Golden Gate

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As I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge recently, the Marin hillsides of our Golden State were baked to a nice golden color. Gold references abound. Why exactly do we call the entrance to the greatest natural harbor on the West Coast the "Golden Gate?"

When I bring visitors to San Francisco for the first time and we reach the bridge, they exclaim, "But it's not gold, it's red!" And I explain, yes, the bridge is red because the manufactured steel came with a red undercoat. Everyone liked the red hues so much that the architects decided to paint the bridge International Orange. And anyway the Golden Gate is not alluding to the bridge but to the entrance to the bay.

So it must be then that "Golden Gate" is referencing these golden hills. Wrong: the reason that the hills turn yellow in the late summer is because most of the grassland vegetation is non-native. It is composed mostly of Eurasian annual grasses brought by the Spaniards. These plants grow quickly in the spring, flower, fruit, die and turn yellow. Originally there were mostly perennial bunch grasses growing in the hills and while they would've turned color, there would have been much more green when the Golden Gate was first named.

Okay then it must be that gold that was discovered in the foothills is the reason. Actually the name for the Golden Gate also precedes the discovery of gold in California. So even though the motto of our great state references the gold -- "Eureka. I found it!" -- the entrance to San Francisco Bay has nothing to do with this precious metal.

Col. John C Fremont, who led the infamous Bear Fag Rebellion which wrested California from Mexico, named it. He gazed at the narrow strait that separates the bay from the Pacific Ocean, and said, "It is a golden gate to trade with the Orient and I give this name for the same reasons that the harbor of Byzantium was called the Golden Horn."


So two of the great waterways of the world -- one in Istanbul and the other here -- are joined, at least metaphorically.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads trips throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.