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FreightWaves ClassicsInfrastructureInsightsNewsRailTrucking

FreightWaves Classics: San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge celebrates 85th anniversary today!

On November 12, 1936, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge opened. President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressed a telegraph key in Washington, D.C., which officially opened the bridge to traffic. This was a bit more than six months before the Golden Gate Bridge opened on May 27, 1937.

Background 

Known locally as simply the Bay Bridge, it spans San Francisco Bay from San Francisco to Oakland via Yerba Buena Island. The bridge is the direct road between the two cities and carries more than 250,000 vehicles daily. It has one of the longest spans of all the bridges in the United States.

The Bay Bridge's suspension cables have been lighted at night since 1986. (Photo: mtc.ca.gov)
The Bay Bridge’s suspension cables have been lighted at night since 1986. (Photo: mtc.ca.gov)

Considered one of the major engineering projects of the 20th century, the bridge is a double-decked crossing that extends 8 miles and consists of “two end-to-end suspension bridges of 2,310-foot main spans and 1,160-foot side spans; an exceptionally large-bore tunnel through Yerba Buena Island that extends about one-half mile; a cantilever bridge with a main span of 1,400 feet; and a long viaduct to the Oakland shore.” During its construction, the largest challenge was sinking the central anchorage for the two suspension bridges to bedrock in San Francisco Bay (about 265 feet below the water’s surface). 

The idea of a bridge across San Francisco Bay surfaced first in the days of the California Gold Rush, but the technological prowess to build such a structure did not yet exist. However, by the 1930s such technologies did exist. The bridge was designed by Charles H. Purcell and it was built by the American Bridge Company, which began construction in 1933. 

History

Located at the entrance of the San Francisco Bay, the city of San Francisco was ideally located to prosper during the California Gold Rush. Nearly all goods that were not produced locally arrived by ships, which docked at San Francisco’s waterfront. However, when the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, its western terminus was in Oakland/Alameda, not San Francisco, which was on the other side of the bay. Many business, political and civic leaders in San Francisco worried that the city would lose its position as the regional center of trade. 

A number of early 1870s newspaper articles promoted the idea of a bridge across the bay. By early 1872, a “Bay Bridge Committee” was working on plans to build a railroad bridge across the bay. The San Francisco Real Estate Circular issue of April 1872 contained an item about the committee: “The Bay Bridge Committee lately submitted its report to the Board of Supervisors, in which compromise with the Central Pacific [Railroad] was recommended; also the bridging of the bay at Ravenswood and the granting of railroad facilities at Mission Bay and on the waterfront.”

Joshua Abraham Norton was known as “Emperor Norton” in San Francisco. Born in England, Norton spent the majority of his early life in South Africa. He made his way from there to San Francisco in late 1849. For several years after arriving, Norton was a successful commodities trader and real estate speculator.

Joshua Abraham Norton, c.1851, at the height of his wealth and influence. (Photo: Collection of The Society of California Pioneers)
Joshua Abraham Norton, c.1851, at the height of his wealth and influence. (Photo: Collection of The Society of California Pioneers)

In September 1859, Norton claimed the title of Emperor of the United States. The self-proclaimed emperor had no formal political power, but Norton received numerous favors from the city. Merchants capitalized on his notoriety; they sold souvenirs bearing his name. According to William Drury (Norton’s biographer), “San Francisco lived off the Emperor Norton, not Norton off San Francisco.”

Norton was treated deferentially by many in the city; others thought him eccentric or even insane. However, he generated several “decrees” in 1872 for the construction of a suspension bridge and tunnel crossing San Francisco Bay to connect San Francisco with Oakland. 

Unlike most of his ideas, Norton’s decrees to build a bridge had wide public and political appeal. However, it was a bridge too far for the times. The bay was too wide and too deep for the technology then available. 

Then, in 1921, a tube was considered, but it was apparent that it would be inadequate for the vehicles of the time. As the number of cars and trucks grew in the 1920s, support for a trans-bay crossing also grew.

Planning

The California legislature passed a bill in 1929 that established the California Toll Bridge Authority and authorized the new Authority and the State Department of Public Works to build a bridge connecting San Francisco and Alameda County.

A commission was then appointed to evaluate various designs for a bridge across the bay. Its conclusions were released in 1930. Charles H. Purcell, the State Highway Engineer of California (who had also served as the secretary of the commission), was appointed Chief Engineer for the Bay Bridge in January 1931.

