A gathering of women who braved planes, ships, automobiles, fog, high winds and blowtorches to be some of the first humans to step foot on Golden Gate Bridge. May 1937. (Photographer Unknown/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
Grab the party hats, for it has been 85 years since San Francisco got its most famous landmark! Happy birthday, Golden Gate, you sexy little suspension bridge.
Weighing in at 887,000 tons and stretched out over a 1.7-mile span, it’s hard now to picture the Bay without this icon. Harder still is trying to picture the hullaballoo that erupted across San Francisco in honor of the bridge’s opening in 1937. And while most of us probably imagine a tasteful, dignified, glamour-drenched unveiling, like this…
…what actually happened in May 1937 more closely resembled sheer unbridled chaos. Picture, if you will, an entire region of humans doing The Absolute Most for four days straight. Then add fireworks and alcohol.
Here’s how the festivities rolled out.
Thursday, May 27: Pedestrian Day
Pedestrian Day was an opportunity for everyone and their mother (and father and dog)—an estimated 200,000 people in all—to amble across the bridge in whichever direction they fancied.
After paying a 25-cent toll, each of these people faced high winds, overhanging fog, the noise from 500 (500!) planes in the sky above, and 10 whole miles of warships passing underneath. (Specifically, nine battleships, three airplane carriers, 19 cruisers and six destroyers.) Did I mention that the warships had 40,000 officers and men on board? Yeah. There was a lot going on here.
Some of the earliest bridge crossers included:
A 35-year-old man named Milton Pilhasky, who spent two hours rolling a pill box across the bridge to Marin—with his nose.
Thankfully, someone had the good sense (and expensive technology on hand) to film Pedestrian Day. Extra props must be awarded to the weird couple who casually walk backwards in front of the camera, 20 seconds in. (What are they doing?!)
Anyone with the stamina stuck around for a massive fireworks display at 10pm.
Friday, May 28: (Clown) Car Day
Before any cars could cross, miles of them had to sit patiently in line, waiting for a series of increasingly surreal things to happen. First, at least seven different white men made speeches. (There were so many, even the reports at the time had a hard time keeping track of them all.)
Then, once all the yapping was over, instead of a ceremonial ribbon cutting, three fancy fellows—Mayor Angelo Rossi, Santa Rosa banker Frank P. Doyle, and president of the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District, William P. Filmer—attacked some chains with fire.
Standing at various points on the bridge, each gent donned goggles and burned through silver, gold and copper chains using blow torches. Because apparently, after 20 years of planning and four years of construction, dragging this out for 10 extra minutes seemed like the thing to do.
Once the torching was done, it was time to let the cars on. Just kidding! It was time for a logging competition! Because nothing says bridge opening like three dudes in a competitive sawing race!
The men, from Eureka, Washington and Idaho, went bicep-to-bicep to see who could saw through a 36-inch-diameter Redwood tree the fastest.
The winner was Washington’s Paul Serles, a “champion woodsman” who got through the tree trunk in just over two minutes and 47 seconds. (I can only hope someone let Paul blowtorch at least one chain to celebrate.)
Then it was car time. Still just kidding! Following the log thing came what the Examiner referred to as a “dazzling galaxy of California girls, grouped across the bridge at the San Francisco portal.” K.
The newspaper went on:
In their center, arrayed in a regal gown of shimmering gold, stood Queen Vivian Sorenson, gracious ruler of the Fiesta, her ladies and county queens attending—at her back a diadem of California poppies. Mantillas and satin ruffles defied the approaching cavalcade of official cars.
After Queen Viv had done her thing, it was finally—finally!—time to let some cars cross. Enter Mrs. Ethyl Olsen of Balboa Park, in what I have to presume was a clown car, given that her vehicle also contained her husband, her father, her sister-in-law and four children. (I can’t tell if this was possible because cars were bigger back then, or because humans were smaller…)
Driving in the opposite direction from Marin was a district engineer who’d almost died working on the bridge after falling “from the high approach viaduct” seven months earlier. (A total of 11 men in similar accidents did not live to see their bridge open.) “This is something I never thought I’d do,” Dean Kinter told the Examiner. “I got banged up some in that fall, but golly it was worth it.”
Was it Dean? Was it really?
Now, you might be thinking to yourself, ‘OK. The bridge is open now. That’s it, right? We’re done?’ Not even close.
May 28–30: The Fiesta
It is hard to briefly sum up everything that happened at the Fiesta, because “the Fiesta” was the umbrella term used for about 4,000 different things that happened over a span of an entire week around the Marina and Crissy Field. That being said, I’m going to do my best to present A List of Things That Happened During The Fiesta That First Weekend. (Get ready, because it’s a lot.)
1. A huge goddamn parade from Van Ness and Union to Crissy Field, including:
3,000 members of the San Francisco School Traffic Patrol (whatever that was)
Too many marching bands to count
Thousands of soldiers, sailors and marines
Dancing ladies in flowing gowns
Weird-ass floats like this one:
2. Sports, including:
A yachting regatta
A Navy internship baseball championship
A bowling tournament
A handball tournament
A tennis tournament
A soccer championship
A horseshoe-pitching tournament
Who the hell had the energy for all this? Hard to say! What did any of this have to do with a bridge opening? Outside of the boat stuff, absolutely nothing! (We see you, horseshoe people, and we know you probably tacked yourselves onto this thing at the last minute…)
3. Parties of questionable fun levels, including:
The Scandinavians of the Bay District Grand Ball, featuring choirs and folk dancing
A fiesta luncheon for 200 officials, civic organizations and visiting dignitaries from Mexico and Canada
The Exposition-Fiesta Labor Ball in the Civic Auditorium (preceded by a pageant, naturally)
A manufacturers’ expo at the Dreamland Auditorium
The “Frontier Days Wild West Show” (oh dear)
Fiesta costume ball and “coronation of queens” (emphasis on the plural—no word on how bridge queen Vivian Sorenson took this development…)
All of which probably involved yodeling at some point thanks to the official song of the whole weekend, “There’s a Silver Moon on the Golden Gate.” Which sounded like this:
Decidedly not a banger.
4. “The Worst Marina-Presidio Traffic Jam in History”
That’s what the Examiner called it on Sunday morning, after thousands of cars tried to attend Saturday’s 8pm fireworks display. Even drivers attempting to get to Crissy Field three hours early didn’t make it on time—or at all.
“San Franciscans last night tried to drive thousands of automobiles through streets built to accommodate hundreds,” the newspaper reported. “Automobiles temporarily were abandoned. Many were double parked and locked—further narrowing the too-narrow traffic arteries … Street cars were jammed fender to fender along Van Ness Avenue and the side streets leading toward the Presidio. Harassed police fought traffic until they were tired and hoarse and had to admit it was an impossible job.”
People were still trying to get their cars out of there at midnight.
Those drivers weren’t the only ones to get into trouble. By the end of the weekend, hundreds of people had spent the night in the drunk tank, a mini riot had broken out between 62 police officers and firecracker-armed revelers in Polk Gulch, and the bridge had acquired its very first drunk driver.
All of which suggests 1937 San Francisco wasn’t so different to San Francisco now.
Many happy returns, Golden Gate Bridge!
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