Old Photos: San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge – 1930s
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, locally known simply as the “Bay Bridge,” is a system of bridges that spans the San Francisco Bay in California. Part of Interstate 80, it is a direct travel road between San Francisco and Oakland. The Bay Bridge carries approximately 260,000 vehicles per day on two decks and is one of the longest bridge spans in the United States.
The bridge was discussed and conceived as early as the late 1800s, but construction didn’t officially commence until a groundbreaking ceremony on July 9, 1933. The Bay Bridge was designed by Charles H. Purcell and constructed by the American Bridge Company.
Aerial view of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge construction – March 1935. View looking west toward San Francisco showing towers, anchorage, and Yerba Buena Island span being erected. Printed on back: “Aerial view looking west toward San Francisco showing part of the East Bay Crossing and the West Bay Crossing of San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. In the foreground, traveler derrick may be seen erecting the second 500-Foot Span. On Yerba Buena Island (center of photo) the erecting of the Yerba Buena Island Spans is in progress. Immediately to the left of this steel work the world’s largest bore tunnel is under construction. At top of photo may be seen the West Bay Crossing which will consist of two separate suspension spans with a common center anchorage. All four Towers are erected and the Concrete Center Anchorage is ready for the erection of steel work preparatory to cable spinning operations. C.H. Purcell is Chief Engineer of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.” (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge opened to general traffic on November 12, 1936 at 12:30pm, six months prior to the opening of San Francisco’s other famous bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge. Many notable persons were at the groundbreaking ceremony, including US president Herbert Hoover, California Governor Frank Merriam, and Senator William G. McAdoo. Governor Merriam officially opened the bridge by using an acetylene cutting torch to cut golden chains that spawned the width of the bridge. There was a five-day opening celebration that included a boat parade, yacht regatta, Navy air show and ship race, and an air parade of China Clippers.
President Herbert Hoover, Governor James Rolph and beauty pageant winners pose at Bay Bridge groundbreaking ceremony on Yerba Buena Island – Nov 12, 1936. Newscopy: “The great bridge grew to be a part of each San Franciscan. For that reason the time element seemed unimportant. The structure apparently grew like Topsy, overnight. But hearken back to the day the first earth was turned on Yerba Buena Island, with the late Governor Rolph, founder of the bridge idea, and former President Hoover, presiding. Look at the dresses of the attending belles.” (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
The San Francisco Chronicle newspaper reported the following on the day after the bridge opening, November 13, 1936:
The greatest traffic jam in the history of S.F., a dozen old-fashioned New Year’s eves thrown into one – the biggest and most good-natured crowd of tens of thousands ever to try and walk the streets and guide their autos on them – This was the city last night, the night of the bridge opening with every auto owner in the bay region, seemingly, trying to crowd his machine onto the great bridge.
And those who tried to view the brilliantly lighted structure from the hilltops and also view the fireworks display were numbered also in the thousands.
Every intersection in the city, particularly those near the San Francisco entrance to the bridge, was jammed with a slowly moving auto caravan.
Every available policeman in the department was called to duty to aid in regulating the city’s greatest parade of autos.
One of the greatest traffic congestions of the evening was at Fifth and Mission Streets, with downtown traffic and bridge-bound traffic snarled in an almost hopeless mass. To add to the confusion, traffic signals jammed and did not synchronize.
Police reported that there was no lessening of the traffic over the bridge, all lanes being crowded with Oakland or San-Francisco-bound machines far into the night.
San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge, Construction – Giant Squeezer at Work – ca1933-1936. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
The Bay Bridge originally carried automobile traffic on the upper deck and larger vehicles like trucks and interurban streetcars on its lower deck. However, after the Key System stopped rail service, the lower deck was opened to all forms of road traffic. Because it is essentially two bridges strung together, the western portions of the bridge were ranked as the second and third longest suspension bridges in America, with only the George Washington Bridge (spanning the Hudson River between the Washington Heights area of Manhattan, New York City, and the Fort Lee borough in New Jersey) having a longer span between towers.
San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge toll plaza – November 21, 1936. Newscopy: “Even with all ten booths, top, of the San Francisco-Oakland bay bridge in operation, automobiles are delayed when drivers have not correct change. At least ten seconds is lost every time a collector must make change. Even with two collectors working each booth, with one ringing up fares as the other collects, endless delays are caused. Experts have recommended placing of changers to speed traffic.” (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
Today, the Bay Bridge continues to be a well-known landmark of the San Francisco Bay area, trafficked by millions of vehicles every month.
Panoramic photo showing the Bay Bridge with updated eastern span, 2017. (Wikipedia)
San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Quick Facts:
- Total construction cost of the Bay Bridge in 1936 was $77 million. (This is equal to $1,375,532,463.77 in 2018.)
- Chief engineer for the Bay Bridge development project was Polish-American Ralph Modjeski.
- Before opening, the bridge was blessed by Cardinal Secretary of State Eugene Cardinal Pacelli, who later became Pope Pius XII.
- To celebrate opening of the bridge, the San Francisco mint produced United States commemorative coin. The half dollar coin showcased California’s grizzly bear, while the reverse shows the bridge spanning the San Francisco bay. 71,424 coins were sold directly from the bridge’s toll booths.
- 24 men died during construction of the bridge.
- Train service across the bridge was begun on September 23, 1938 and ceased in April of 1958.
