Go ahead, build it – we’ll loan you the money

A print of “Clipper at the Gate” by William Phillips, which depicts Pan Am’s Boeing 314 “California Clipper,” is in my office

Ever wondered how much it cost to build the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930s? US$35 million. To repeat it today? Engineers estimate it could be done for maaaybe a billion. The first four images below are from my 1938 copy of The Golden Gate Bridge: Report of the Chief Engineer to the Board of Directors of the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District, a 300-page book published several months after the bridge opened that’s filled with dozens of construction photos you don’t often see elsewhere, treatises on methods and techniques, lots of fold-out engineering drawings, and the like.

Seven years after the original construction estimate in 1930, the actual construction costs came in $40,000 under. And here’s how they came up with the then astronomical sum of $35M in the middle of the Great Depression: public subscription. The people of the Bay area, tired of lengthy and expensive ferry journeys, really wanted that bridge. Good on them.

You can click any of these for a larger version. Following the excerpts from the book are a few photos I took of the bridge.

Halfway down this Internet Archive page, there’s a link to a PDF of the 1970 reprint edition of the Chief Engineer’s report. Looks precisely like my vintage copy: https://archive.org/details/goldengatebridge1970gold/mode/2up

I took these photos of my favorite bridge from, respectively, Fort Point, Crissy Field, and the deck of the tall ship Hawaiian Chieftain, which was based in San Francisco at the time. I’ve always used the Fort Point one as my phone background. These were taken with a paltry 2-megapixel Kodak DC-280 and so aren’t of the finest resolution, but they still look pretty good to me.

Click any of these for a larger size.

The towers top out at 746 feet – twice the height of a Saturn V rocket

That small dish – actually about 10 feet in diameter – at the top of the tower on the San Francisco side is one of a back-to-back pair of microwave repeater antennas. There’s video of the 2,500-pound assembly being swapped out by helicopter in 2009 here: https://youtu.be/Kosw1yb2RFg

Three photos stitched together using the free open source Hugin

Marin tower; the building, on a spit of rock 150 feet in front of the tower, is what remains of the long-defunct Lime Point fog station and lighthouse

All of the deck suspension cables – also known as vertical suspender ropes – were replaced in the 1970s, and I have a slice of one of the original ropes. This four-inch long section is incredibly heavy for its small size at 2.1kg/4.6lbs, which says something about the quality of that steel. Each of the seven braids of the cable is, in turn, composed of thirty-two strands of steel, for a total of 224 strands in each cable.

New digs

We moved our offices into a new building a couple towns away this week, and I ended up with a substantially larger office – “All the more to decorate” thought I, rubbing my hands. A gallery of my new digs is below. I haven’t decided yet how to fill out one wall, but the other walls are pretty much as I want them. I still see trees and greenery out my window (two windows, actually), thank goodness, and there are wild turkeys at the new place, too.

In the process, I finally got around to having my William Phillips “Clipper at the Gate” limited print framed at this little shop, and it came out pretty spiffy, with the frame and matting matched to the bluish silver of the aircraft, the deep blue of the water, and the red of the Golden Gate Bridge (actually called International orange) and the wing stripes. The aircraft is the Boeing B-314 flying boat, in this case the Pan American Airways California Clipper, NC-18602, which made regular runs between San Francisco and Hawaii – a nineteen-hour leg – before continuing to farther destinations.

Only twelve B-314s were produced by Boeing, all for Pan Am, but it was – and still is – considered the acme of flying boat technology. The initial six had a range of 3,500 miles with fuel capacity of 4,200 gallons and the second group of six could travel 5,200 miles with 5,400 gallons, both variants far exceeding the range of other aircraft of the day. Travel on the clippers was strictly deluxe, with ticket prices comparable to Concorde’s and meals catered by top-notch hotels.