The legislature passed two bills in 1931 that were signed into law by Governor James Rolph Jr. on May 25, 1931. The first provided for the financing of state bridges by revenue bonds; the second created the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Division of the State Department of Public Works. 

It had been determined that the most feasible route for the bridge was via Yerba Buena Island. This route would reduce the material and the labor needed. However, Yerba Buena Island housed a U.S. Navy base; this meant that using the island would require the approval of the U.S. Congress. Following an intense lobbying campaign, California won Congressional approval to use Yerba Buena Island on February 20, 1931, as long as final approval was given by the Departments of War, Navy and Commerce. Permits from the three federal departments were sought, and were granted in January 1932.

By April the preliminary final plan and design of the bridge was presented by Purcell to Col. Walter E. Garrison, Director of the State Department of Public Works, and to Ralph Modjeski, head of the Board of Engineering Consultants. Both agencies approved and preparation of the final design proceeded. 

Dignitaries (including former president Herbert Hoover (left of man holding hat), beauty queens and others at the 1933 groundbreaking ceremony. (Photo: home.uchicago.edu)
Dignitaries (including former president Herbert Hoover, who is left of the man holding a hat), beauty queens and others at the 1933 groundbreaking ceremony. (Photo: home.uchicago.edu)

Construction

Construction of the bridge began on July 9, 1933. 

The bridge’s western section (between San Francisco and Yerba Buena Island) was a major engineering challenge because the bay was up to 100 feet deep in areas and the bay’s soil required new foundation-laying techniques. Engineers determined that the construction of a large concrete anchorage halfway between San Francisco and the island, coupled with a main suspension span on each side of the central anchorage, was the best solution.

Construction was well underway in late 1935. (Photo: home.uchicago.edu)
Construction was well underway in late 1935. (Photo: home.uchicago.edu)

The bay east of Yerba Buena Island to Oakland was spanned by a “10,176-foot combination of double cantilever, five long-span through-trusses, and a truss causeway,” which formed the longest bridge of its kind at the time. The cantilever section was the longest in the nation and third-longest in the world.

The bridge’s eastern approach included building a causeway landing for its “incline” section and three feeder highways, interlinked by an extensive interchange. A massive landfill was needed, which extended along the northern edge of the existing rail system to the existing bayshore, and continued northward along the shore to Ashby Avenue in Berkeley. The landfill was continued northward to the foot of University Avenue as a causeway that enclosed an artificial lagoon that was developed by the federal Works Progress Administration as “Aquatic Park.” 

Construction on the bridge in 1935. (Photo: AmericanBridge.net)
Construction on the bridge in 1935. (Photo: AmericanBridge.net)

Yerba Buena Tunnel

The Yerba Buena passage uses the Yerba Buena Tunnel, which is “76 feet wide, 58 feet high and 540 feet long.” The Yerba Buena Tunnel is the largest diameter transportation bore tunnel in the world. The material that was excavated when the tunnel was bored was used for part of the landfill over the shoals adjacent to the northern end of Yerba Buena Island. That project created an artificial island, which was named Treasure Island.

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge took more than three years to complete. During the various construction projects 24 men died.

One of the final segments still to be finished - part of the bridge's cantilever. 
(Photo: home.uchicago.edu)
One of the final segments still to be finished – part of the bridge’s cantilever.
(Photo: home.uchicago.edu)

Opening day

As noted above, the bridge opened on November 12, 1936, at 12:30 p.m. PST. Among those attending the ceremonies were former U.S. president Herbert Hoover, U.S. Senator William G. McAdoo, and Frank Merriam, the Governor of California. Before it was opened the bridge was blessed by Cardinal Secretary of State Eugene Cardinal Pacelli, who later became Pope Pius XII.

The bridge's opening generated large crowds of attendees and vehicles. (Photo: San Francisco Public Library/Calisphere.org)
The bridge’s opening generated large crowds of attendees and vehicles. (Photo: San Francisco Public Library/Calisphere.org)

Using an acetylene torch, Governor Merriam cut ceremonial gold chains to open the bridge. The San Francisco Chronicle reported: “The greatest traffic jam in the history of San Francisco, a dozen old-fashioned New Year’s eves thrown into one – the biggest and most good-natured crowd of tens of thousands ever to try and walk the streets and guide their autos on them – this was the city last night, the night of the bridge opening with every auto owner in the bay region, seemingly, trying to crowd his machine onto the great bridge.”

