Thursday, August 7, 2014

Postcards from America to Landis Valley: San Francisco's Golden Gate Before the Bridge (first in a series)

Guest blog entry by Shayla Carey
Upon first glance, Landis Valley’s postcard collection can be summed up in one word:  extensive.  Dive into it and other words come to mind:  humorous, colorful, touching, wondrous, and surprising.  In perusing the collection recently with volunteer and postcard expert Russell Eaton, I was definitely surprised and amused by a few of the pieces I found.

Most of the cards in the collection were produced in the first two decades of the twentieth century, a time when our country started to change dramatically.  Since then, bridges went up, mountains were moved, and cityscapes grew, sometimes to a point where we wouldn’t recognize the landscape that was there before the improvements.

That’s what struck me with this postcard of the Golden Gate.  As I flipped through the stack of cards labeled “San Francisco,” I almost missed its significance because of the image ingrained in my brain of what it “should” look like now.

I stopped and flipped back to the 110-year-old image.

To my mind, having walked along part of the 4,200ft span, it seemed that the gate was waiting for its bridge.  Between the Marin Highlands on the right and the Presidio on the left, steam ships chugged through the 300ft deep waters by the tiny lighthouse in the distance.  It was a quiet scene—nothing spectacular.

According to, this wasn’t the first time that the San Francisco Bay changed dramatically.  The bay used to be a valley, which flooded at the end of the last ice age—roughly 10,000 years ago—due to rising ocean levels.  Today, on average, the bay is 14ft deep and is home to over 130 species of fish, including four runs of Chinook salmon.  The tides come in and out four times daily and carry roughly 390 billion gallons of water.  Moist winds off the ocean oftentimes carry a band of thick fog—called the Marine Layer—into the bay.  It wasn’t until 1933, when construction began, that the skyline to the north of San Francisco began to change forever. 

Engineer Joseph Strauss (1870-1938) had always dreamed of building “the biggest thing of its kind that a man cold build” and when San Francisco city engineer Michael O'Shaughnessy approached him in 1919 with the idea to build a bridge across the turbulent Golden Gate, he jumped at the chance.  He lobbied for a decade, facing stiff opposition from ferry operators, environmentalists, city administrators, and even other engineers before the voters approved the project in 1930.

Strauss was the chief engineer, but he also had a team of talented—if relatively unknown—designers working with him.  In a compromise, he selected his biggest rival, leading theoretician of suspension bridge design Leon Moiseiff, as a consultant on the project.  He also hired Irving Morrow, a San Francisco-based architect, who styled the bridge in the classic Art Deco style and gave it its distinctive orange color.  The man who should claim the most credit but who didn’t receive it, though, is University of Illinois engineer Charles Ellis, who worked tirelessly for months on the bridge’s overall design and specifications.  Ellis labored over calculations for so long that Strauss eventually dismissed him, accusing him of wasting time and money.  He wasn’t among the engineers credited when the bridge was completed in 1937 and it wasn’t until 1949, in an obituary, that he was formally recognized for his work with the project.

Strauss was a safety fanatic, ordering every worker to wear a safety helmet and constructing a huge safety net ten feet wider than the bridge’s width and fifteen feet longer than the roadways length.  It sped up work, but was not infallible, as evidenced by the tragic accident of February 16, 1937.  Twelve men who were working on scaffolding close to the North Tower fell when the scaffolding collapsed, taking the net with it.  Two survived, including foreman Slim Lambert, but the other ten were dragged down 220 feet into the icy water.  One, carpenter Arthur Anderson, was found tangled in the net when it was recovered a mile out and 500 feet deep into the Pacific Ocean.

Strauss’s structure holds fast today, having been closed only three times due to high winds.  Steel girders were added after a severe storm rippled the bridge in 1951 and the cables were replaced in 1970, but other than that, the bridge endured no other engineering modifications in sixty years.

The image is eerie, but the card itself holds history, too.  It was produced by the Detroit Photographic Company and, according to the Metropolitan Postcard Club of NewYork City’s website (a great resource for information, according to Russ Eaton), it was produced between 1903 and 1904, right around the time that famous photographer William Henry Jackson became the manager of the factory and before it was changed to Detroit Publishing Company in 1904.  At that time, according to the Metropolitan Postcard Club, sales were around 7 million cards. 

Our collection has many other interesting postcards, including the one on the left looking out across the Golden Gate.  We also have an interesting one of Mt. St. Helens before it blew its stack, but that’s a story for another time…