75 Years Ago This Weekend: California Inspires The World With One Of America’s Greatest Infrastructure Projects (And Celebrations) Ever

This Sunday marks the 75th anniversary of the formal opening of the Golden Gate Bridge linking San Francisco to Marin County.

The iconic span was at once the greatest over-water structure in the entire world, a profound achievement in engineering and public works for a nation coming out of the Great Depression, and an instantly recognizable symbol of both San Francisco and California around the globe.

1937 was a banner year for California transportation.

While the Golden Gate Bridge achieved the unimaginable, Los Angeles has just celebrated National Transportation Week two months prior with the largest single delivery of streetcars in the world.

The story of the Bridge can be found in many history books, but primary resources provide us with details that may be lost in an overview within a broader scope.

This article from the May, 1937 issue of California Highways And Public Works (as well as previous issues during construction) describes not only the engineering details involved, but the “five-day Fiesta eclipsing any civic celebration ever attempted in San Francisco” — which is saying a lot in light of the expansive 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

The Fiesta opened with a Pedestrian Day before any vehicular traffic, as well as an even larger eleven days of celebrations around San Francisco.

It is believed that 200,000 pedestrians checked out the bridge on May 27, 1937 before it opened to traffic.

The festivities included four large parades, a pageant featuring 3,000 actors and a 100-person orchestra with seating accomodations in Crissy Field for 25,000 people.

Obviously, this achievement did not take place in Southern California and seems to have little relationship to transit and transportation in the Los Angeles region.

But the story of how California, its Division of Highways and six coastal counties planned and built the bridge puts our state’s public transportation planning and financing in context for those studying public works projects during the inter-war period.

This occasion also allows us to provide an update on our digitization project regarding California Highways And Public Works, the official publication of the state Department of Public Works, published between 1924 and 1967.

The predecessor to Caltrans, the Department published this monthly magazine to explain and promote highway construction and road improvements throughout the state.

From the early days of personal automobile ownership in the 1920s through the advent of the freeway age, this publication compliments our extensive transit collection to provide researchers with abundant information and data in which to explore the financial, political, technological and social factors involved in building California infrastructure.

Official party autos

Parade of official party autos arriving at San Francisco toll plaza after dedication ceremonies on Marin side (Click to enlarge)

However, it has never been made available to the transportation research community online in an easily-accessible format until now.

One year ago this week, we began working in partnership with the Occidental College Library, one of our partners in the LA as Subject network, to lend us the material to scan as well as to build file directories and search functionality.

We are now able to provide full-text access to all issues published between 1924 and 1947 as well as a directory of each issue.

We will be working on the period from 1947-1967 this Summer.

Sketch showing course of Marin County approach to Golden Gate span through Waldo Tunnel (Click to enlarge)

In addition, we are using Google Custom Search to build a public-access keyword search tool for those seeking information in this title without knowing which issue may be relevant.

Additional details on this exciting project were provided here last year.

Once completed, we want to take this pilot program to the rest of the LA as Subject membership as a model for the creation of a research portal for a core collection of Los Angeles’ historic magazines.

It may also serve as a prototype for collaboration amongst U.S. transportation libraries who meet regularly to establish standards and best practices in seeking to build a National Transportation Knowledge Network.

The Golden Gate Bridge, like so many other transportation and infrastructure projects, remains an impressive feat long after its debut.

We want our researchers’ “anytime, anywhere” ability to access information regarding this history to be regarded in the same light.