its red-orange towers soaring skyward while its elegant, streamlined spans allowed generous vistas of sea and sky to fall on the traveler's eye. The opening day for the Bridge, May 27, 1937, was designated Pedestrians' Day, when a jubilant crowd of 200,000 walked, danced, skated and stiltwalked the 6,700 feet between the San Francisco Presidio and the Marin Headlands for the very first time.
The Mendocino County Museum is located at 400 East Commercial St. in Willits across from Recreation Grove Park and the Rodeo grounds. The Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 am to 4:30 pm. For more information please call 459-2736 or visit www.MendocinoMuseum.org.