The B-314 model on my desk, in the same 1:200 scale as the B-17 and B-747, is also of NC-18602. The “Fly to South Sea Isles” poster is a high quality limited edition reproduction of a 1930s Pan Am poster that was made about twenty years ago [some weeks after writing this, I found my Hansa Editions print was actually produced thirty years ago]. An original copy of the 1938 George Lawler poster – not the original painting, just a poster – recently sold for US$20,000 at auction, where the listing read:

One of the most iconic and desirable of all the early Pan Am flying boat posters, this image of the Boeing 314 Flying Clipper landing in a tropical lagoon captured, and continues to capture, the imagination of travelers. The location shown on the poster is an imaginary composite of several renowned bays throughout the South Pacific. It has been speculated that the view is Tahiti, Pago Pago and/or Diamond Head, however, the physical characteristics depicted do not coincide with the actual geography of any of these islands. Lawler most likely worked from photographs to derive a fantasy collage of a location infused with realistic details from various islands. It is rare to find this poster with text. We have found only two other examples at auction.

Edited to add: After I included this auction description, I did some research because the mountains in the poster seemed awfully familiar to me, and I now think Lawler had a specific place in mind when he designed that poster. The details here: https://finleyquality.net/flying-to-a-specific-south-sea-isle/

The tail end of the gallery shows in detail some of the photos and items on display. I had 16×20 prints made of the three high resolution Apollo photographs – done beautifully by Shutterfly and Snapfish, I’ll add. Of the three drawings of mine on the wall, just one, the woman holding a newborn Bengal kitten, is my original pencil drawing – the other two are from high resolution scans I made before presenting the original drawings to their subjects.

Click on any image to enter the gallery, and from there you can view a 1920-wide version of any photo by clicking this at the lower right (you may need to scroll down to see it):


“Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.”

I just ordered this 2007 book, which I didn’t know about until today:


It’s out-of-print and no longer available at the Golden Gate Bridge store, but I found a “like new” copy on AbeBooks and it’s still available from some on Amazon.

The book builds off of the original Report of the Chief Engineer, 1937, by Joseph B. Strauss (which is no longer sold), and relates the many technical, political, and financial challenges encountered in the late 1940s through the turn of the 21st century. Chronicling the many successful actions taken to maintain the Bridge’s ability to serve as a transportation link well into the future, the book provides insights into the most crucial engineering and design challenges met since the Bridge opened 70 years ago. This is a historical record of the leading role the structure has played in the investigation of long span suspension bridge behavior, in the development of modern design theories, in the application of modern bridge maintenance methods, and in the development of innovative traffic management methodologies. The Bridge has been the scene of many firsts, which are detailed in this volume. Stellar examples of this include the first-ever total replacement of the vertical suspender ropes on a suspension bridge undertaken in the 1970s, and the successful replacement of the entire Bridge roadway in the 1980s.

I have a slice of one of the original vertical roadway suspension cables mentioned above.


I’m sure this book will be a fascinating companion to the first volume, published in 1937 some months after the bridge opened. I have an ex-library copy of the original book and it’s quite a read, with dozens of photographs of all phases of construction and several fold-out engineering drawings.

Joseph Strauss's introductory letter from the first volume published in 1937

Joseph Strauss’s introductory letter from the first volume published in 1937

Just this year, the Internet Archive scanned the 1937 volume and you can get it here. Unfortunately, it seems a lot of the fold-out plates such as the one below were missing from their copy. The only thing missing from mine – it was roughly torn out – is the fold-out colour painting that appears in their PDF at the front of the book.


I took these photos of my favourite bridge in the world in 2002. I produced the panorama just now from three crusty old Kodak DC-280 photos – a paltry 2 megapixels each – with the beautifully free and high-quality Hugin. It finds all the matching points and you hardly have to lift a finger. You can click on these to view a larger size.

DCP_1229 - DCP_1231

I use this one for my phone’s home screen wallpaper:


Just several weeks ago, something was done about the one unfortunate characteristic of the bridge: Now, finally, a suicide barrier is to be constructed.