Ouch! We forgot the anniversary of San Francisco’s most famous landmark


Have you ever forgotten the birthday of someone you’ve known all your life? A special day to celebrate a beloved sister or a favorite uncle passes and you have completely forgotten about it. It happened to all of us in the Bay Area the other day. May 27 marked the 85th anniversary of the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge. Hardly anyone noticed.

The Picture Alliance donated an assortment of remarkable photographs in celebration of the bridge’s anniversary; the Golden Gate Bridge District sent out a short press release about the bridge’s story; Channel 12 news in Trenton, NJ, reported on John Roebling Sons, based in Trenton, which supplied the wire for the Golden Gate cables; and YouTube aired a historic 14-second film. And that was it.

No fireworks, no speeches, no birthday toasts to the structure that has been the symbol of this region and the West for a lifetime.

So here is a belated tribute to the Golden Gate Bridge on its 85th anniversary. It’s got style, it’s got class, and it still looks brand new after all this time. Few octogenarians can say the same.

There are many reasons to celebrate the bridge. It is a symbol of the city, of the region, of the entrance to the Pacific Ocean. The great arch of the gateway to St. Louis marks the beginning of the West. And you could argue that the Golden Gate is where the West ends and the Pacific begins.

The Golden Gate Bridge is famous for its beauty, history and legends. But above all, the bridge belongs to all of us. Everyone has a story about the Golden Gate Bridge, even the tourists who will be renting a bike this morning to cross the bridge to Sausalito and catch a ferry to San Francisco.

One of the most vivid memories, of course, was the foggy Sunday in 1987 during the 50th anniversary celebration. It’s an urban legend.

There has been a lot of discussion in the previous weeks: how the bridge would be closed so that people could walk across on the causeway. Of course, people can walk on the Golden Gate at any time, but only on its sidewalks. It was special, once in a lifetime. Complete closure, full pedestrian access. Bridge District birthday organizers thought maybe a few thousand people would show up. Instead, it seemed like everyone in San Francisco and everyone in Marin had come. Highway Patrol said the crowd had reached 300,000, but that was just a guess. Nobody really knows.

Those of us who were there remembered the rail-to-rail people on the bridge. No one could move. Men fell overboard and walked on the beams, on the edge of eternity. And then the bridge itself moved, up and down, sideways, a strange movement, something we had never felt before. The ark flattened out, they said. We all looked at each other: Let’s get out of here. No one gave orders. No one gave directions, but people just went back to dry land. There was a simple lesson that day: never again.

Kings, queens, popes, presidents, movie stars, sea monsters, secret agents, visitors from the Planet of the Apes have come to the Golden Gate.

And the characters: These days, men and women regularly swim the Golden Gate. One of the most unforgettable was Blackie the horse, who swam from Lime Point to Crissy Field in October 1938. Richard “Shorty” Roberts, who bet a racetrack owner that horses could swim, clung to the Blackie tail all the way.

But the all-time Golden Gate champion was Walt Stack, who raced from the Dolphin Club at Aquatic Park over the bridge to Sausalito and back every day for years. He ran shirtless, rain or shine. Everyone knew him, a dirty, tough old man who had been a prisoner at Alcatraz and a communist all his life. A true San Franciscan. “I’ll do this until I’m planted,” he said. He ran more than 62,000 miles, trained on hot dogs and beer, and died in 1995 at the age of 87.

But if the bridge was a habit for Walt Stack and countless others who cross the Golden Gate every day, it is a wonder for those crossing it for the first time. I try to walk the Golden Gate myself at least once a year, and on one trip I met Aneesh Vidyasharker, a visitor from India. It was his first time, and he had stopped halfway to look over the side. “It was my life’s dream to walk that bridge,” he said. “I love walking here and standing above the Pacific.”

Only one thing is better than crossing the Golden Gate, and that’s sailing under it. During World War II and the Korean War, nearly 2 million soldiers, sailors and Marines sailed from the Golden Gate in troop ships to defend this country. Many never returned. One of them told me about coming home years later. I can’t remember his name and I’ve lost my notes, but I remember what he said: “As the ship got closer to the Golden Gate, we all got on deck. Some guy threw his hat overboard, and we all did. All those drifting hats. The long troop journey was over, Korea was over, the army was over, and we were home. That’s what this bridge meant to us.

Not all journeys are so dramatic. Eric Rouze, a sailor bringing a yacht to San Francisco, told his story in Latitude 38, the sailing magazine; “One of my greatest pleasures was being at the helm of Rage, then owned by Steve and Nancy Rander. As we navigated it under the Golden Gate Bridge after delivery from Victoria BC, we are passed under that legendary span and the city spread out before us bathed in sunshine, and when I finally gave up the helm, someone handed me a cold Anchor Steam. Perfect.”

We missed the 85th anniversary of the bridge, but June 5 is still an anniversary. On this date in 1848, the strait at the entrance to San Francisco Bay takes its name. John C. Fremont, US Army officer, explorer and later top Republican presidential candidate, submitted his map and geographical memoirs to the US Senate. He called the strait Chrysopylae, or Golden Gate, after the legendary Golden Horn of ancient Byzantium. The Greek name didn’t stick, but Golden Gate, said historian Allan Nevins, was the “immortal” choice.

Carl Nolte’s columns appear in the Sunday edition of San Francisco’s Chronicle. Email: [email protected]


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