Until the 1930s, bridgemen were mostly a group of fearless daredevils and competitive thrill seekers, attempting daring stunts hundreds of feet up in the air without a safety net. It was a combination of this devil-may-care attitude and the lack of safety precautions in bridge construction that led to a well-known rule of thumb: One man was expected to die for every million dollars spent on a bridge project. This meant 35 lives would be lost by the time the Golden Gate Bridge was completed. Joseph Strauss, the bridge’s chief engineer, was determined to break the status quo.
The list of safety precautions Strauss took was extensive, including thoughtful details such as drinking sauerkraut juice if you came to work with a hangover and eating special diets to help fight dizziness caused by working at such extreme heights. Getting hit in the head by an errant piece of steel was one of the biggest dangers in bridge work but there was a simple solution.
A local safety equipment manufacturer, Edward W. Bullard, modified his mining helmet design specifically for the Golden Gate Bridge project. The hats were made of hard leather and canvas and effectively protected the men from falling rivets and other heavy pieces of equipment. The Golden Gate Bridge project was perhaps the first designated “hard hat area” (the Hoover Dam site claims to have been the first but apparently the evidence is inconclusive). It was undoubtedly the first to dismiss workers on the spot if they were caught breaking any of the safety rules outlined by Strauss, and it was, in part, this strict enforcement that saved many men’s lives.
No Daredevils Allowed
Workers on the Golden Gate Bridge were fired immediately if they were caught working without their hard hat or safety line, performing dangerous stunts just for the hell of it, or drinking on the job. As described by a worker named Harold McClaine in the book Spanning the Gate,
“Up to that job on the Golden Gate, you were on your own. Nobody cared. If you were fool enough to clown around, you were your own fool. But if they caught you clowning out at the Golden Gate, you were fired.”
Russell Cone, resident engineer, enforced Strauss’s rules at the construction site — he had zero tolerance for daredevils and made it clear immediately that this was not like other bridge projects. The construction took place during the Great Depression, so the men quickly learned to follow the rules or be out of a job with no other opportunities in sight. These strict rules were necessary as the workers faced countless dangers ranging from the bends and lead poisoning to high winds knocking them off narrow catwalks and vertical towers, hundreds of feet in the air.
Flirting with Death: Setting Underwater Explosives
Perhaps some of the least celebrated bridge workers were the divers. These brave men were tasked with setting explosives underwater to blast away rock in order to erect the south tower’s supports. The men had as little as an hour and 15 minutes to dive down to depths up to 100 feet, set the explosive (which required connecting wire leads from detonators on a barge to the bomb heads underwater), and return to the surface. The strong currents came in so fast that the divers often didn’t have time to naturally decompress by surfacing slowly. These men were rushed to a decompression chamber at the end of the dock with so little time to spare that sometimes the divers could feel the bends coming on just before they reached the life-saving chamber. Perhaps miraculously, or perhaps because all the divers were trained professionals, no divers perished while clearing the way for the tower supports.
The divers were among the few bridge workers with extensive experience in their line of work. The majority of the men who built the Golden Gate Bridge had never been ironworkers before, much less at dizzying heights of several hundred feet in freezing cold wind. The bridge provided jobs during a time when men were so desperate for work they were more than willing to risk their lives.
The Dark and Dangerous Interiors of the Golden Gate’s Towers
The men tasked with working inside the towers began losing their hair and teeth and the ability to take a deep breath. The culprit was lead poisoning. According to bridge worker Whitey Pennala, there were sixty men in the hospital at one point. The men were being exposed to toxic lead fumes whenever hot rivets (a short metal pin or bolt for holding together two plates of metal) came in contact with the bridge’s lead paint. Once the problem was figured out, workers were required to wear filtration masks in the towers and the doctors had bone phosphate pills on hand.
The towers were not only filled with toxic fumes but could easily bring on a feeling of claustrophobia within their dark, noisy, cramped interiors. Two men could barely fit inside one of the 3 1/2 square-foot shaft cells. Riveter George W. Albin describes the awful confinement in Spanning the Gate:
“It was pitch dark in those cells, and the ventilation was poor. You couldn’t hear a thing except the noise of the riveting guns and the echoes. And there was many a time the light in your hard hat would go out.”
