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Celebrating the ‘workhorse’ Bay Bridge

originally posted by SF Gate

It’s not the prettier bridge. And it’s certainly no international tourist icon. No one’s going to throw it a big party with fireworks and art shows.

But that solid gray chunk of steel, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, transformed the region in ways its beauty-queen sister across the bay can only dream of.

“The Bay Bridge has that scrappy, underdog, proud, blue-collar identity, a lot like Oakland itself. It’s a workhorse. It gets stuff done,” said Louise Pubols, senior curator at the Oakland Museum of California.

To honor the clunky old Bay Bridge in its final months, the museum is joining Caltrans and UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library in compiling an oral history of the span, in hopes of documenting the bridge’s starring role in shaping the culture, economics, politics and growth of the Bay Area.

Historians are looking for old toll takers, welders, engineers, painters, architects and others who are intimately connected with the early days of the bridge, from its opening in 1936 to the 1960s or so. Quite simply, they want to know how the bridge changed people’s lives.

“People always talk about the grace and beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge, but it’s the Bay Bridge that changed the way people actually live,” said historian Sam Redman, who is working on the project at the library’s Regional Oral History Office. “That’s what we want to learn more about.”

Life in the Bay Area changed dramatically and unalterably the day the bridge opened, Nov. 12, 1936. The first change, and it occurred overnight, was the nearly instant death of the ferries.

For decades, the bay was alive with ferry boats, which by the 1930s had become so plentiful they actually caused boat gridlock on the bay and led to public demand for a bridge, Redman and other historians said.

The second change was that commuting to downtown San Francisco suddenly became fast and easy, enabling thousands of San Franciscans to move to the East Bay. That in turn led to freeways and subdivisions crisscrossing the farthest reaches of Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

San Francisco wasn’t the only city affected by the bridge. Oakland saw a boom in its residential areas but a major blow to its downtown, waterfront and eventually West Oakland.

With San Francisco suddenly an easy 8-mile drive away, thousands of East Bay shoppers, businesses and workers abandoned Oakland – which had been a bustling commercial and financial hub – for San Francisco.

In short, the bridge unleashed the Bay Area economy, unifying a region that had been fractured by water.

The boom could not have come at a better time than the Great Depression, said Martin Meeker, associate director at the Bancroft’s Regional Oral History Office.

Not only did the bridge bring new options to residents on both sides of the bay, but also it renewed people’s faith in government, he said.

“The psychological impact of the bridge can’t be underestimated,” he said. “It was a massive government undertaking, and gave people a huge confidence boost that government could … provide jobs and help us out of the Depression.”

Finally, the bridge changed the way Bay Area residents relate to the bay itself, said Pubols, at the Oakland Museum.

When they crossed on ferries, they were regularly exposed to wind, waves, tides and sprays of saltwater.

“Literally, you’d get your feet wet,” she said. “You knew you were on the bay, surrounded by water. But with the bridge, you’re suddenly crossing high above the water at a rapid clip in your little pod. You can forget the bay’s even there.”

The museum is putting together a major exhibition next year on the bridge, the bay and residents’ complicated relationships with both. The show is expected to coincide with the dismantling of the old bridge and the unveiling of the new bridge.

It’s easy to see why motorists immediately fell in love with the bridge, she said. When the bridge is free of traffic, cruising toward the city on a clear day can be one of the region’s great joys, she said.

“You have this sensation you’re flying over the bay,” she said. “The bridge really gives you this beautiful, ecstatic experience.”

Major events in the life of the Bay Bridge:

Sept. 17, 1872: Emperor Norton, celebrated San Francisco eccentric, issues decree for a bridge between Oakland and San Francisco.

1929: California Legislature authorizes a bridge across the bay.

July 9, 1933: Groundbreaking.

Nov. 12, 1936, 12:30 p.m.: Bay Bridge opens to traffic, ahead of schedule and under budget. Toll was 65 cents.

1958: Key System train lines removed from lower deck and replaced with cars.

Dec. 22, 1967: “The Graduate” released, immortalizing the Bay Bridge with scene in whichDustin Hoffman drives to Berkeley in his Alfa Romeo in search of Katharine Ross. Locals note he’s driving the wrong way on the bridge.

Feb. 11, 1968: T33 Navy jet flies into the bridge, bursts into flames and plunges into the bay, killing two onboard.

Oct. 17, 1989, 5:04 p.m.: Loma Prieta earthquake jostles a 76-by-50-foot section of the upper deck onto the lower deck.

Jan. 15, 1990: Discovery of the Bay Bridge Troll, an iron figurine welded to the bridge by a metalworker to protect the bridge from future calamity.

October 2000: Arrival of Fastrak, vastly improving life for commuters

2002: Construction begins on new Bay Bridge eastern span.

Nov. 7, 2007: Cosco Busan hits the foot of a Bay Bridge tower, spilling 54,000 gallons of bunker fuel into the bay.

Sept. 8, 2009: S-curve opens, the first major realignment of the bridge.

Nov. 9, 2009: Big rig flips and plunges off the bridge at the S-curve. Rumble strips arrive.

Former toll takers, engineers, welders, painters, architects or others who worked on the Bay Bridge can contact the Bancroft Library’s Regional Oral History Office at (510) 643-2106 or e-mail

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