Joseph Strauss was a short man, even for the standards of early 20th century America, standing just shy of five feet tall. Yet, he had big aspirations. Even as a young man, the first signs appearing as he graduated at the top of his class from the University of Cincinnati with degrees in both economics and business.
During his college years, he was hospitalized with a lingering illness that left him bed-ridden for weeks. Strauss had little to do besides read a book or look out the window at the Cincinnati-Covington bridge. It was in these long, boring days that Strauss developed a fascination for bridges.
Upon graduation, he went to work for a the pre-eminent bridge designer of the day, Ralph Modjeski, a pioneer of suspension bridges. It’s no stretch of the truth to say that Modjeski’s imagination and agile thinking allowed American cities to span distances thought impossible before Modjeski put pen to paper. He built more than three dozen bridges during the Industrial Revolution, including the Bay Bridge in San Francisco.
The Bay Bridge, connecting San Francisco and Oakland is an impressive feat of engineering, a double-decked behemoth, stretching nearly four and half miles from terminal-to-terminal and capable of handling whatever the San Andreas fault could dish out. It was impressive feat in engineering, let alone early 20th century construction.
But Modjeski’s marvel was quickly overshadowed by his student’s magnum opus. A scant six months later, Strauss dedicated the completion of his bridge across the bay with a poem he had penned himself. A shameless self-promoter, Strauss celebrated the Golden Gate bridge (and himself) in “Spanning the Impossible.”
The Golden Gate bridge had seemed an impossibility at the outset. While its length was just under two miles and shorter than Modjeski’s Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate was much taller but wasn’t afforded the luxury of anchoring its span midway on islands, like the Bay Bridge does at Yerba Buena.
Strauss had designed only two bridges of importance before starting work on Big Orange, the Lewis & Clark that crossed the Columbia River at the Oregon & Washington border and the Burnside Bridge, one of the nearly dozen bridges that spans the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. Neither of these bridges was impressive in its size or engineering. The Golden Gate bridge was both.
Strauss had designed a bridge unlike anything seen anywhere in the world – a mighty two towered suspension bridge that reached almost 800 feet into the fog of San Francisco Bay and 9,000 feet from San Francisco to Marin County. Suspension bridges were nothing new – they had been around for thousands of years. It’s thought that the Mayans built a suspension bridge crossing the Usumacinta River in the 7th century. But there had never been a suspension bridge rivaling Strauss’s design.
It was so ambitious in its size and scope that Strauss was squeezed out of the construction project – his skill and understanding simply weren’t up to the task. Still, he stayed involved with the project and played an important role in the bridge’s construction. It was Strauss’s moveable safety net that saved 19 men during the build, a safety feature that can still be seen in construction projects today.
But, while Strauss could claim responsibility for saving the life of a score of men, he might also be blamed for the deaths of nearly 1,500 others … all because of a fateful decision made due to his not-so-impressive stature.
The original plans to build the bridge called for a railing to protect pedestrians on the walkway. The barrier lining the bridge was to be a full 66 inches high, a five and one-half foot height that would have kept people safe. But because Strauss was only five feet tall, he ordered the railing lowered to a four foot height so he could enjoy the view while strolling the walkway.
People came from across the country and around the globe to see this brilliant spectacle, an incredible engineering feat, a triumph of man over nature. When the bridge opened in late May of 1937, nearly a quarter of a million people lined up to be among the first to experience the majesty of the Golden Gate bridge.
And they continues to arrive, by the thousands, whether cutting their commute in half or to sightsee or just a good walk, the Golden Gate drew them in — tourists, workers, and another, less glamorous type. The bridge, with its impressive height and (now) easy accessibility became an obvious choice for one depressed veteran of World War I who, in mid-August, just 10 weeks after the bridge’s dedication, strode out to the middle of the bridge, easily stepped over the four foot railing and became the first official suicide recorded at the Golden Gate Bridge.
Since then, about 1,500 others have made the same jump. Although official records aren’t kept, the Golden Gate bridge is recognized as the most popular place in the world to end one’s life. People step over the low railing at a rate of one every other week. And it’s all because Joseph Strauss wanted a better view.