Vehicles waiting to cross the Bay Bridge on opening day. (Photo: Calisphere.org)
Vehicles waiting to cross the Bay Bridge on opening day. (Photo: Calisphere.org)

Rail service

The Key System was a privately owned company that provided mass transit in the cities of the eastern San Francisco Bay area from 1903 until 1960. The company ran local streetcar and bus lines in the East Bay, as well as commuter rail and bus lines that connected the East Bay to San Francisco, first by a ferry pier on San Francisco Bay, and later via the Bay Bridge. At its height during the 1940s, the Key System had over 66 miles of track. Its streetcars were discontinued in 1948 and the commuter trains to San Francisco were discontinued in 1958.

The first ties of the Bridge Railway were laid on November 29, 1937, slightly more than a year after the bridge first opened. The first train ran across the Bay Bridge on September 23, 1938. This was a test run using a Key System train with California Governor Merriam at the controls. That was followed on January 14, 1939, when the San Francisco Transbay Terminal was dedicated. The Key System’s electric commuter trains began revenue service on January 15, 1939. Its trains ran along the south side of the lower deck of the bridge. Electric trains operated by the Western Pacific Railroad and the Southern Pacific’s Interurban Electric Railway also used the tracks. However, these two railroads’ trains only used the bridge for two years due to low passenger counts. Freight trains never used the bridge. 

Key System ridership levels dipped after World War II; it maintained service, but its last train used the bridge in April 1958. The tracks were removed and replaced with pavement in the early 1960s. While there have been several attempts to restore rail service on the bridge since then, none have been successful.

Originally the bridge carried auto traffic on its upper deck; trucks, buses, cars and commuter trains used the lower deck. After the Key System abandoned rail service, the lower deck was converted to all-road traffic as well. 

Six lanes of traffic on the bridge in 1946. (Photo: foundsf.org)
Six lanes of traffic on the bridge in 1946. (Photo: foundsf.org)

Roadway plan

From its opening in 1936 until the 1960s, the upper deck carried three lanes of traffic in each direction and was restricted to autos only. The lower deck carried three lanes of truck and bus traffic, with autos allowed, on the north side of the bridge. Traffic lights were added to set the direction of travel in the middle lane during the 1950s, but there was still no divider. The Key System’s two interurban railroad tracks on the south half of the lower deck carried the electric commuter trains. Those tracks were replaced in 1958 with pavement; however, traffic reconfiguration did not occur until 1963.

In October 1963, the Bay Bridge was reconfigured; five lanes of westbound traffic on the upper deck and five lanes of eastbound traffic on the lower deck. Trucks were allowed on both decks after the railroad tracks were removed. The upper deck was retrofitted and reinforced to handle trucks’ heavier loads. 

When the bridge opened there were two federal highways that ran on the bridge; a concurrency of U.S. Highway 40 and U.S. Highway 50. In 1964 the bridge was re-designated as part of Interstate 80.

The bridge today

The bridge has two sections of roughly equal length; the older western section connects downtown San Francisco to Yerba Buena Island, and the newer eastern section connects the island to Oakland. The western section is a double suspension bridge with two decks; westbound traffic is carried on the upper deck while eastbound traffic is carried on the lower one. The largest span of the original eastern section was a cantilever bridge. During the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, a portion of the eastern section’s upper deck collapsed onto the lower deck and the bridge was closed for a month. 

The decision was made to reconstruct the bridge’s eastern section as a causeway connected to a self-anchored suspension bridge. That construction started in 2002; the new eastern section opened on September 2, 2013. The cost to build the bridge in the 1930s was $77 million; the cost to build the new eastern section was reported at over $6.5 billion. Unlike the western section and the original eastern section of the bridge, the new eastern section is a single deck carrying all eastbound and westbound lanes, making it the world’s widest bridge as of 2014. The old east span was demolished; that project ended on September 8, 2018.

The Bay Bridge in a more recent photograph. (Photo. mtc.ca.gov)
The Bay Bridge in a more recent photograph. (Photo. mtc.ca.gov)

While there was no specific damage to the western section of the bridge, it has also undergone extensive seismic retrofitting. Much of the structural steel supporting the bridge deck was replaced; this was accomplished while the bridge remained open to traffic. In addition, the bridge’s supports have also been retrofitted to make them less susceptible to damage from earthquakes.

Since 1969 there has only been a toll for westbound traffic. The toll plaza on the Oakland side of the bridge has 18 toll lanes.

There are a series of lights on the bridge’s suspension cables. They were installed in 1986 as part of the bridge’s 50th-anniversary celebration.

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was/is an engineering marvel. It has carried automobile, truck, rail and bicyclists for 85 years… Happy birthday!

Scott Mall, Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.

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