- The waters of the western bridge section, between San Francisco and Yerba Buena Island are up to 100 feet in depth. This presented a huge engineering problem in the 1930s. To solve the issue, a massive concrete anchorage was created halfway between San Francisco and the island, with a main suspension span placed on each side of the anchorage.
- Much of the eastern section’s foundation is anchored upon treated wood. Due to the very deep mud at the bottom of the bay, it was deemed not necessary to reach bedrock. Long wooden pilings were crafted from massive Douglas fir trees, which were then driven through the soft mud to anchor deep within the firmer mud.
- Construction of the Bay Bridge was carried-out during the Great Depression. Hundreds of men came from around the country to find work on the project.
- A tunnel through Yerba Buena Island connects the two sections of the bridge. The tunnel is 76 feet wide, 58 feet high and 540 feet in length. It is the largest bore tunnel in the world for transportation purposes.
- The Bay Bridge was unofficially dedicated to James Rolph in 1986.
Aerial view of east end of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge under construction – June 7, 1935. Printed on back: “Three through truss spans completed and the fourth under way, is the progress record set forth by this aerial photograph of the east end of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Beside the spans may be seen the mole of the Key System soon to be supplanted by the bridge.” (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge cantilever span nearing completion – ca1933-1936. Newscopy: “This might have been executed by a painter. It shows the main cantilever span, the 1400 foot dominating unit of the East Bay section as it neared closing. Travelers over the new bridge will marvel over its great size. This unit in itself represents a great achievement in the bridge maker’s art because it is one of the few double-decked structures of its type to be raised in the history of man.” (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
Aerial view of San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge span under construction – 1936. Printed on back: “HOW TO BUILD A SUSPENSION BRIDGE–This aerial photo shows the elements of suspension bridge engineering as exemplified by the largest suspension bridge in the world–the west half of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge which crosses the two miles between San Francisco and Yerba Buena Island in the center of the Bay. The cables, separated into 37 strands and tied to the steel A-frame embedded in the concrete center anchorage, and the trusses of the two decks of the bridge as they hang from the newly spun cables, are shown in this picture. Already-assembled sections of the trusses forming the deck of the bridge are hoisted by pulleys from barges anchored and hung on 2-1/4 inch ropes suspended from the cables. The bridge is being built by the California Toll Bridge Authority, of which Governor Frank F. Merriam is Chairman.” (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
Two workers posing with reinforcing bars during construction of the Bay Bridge – September 26, 1934. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
Two women and a balloon-man during San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge opening day parade – November 12, 1936. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
Bay Bridge east span under construction between 1933 – 1936. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
Workmen assemble piece of Bay Bridge cantilever section – circa 1933-1936. Newscopy: “An artistic interlude in the execution of a $750,000,000 dream, showing steel workers as they brought together another link in the cantilever section east of Yerba Buena Island. Steadily these constructors fashioned the bridge.” (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge under construction at Yerba Buena Island in 1935. (Wikipedia)
Workmen inside the Yerba Buena Island tunnel during San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge construction – September 12, 1935. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
View of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge while under construction between 1935 and 1936. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
Spectators and automobile parade celebrating opening day of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge – Nov. 12, 1936. Newscopy: “Traffic streamed in a continuous parade of thousands of automobiles, carrying cheering celebrants between San Francisco and Oakland in a two way flood as the monument to engineering skill and the final realization of two generations of dreams was materialized. It marks beginning of a new era of transportation, friendship and relationship between bay cities.” (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
Two men working on cables during construction of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge – circa 1933-1936. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
First electric train crossing the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge – September 23, 1938. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
Southern Pacific Golden Gate ferry passing under the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge during construction – November 29, 1935. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
The Bay Bridge while under construction showing suspension bridge catwalk extending from Rincon Hill – June 18, 1935.
1930s motorcycle speed king, Leslie Van Demark, preparing to be among the first to cross the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge during the opening celebration – Nov 12, 1936. Newscopy: “All speed records across the new bay bridge were broken today so that Call-Bulletin readers might enjoy pictures of the Oakland dedication ceremonies within a few minutes after they were snapped. Leslie Van Demark, motorcycle speed king, was poised and at the moment the barrier was cut he roared away across the eight and a quarter miles of bridge with lightning speed to deliver the photographic plates. To Van Demark goes the distinction of being the first to cross the bridge after it was officially opened.” (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
View from roadway of completed cantilever section of Bay Bridge – Nov. 11, 1936. Newscopy: “Like a forest tunnel of steel girders, the cantilever bridge supports this passenger car roadway almost 250 feet above East Bay waters. A mammoth span in itself!” (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
Workers pressing cable for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge – 1935. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
California Highway Patrol officers pose on Bay Bridge – March 27, 1937. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
Workers lay decking on San Francisco span of Bay Bridge – June 22, 1936. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
Cantilever section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge looking east from Yerba Buena Island – 1930s. Written on back: “Cantilever bridge is one whose span is formed by the projecting ends of two cantilevers, the opposite ends of which are supported on piers. n. b. – Notice that there are no supporting cables as on suspension bridge.” (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
Aerial view from the tower of the Bay Bridge during construction – June 24, 1936.
San Francisco Bay Bridge Opening Celebration as viewed at night from 450 Sutter St – Nov 12, 1936. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
Sources and Further Reading:
– San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library