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The Golden Gate Bridge is the iconic symbol of San Francisco, instantly recognizable the world over. This much-photographed suspension bridge spans the two-kilometer strait between San Francisco and Marin County at the opening of San Francisco Bay. Explorer John Fremont named the strait “the Golden Gate” in 1846. It reminded him of the Golden Horn in Turkey, which separates Europe and Asia at the entrance to Istanbul harbor.
With a main span of 1,280 meters, a total length of 2,737 meters, and towers 227 meters tall, the Golden Gate Bridge was the longest and tallest suspension bridge in the world when it opened in 1937. Although the bridge met a clear need for road access to San Francisco, overcoming the many impediments to its construction took over ten years. The Navy insisted that a bridge would interfere with strategically important ship traffic. Local union officials demanded assurances that their members would get the construction jobs. And the Southern Pacific Railroad repeatedly tied up the project with litigation. They were perhaps understandably reluctant to give up the monopoly their ferry boats had on the main passenger and automobile transportation to the city. A mass ferry boycott helped to overcome that hurdle. By the time all the approvals were in place it was 1932. The $35 million cost had to be funded with bonds, which proved impossible to sell in a depression. A. P. Giannini, who founded and still ran the Bank of America in San Francisco, finally agreed to buy all the bonds.
An average of 118,000 drivers a day cross the bridge, paying a toll in the southbound direction. Pedestrians and bicyclists don’t have to pay anything to enjoy wonderful views (at least on fog-free days) from 75 meters above the Golden Gate. But the height and easy pedestrian access give the bridge the dubious distinction as the most popular suicide spot in the United States. Jumpers have been known to travel to San Francisco from around the country. (No, I’m not aware of any tour operators offering special discount packages.) Despite regular police patrols looking for suicides, someone plunges to their death about once every two weeks. Officials have installed phones that connect to a crisis hotline, with signs urging jumpers to “make the call” and specifically reminding them that “the consequences of jumping from this bridge are fatal and tragic.” But I really question the deterrent value of that warning.
Officials in Los Angeles dealt with the suicide problem on the similar Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro by installing a fence and banning all pedestrians. But there seems to be little support for such a drastic solution in San Francisco. A barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge would spoil the world-famous aesthetics, and could cause stability problems in much windier Northern California. In October 2008, the bridge district directors voted to spend up to $50 million for a net under the bridge that will extend six meters on each side. Given the need for extensive environmental impact studies, along with uncertainty about raising the money and the inevitable lawsuits, it’s impossible to know when (or if) the net will actually be in place.
The Spanish first recognized the strategic importance of the Golden
Gate in 1776, when they established a fort (presidio). Under
American control, the Presidio expanded and became an important Army
base. After California became a state in 1850, the Army built
forts to secure the bay, including those on
Alcatraz Island and Fort
Point at the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge (it’s now a museum).
During the Civil War, the Army built cannon batteries around the
Presidio to defend against a Confederate invasion that never arrived.
The batteries and earthwork fortifications are visible from a network of
trails. The Presidio was a training facility during World War I, World
War II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Following a gradual decline
after the Cold War, the Presidio became part of the Golden Gate National
Recreation Area under the National Park Service in 1994. On weekends,
the Golden Gate Promenade along the Presidio’s beach is a popular place
for people and dogs to enjoy their “walkies.”
San Francisco’s cable cars surely rank alongside the Golden Gate Bridge as instantly recognizable icons. Cable cars have no motors or power of their own; they grip a moving underground cable pulled by large engines in a central “car barn.” Their introduction in 1873 was a technological breakthrough that provided access to hills too steep for horses and carriages. That opened up areas of the city to real estate development that was previously impractical. Privately-owned cable car lines proliferated until the 1906 earthquake destroyed most of the cars and their infrastructure (along with most of San Francisco). Electric streetcars were available by then, and their lower cost made them a better choice for rebuilding the city’s transit system. But the cable cars’ ability to negotiate hills gave a few of them a reprieve in areas too steep for streetcars.
By 1947 buses could climb hills easily, so the mayor proposed doing away with the remaining cable cars as a cost-cutting measure. But several women’s civic groups successfully fought that plan, and through a voter referendum forced the city to continue operating the cable cars. The 1906 infrastructure became unsafe in 1979, requiring the cable cars to shut down for seven months of overhaul. The system was completely rebuilt between 1982 and 1984.
Today the three cable car lines are the only moving National Historic Landmark. They’re primarily a tourist attraction, as buses and streetcars on the same routes are more practical for quotidian transportation. Visitors can hop on the cars anywhere along their route— if there isn’t room to sit or stand inside the often-crowded cars they can “hang” outside on the poles provided for that purpose. Transfers from buses aren’t valid on cable cars; you’ll need to buy a separate ticket (but the one-day, three-day, or weekly “Muni Passport” for visitors includes unlimited use of the cable cars). Cable cars can only travel one way, so at the end of each line the “grip” (who otherwise drives the cable car) and the conductor (who otherwise collects fares) push a turntable to reverse the car’s direction. The turntables provide a good place to view and photograph the cable cars, but the crowds may mean a long wait to board one.
The San Francisco Municipal Railway— Muni for short— is the
city department that operates the cable cars, as well as the more
numerous (but less photogenic) buses and streetcars that provide easy
access to everywhere in the city. Many of the buses are electrically
powered, with signs proclaiming ZERO EMISSION VEHICLE to
ecologically-conscious San Franciscans. But Muni has another moving
museum in the “F” streetcar line that runs along the Embarcadero. Most
of the cars are historic “PCC” trolleys built in the 1920s and 1930s.
They’re painted in the liveries of various transit systems that used PCC
cars. This one is decked out as a Pacific Electric “red car” that
provided mass transit in Southern California in the days before the
automobile completely transformed Los Angeles.
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