The Bay Bridge’s 1936 Opening Was Four Days of Non-Stop Drama

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A black and white image of the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge, taken at dusk.
The newly completed Bay Bridge before it opened, lit up with '8 million lumens of sodium lighting — more than 35 full moons' according to an 'Oakland Tribune' article from the time.

Picture it. The Bay Area. November 1936. The first of the region’s two major bridges just got finished. The world is starting to feel smaller. Your brain is struggling to keep up with all of the feats of engineering going on in your midst, and the future feels closer than ever. What do you do?

You write a poem, that's what.

I’m not kidding. The opening of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge inspired a lot of poetry. A lot of really bad poetry.

Here’s one the Sacramento Bee saw fit to publish on Nov. 12 — the same day the Bay Bridge first opened to traffic:

I like a bridge —
It cries ‘Come on,
I’ll take you there from here and here and from there
And save you time and toll.’

I like a bridge —
It breathes romance;
‘There's new adventure on the further side
And I will help you cross.’

I like a bridge —
It makes me think
That when a worry comes, my mind will find
Somewhere a friendly bridge.

No, I don’t know either.


A less bad poem by Jack Burroughs also made it into the Oakland Tribune that week:

We’ve watched you grow from a buttress low
To a towering spread of steel
Your form arose with hammer blows
And the turn of the spinner’s wheel.

Now you stand complete and our eyes you greet
With the fruit of a thousand thoughts
A span flung wide from the Oakland side
To the Port of the Argonauts.

We have seen you write of a victor’s might
Of a battle fought and won.
You’ve spanned the Bay and you seem to say:
‘I'm the link that makes you one!’

Certainly, poetry was the chosen medium in which to feel overwrought that month. Schoolchildren in Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda and Piedmont were all given assignments to write poems  about the brand new bridge. Even Grant D. Miller, Alameda County’s coroner (the actual coroner!) felt the need to share some rhyming words of wisdom about “this modern miracle ... the Bay Bridge.”

In a large newspaper ad, Miller shared:

The bridge that links the cities
is gleaming in the sun,
Its towers capped and saddled,
its massive cables spun.

Nice one, Grant.

Looking back, you kind of can’t blame everyone for temporarily lapsing into overly dramatic fugue states. Everything about the Bay Bridge was almost unfathomably huge. The construction had cost $77 million (which was actually under budget). It had taken three years, 152,000 tons of steel, 30,000 tons of reinforcing steel, 70,815 miles of cable wire, 1 million cubic yards of concrete, 1.3 million barrels of cement, 200,000 gallons of paint, 30 million feet of boards and 55 million man hours to complete. Hell, PG&E had to lay a 25,000-foot long underwater power cable before the work could even start.

The bridge’s completion also felt a little miraculous, given how unfinished it had looked just months before the opening.

The Bay Bridge's towers and cables stand in the Bay, but have no roadways.
This is what the Bay Bridge looked like at the start of 1936. Literally nowhere to put cars. (OpenSFHistory / wnp14.4782)

This is what the San Francisco side (specifically Perry, near Fourth St.) looked like in September 1935:

A very rickety-looking construction of wooden boards to make up a section of bridge.
The Bay Bridge 14 months before opening, looking like a backyard treehouse with lofty ambitions. (OpenSFHistory / wnp14.3350)

Here’s the Eastern cantilever section that same year:

An unfinished bridge stretches out into open waters.
Evel Knievel could've done something really cool with this. (OpenSFHistory / wnp27.3599)

On top of that, folks were also in a tizzy about the small matter of San Francisco and Oakland suddenly being indelibly connected. At one point, the San Francisco Examiner pondered whether “this new metropolitan area, knit into a single unit” would be called “San Fran-Oakland” or “Oak-Francisco.” (We owe a debt of gratitude to the 1930s humans who refused to allow these terms to catch on.)

Needless to say, when the work on the bridge was finally finished, the entire region celebrated in a variety of consistently over-the-top ways. After the poetry had been penned, then came the parades. The first one, on Nov. 11, took over 30 blocks of downtown Oakland.

A hand drawn map of downtown Oakland and Lake Merritt with arrows depicting a parade route.
The Armistice Day parade route, as seen in 'The Oakland Tribune' on Nov. 9, 1936. It was the largest parade in Oakland's history. ( Oakland Tribune)

The Armistice Day party was meant to honor the lives of those lost in World War I, while also marveling at the possibilities for the future that were symbolized by the Bay Bridge.