Strauss’s Giant Net Saves the Lives of 19 Men
Outside on the steel platforms, hanging from cables or traversing the catwalks (made of 10-foot panels of redwood planks), the working conditions were far from claustrophobic. Instead, the howling winds were always threatening to tear men from their perch at dizzying heights of 500-600 feet up. According to Pete Williamson in Spanning the Gate,
“The wind blowing in from the ocean forced you to stand at 20 or 30 degree angles all the time, and the dampness and the cold cut right to the bone.”
The iron was often wet from the frequent fog, making it slick as ice. That combined with huge gusts of wind made falling a likely possibility. Strauss had built hundreds of bridges before the Golden Gate and was too familiar with the many unavoidable dangers. He thought it possible, however, to cheat death through extensive safety precautions, and thus the most expensive and elaborate safety device was installed on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Strauss made the bold decision to invest more than $130,000 in a giant safety net that stretched below the entire bridge and out to ten feet on each side. The net boosted morale and made the men feel so safe that some dove into it for fun. This was stopped immediately, but the point was made: this net was worth every penny. The men finished the cables four times faster than thought possible and the net saved the lives of 19 men who called themselves the “Halfway-to-Hell” Club. Sadly, the net couldn’t save everyone.
Tragedy Strikes the Golden Gate Bridge
On February 16, 1937 thirteen men were working on a platform when one of the sides gave way. The men clung to the dangling mass of steel, hanging hundreds of feet above the water. One of the men, Tom Casey, saved himself by leaping from the platform and grabbing hold of a sturdy bridge beam. The rest of the men prayed for a miracle. Soon the five-ton platform disconnected from the bridge and fell into the net — but it was too heavy. The platform and all ten men ripped through their last hope and plummeted twenty-two stories into the frigid waters below.
One of these men, against all odds, survived. The crew’s foreman, 26-year-old Slim Lambert, was knocked unconscious by a piece of lumber in the fall but came to when he hit the freezing water. The net was tangled around his body but he managed to struggle free and swim to the surface with a broken shoulder, ribs, and several broken vertebrae. Lambert, like so many of the Golden Gate Bridge workers, had no past experience as an ironworker. His past resume of cowboy, lumberjack and stevedore (someone who unloads cargo from ships) could never have prepared him for the dangers faced on the Golden Gate.
The Real Heroes of the Golden Gate Bridge
Strauss’s unprecedented efforts to save lives during the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge did greatly decrease the average death toll associated with such a project. A total of 11 men died during the bridge’s construction — less than half of the 35 deaths projected by such a large and expensive project. Especially considering that so many of the men were woefully inexperienced, Strauss’s safety precautions were largely a huge success.
Strauss paved the way for strict safety precautions in bridge work and ended an era of swashbuckling bridgemen who would taunt death in daring acrobatic stunts just for the thrill of it. The chief engineer certainly earned his place in the history books, but both the swashbuckling and the cautious bridgemen are the real heroes behind the Golden Gate Bridge. They risked their lives to put bread on the table for their families at home, and in the end, it was their sweat and tears that bridged the Golden Gate — creating an international symbol of American enterprise and serving as a reminder of the bravery required to build the gateway to the Pacific.
Updated August 9, 2016
- Spanning the Gate: A photo documentary with text by Stephen Cassady, design by Clyde Winters. Squarebooks, Inc. Mill Valley, California. 1979.
- General Article: Work Site Safety and Accidents. PBS.org Website.
- Biography: Men Who Built the Bridge. PDS.org Website.
- “Cheating Death”: Worker Safety During Construction. Golden Gate Bridge Website.
- Safety First. Golden Gate Bridge Website.
- Safety Nets, Hard-Boiled Hard Hats & The Halfway to Hell Club: Safety Innovations in the Golden Gate Bridge Construction. Workers’ Comp Insider Website. April 20, 2012.
- Worker Safety During Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. Uploaded on December 24, 2007.
- The Building of a Symbol: How it Got There, and Why It’s Orange. Michiko Kakutani. August 23, 2010. The New York Times Website.
Updated October 10, 2016