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Saturday, July 9, 2016

83rd Anniversary: The Groundbreaking of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge

Today we celebrate the 83rd anniversary of the groundbreaking for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The bridge was first called the James “Sunny Jim” Rolph Bridge to pay homage to the city’s then mayor and governor. However, he was not able to witness the opening of the inauguration of the bridge due to his passing two years before construction was completed. The official and functional name of the bridge thus became the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and is commonly called "Bay Bridge". When it was built, the bridge totaled a length of 23, 556 feet (8.25 miles including the East Bay crossing and the approaches in San Francisco) and was the world’s longest steel structure.

Gov. James Rolph, Mr. Herbert Hoover and others including Miss Alameda, Miss SF Bay Bridge, and Miss San Francisco at groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of the Bay Bridge, July 9, 1933, courtesy, California Historical Society, CHS2013.1290 [b]
On July 9, 1933 the California Department of Public Work broke ground and a 1-day ceremony was held to honor this event. Though actual construction work had begun in May with an informal ceremony at the site of the West Anchorage, a large crowd gather at Yerba Buena Island for a ceremony that included ex-President Herbert Hoover as a keynote speaker and performances by the Young Women of Bay Cities and the United States Navy Band. An airplane flight linked Rincon Hill and Oakland with a symbolic bridge of smoke and then President Franklin D. Roosevelt set a simultaneous detonation of blasts at Yerba Buena Island, San Francisco, and Oakland. Governor Frank Meeriam broke the ground assisted by San Francisco Mayor James Rolph.

Program of the Groundbreaking Ceremony for the Bay Bridge (Outside)
Photo courtesy of

Program of the Groundbreaking Ceremony for the Bay Bridge (Inside)
Photo courtesy of
The bridge was designed by the California Department of Public Works under its Chief Engineer Charles H. Purcell, Bridge Engineer Charles E. Andrew, and Design Engineer Glenn Woodruff. The turbulent water conditions (varying soils and water depths), inaccessibility to bedrock, gusty winds, and a host of other unique design challenges made the building of the bridge seem impossible. Engineers also assumed that the area’s high winds posed a greater threat than earthquakes, despite the bridges proximity to two major fault lines. Part of these natural hurdles to construction were overcome by building the bridge in two different sections connected by a tunnel through Yerba Buena Island. Political forces also prevented construction. Plans to build a bridge between San Francisco and Oakland had been discussed since the 1870s, but did not move forward until the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, with support from President Herbert Hoover, agreed to purchase bonds to be repaid later with bridge tolls. At last on November 12, 1936 the Bay Bridge opened and in its first year carried 9 million vehicles (102,200,000 per year today). The traffic levels that year exceeded expectations for 1950. Local residents now had a quick way to drive between the rapidly growing cities of San Francisco and Oakland: the East and West communities of the Bay Area were brought together like never before.

Construction of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge [Eastern span, ca.1934-35], photographed by Ted Huggins, courtesy, California Historical Society, CHS2011.738
Due to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the steel supports of the damaged decks shifted, slicing off five-inch steel bolts that connected the deck to the supports. This partial collapse required $6.4 billion towards reconstruction and after nearly a decade of construction and 24 years after Loma Prieta, the bridge opened again on September 2, 2013. The self-anchored suspension span was designed to withstand the strongest quake estimated by seismologists to occur at the site over a 1,500 year period.

Photo of Bay Bridge, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Today an average of 270,000 vehicles cross the Bay Bridge each day. It remains a beautiful and important historical landmark and exudes an aura of magnificence, thus making it one of the favorite tourist spots in the area. Visitors can stroll along the beaches under the bridge, enjoy a picnic around the area, bike across the bridge, and simply enjoy the view and peacefulness.

Photo of Bay Bridge viewed from Yerba Buena Island
Photographer: Lacy Atkins, The Chronicle
San Francisco, CA

Sarah Lee
California Historical Society


American Philatelic Society

Associated Press in San Francisco, “San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Opens To Traffic After Years Of Delays”

“Bay Bridge History” | Key Facts

Michael Cabanatuan, “Bay Bridge Eastern Span Opens”

“Oakland Bay Bridge”

“San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge”

“The California Quake: The Bay Bridge; Damage To Link Across Bay Is More Serious Than Thought”

“The San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge”

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