The Thing Is with Steve Canavan - January 5, 2017

The majestic Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco has a curious history
The majestic Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco has a curious history
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If you are the kind of person fascinated by bridges and the stories behind their design and build, then I suggest you take a long, hard look at your life and perhaps join a local club or get a hobby.

But before you do that, have a read of this column - you’ll love it.

Today, you see, marks a special anniversary in the bridge world - namely that it’s 113 years since construction began on one of the most famous on the planet.

The bridge in question - I’ll tell you at this juncture for I know the suspension must be killing you (first and last bridge-related pun, I promise) - is the Golden Gate in San Francisco, and I think it merits a mention because of the rather fantastic fact that it was designed not by a professional architect but - get this - by a poet who thought he’d have a bash.

Joseph Strauss, whose dad was a writer and painter, his mother a pianist concert, only ever had one real ambition in life, which was to be the next Wordsworth.

But somehow he got into the engineering game and on spying an advert in the paper in the early 1900s asking if it was possible to build a 55-mile long bridge between San Francisco Bay and neighbouring Marin County (previously only connected by a slow-moving ferry) for less than the previously projected price of £100m, Strauss took a flier and replied, ‘yes’.

He had, in fairness, designed bridges before, but these had been drawbridges and all had been inland.

This, on the other hand, was a massive, hugely complicated project. The bridge had to cross one of the greatest distances ever spanned, reach heights that bridges hadn’t reached before, and withstand the force of an ocean 372 feet in depth and with incredibly strong, swirling tides and currents.

But undeterred - and you’ve really got to admire the man’s self-belief - Strauss insisted he could pull it off and, best of all, informed the powers-that-be it would cost no more than 17 million quid.

Remarkably, as it turned out he was successful, but mainly because he came up with a cunning plan - he realised the best way to overcome having little to no experience of building bridges across a raging ocean was to hire other people to do it for you.

Thus he employed a team of experienced bridge-building folk to do the bulk of the work, then - like every successful boss - took all the credit himself.

In fairness to Strauss, he did come up with several groundbreaking contributions, not least saving lives.

When construction began on this day in January 1933, he made all employees wear hard hats and insisted on installing a safety net beneath the bridge, something which saved a total of 19 lives as workers overbalanced and toppled from the scaffolding at various stages.

It meant that only 11 workers died during the whole mammoth project - a superb safety record for the time - and 10 of those happened in a single accident when a five-ton platform broke apart.

Given all that - and apologies for going a bit gloomy here at the start of a new year - it’s a bit of a shame that the bridge now holds the unenviable tag as the top suicide location in the world.

On a lovely sunny day in August 1937, three months after it opened, a 40-year-old fella called HB Wobber strolled along the bridge side-by-side with a fellow tourist he had met on a bus, then suddenly tipped his hat to his companion and said, ‘this is where I get off, I’m going to jump’. Before his friend even had chance to say ‘would you mind if I took your return bus ticket then please?’, Wobber proceeded to hurl himself over the barrier and four seconds later plunged into the waters of San Francisco Bay at 75mph. He was never seen again and since then, rather depressingly, more than 1,600 people have done the same.

But back to Strauss, who was treated like a hero when the bridge opened in May 1937 but immediately went back to his true love, poetry, and penned his most-famous work ‘The Mighty Task Is Done’.

Talk about a bloke with multiple strings to his bow.

Alas, he didn’t get too much opportunity to enjoy his bridge and poet fame - he died just a year after the Golden Gate opened at the age of 68.

Right, history lesson over, class dismissed.