The Armistice Day parade moving along Broadway in Oakland, Nov. 11, 1936. (MediaNews Group/Oakland Tribune via Getty Images)

Holding the largest parade in Oakland history apparently didn’t feel quite big enough because, that day, there was also a luncheon, a military pageant, a football game, a ball and fireworks. All of which, believe it or not, was merely the opening act for the actual bridge opening on Nov. 12. Which was, as you may have guessed by now, completely bonkers.

The day started with Franklin D. Roosevelt hitting a little button in the Oval Office, which turned on traffic signals on the bridge. This activation of the lights was a more measured gesture to Northern California than the one FDR had offered at the beginning of Bay Bridge construction. That time, the little button on his desk set off a dynamite explosion on Yerba Buena Island.

One can only assume that this is how people showed off before the internet existed.

A distinguished older man sits at his desk about to press down on a device that resembles a morse code machine.
FDR, very casually messing with our traffic lights. (Getty Images/ Bettmann)

Once those lights were on, cars could begin crossing. Truly, the Bay Bridge started as it continues to this day — with way, way too much traffic.

Cars lined up as far as the eye can see, in eight lanes.
Cars line up at the toll plaza to be some of the first to cross the Bay Bridge. (Digital First Media Group/Oakland Tribune via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, there was a bridge dedication on both sides of the Bay, while an Army and Navy air show roared overhead. In the bay, there was a regatta, as well as races involving fishing boats, a merchant life boat, the Sea Scouts and rowing clubs. There were demonstrations by the Coast Guard and the fire-boat service. San Francisco also held swimming and diving competitions at Aquatic Park, and the day culminated in firework displays at either end of the bridge. So, bedlam basically.

There was so much going on at the same time, one radio journalist decided that the easiest way to see it all was by climbing 400 feet to the top of the Bay Bridge’s tower and reporting from there. He stayed up there all day despite objections from his editor that his script might get blown away. (Journalists, amiright?)

Those of you accustomed to forking over $7 each time you cross might be interested to hear what then-Governor Frank Finley Merriam declared at the opening. “This bridge belongs to the generation,” he said. “We built it and we shall pay for it. But in a broader sense it belongs to the generations that are to come. When the youths of today became the citizens of tomorrow, they will use it without cost.”

Sure, Frank. Sure.

The Bay Bridge Dedication Pageant parade marched down Market St. on Nov. 13, 1936, between decorations that resembled the new bridge. (OpenSFHistory / wnp14.12323)

Things didn't get any less dramatic on Day Three. A parade dominated downtown San Francisco from the Ferry Building to Civic Center. Per a report that week from the San Francisco Examiner, the floats —“a type finer than any which have been shown hereabouts in the past” — depicted “the past, present and future of the Metropolitan Bay Area.”

A float carrying a replica of San Francisco's city hall, plus the new Bay Bridge rolls past spectators.
Nov 13, 1936:
The Bay Bridge Dedication Pageant parade, featuring here a 'Flying A' gasoline float. (OpenSFHistory / wnp14.4476)

The parade also, weirdly, facilitated the first horse crossing on the Bay Bridge. The horse in question was named Sundown, he was owned by California Highway patrolman Mark Freitas, and the two were traveling to San Francisco to take part in the pageantry.

A black horse stands in an open top cart being towed by a classic 1930s car.
Sundown on the Bay Bridge. (Digital First Media Group/Oakland Tribune via Getty Images)

Sundown, the futuristic floats, marching bands, a 150-foot-long dragon from Chinatown and hordes of dancing girls made their way down Market St., in what the Examiner described as “a kaleidoscopic procession of gaiety.” They were surrounded on all sides by “miles of garlands and miles of painted canvas, hundreds of immense colored pylons and replicas of bridges, all designed to form a perfect picture of the spirit of the fiesta.”

Fun fact: One of those bridge replicas wound up smashing through the window of a sporting goods shop a few days later. The Examiner reported that “heavy trolley wires and lamp standards were torn down in the crash. Traffic was disrupted more than an hour,” and had to be diverted to Mission St.

The parade caused a traffic jam of sorts too — a human one. “They were clustered on the heads of statuary at the Donahue monuments at Bush and Battery,” the Examiner reported. “They climbed on the precarious silver arch that linked the street decorations at the Palace Hotel, they clung to dizzy cornices of the buildings, and in window embrasures, showering snow storms of paper upon the marching throngs. Perspiring police threw up their hands as time and again the cheering spectators broke through into the line of march.”


After a final burst of revelry on the 14th, the party was over. The Oakland Tribune called the bridge opening “the greatest event in the history of the Bay region.” The Examiner declared: “San Francisco has seen nothing like it. The Portola Festival, the homecoming of the troops from the World War, the spontaneous Mardi Gras of New Year’s Eve — roll them all in to one and they’d give but feeble whispers compared to yesterday’s mighty cheer.”