By Lincoln Cushing
The Golden Gate Bridge, which opened May 27, 1937, is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year with a myriad of community events around the Bay Area. The iconic Golden Gate span that connected San Francisco to Marin County and the North Bay area has been called the “most photographed bridge in the world” and from the vantage point of history it is an architectural and engineering marvel.
As the largest and most enduring locally based health plan, Kaiser Permanente shares space in mid-century Bay Area history with the bridge. From its beginnings as a public plan in the East Bay in 1945, Kaiser Permanente quickly spread to San Francisco in 1946 and crossed the bridge to San Rafael in Marin County in 1958.
KP is a sponsor of “Bridging Us All,” a free community event on Sunday, May 27, seeking to honor this amazing landmark in a way that reflects the “ingenuity, inclusiveness, and creativity of the entire San Francisco Bay Area.” For details of the festival: http://goldengatebridge75.org
When the Golden Gate and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridges were planned, San Francisco was the largest American city still served primarily by ferry boats. The project was controversial, the technical challenges were mighty, and the stakes were high. Just the sort of project one would expect Henry J. Kaiser to step in to.
Did Henry Kaiser’s companies work on the Golden Gate?
Henry J. Kaiser was a man of indomitable spirit and energy, considered one of “America’s boldest, most spectacular entrepreneurs.” By the mid-1940s he helped build the Hoover (Colorado River, Nevada/Arizona) and Grand Coulee (Columbia River, Washington) dams, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, and over 700 ships during World War II. But did he ever contract to work on the iconic Golden Gate Bridge?
The answer is yes . . . and no, and reveals some interesting aspects of the enormous construction boom of the mid 1930s.
At approximately the same time as the Golden Gate project was getting underway, the American West was experiencing a frenzy of public infrastructure projects that we are still benefitting from today. To name a just a few, tax dollars were building the San Gabriel Dam #1 (“the world’s largest rock fill dam”), the Grand Coulee Dam, Hoover Dam, Bonneville Dam, Hetch Hetchy Dam (San Francisco’s water source), the Colorado River Aqueduct, the “highest voltage transmission line in the world” (on the line from Boulder Dam to Los Angeles), and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
During that period Kaiser Companies construction entities often operated in short-term partnerships, a common practice to ensure that necessary resources and skill specialties could be applied to a large and complex project. Boulder Dam (later called Hoover Dam) project was built by the “Six Companies” (although always called that, the number grew to eight). These were Utah Construction Company, Morrison-Knudsen, Pacific Bridge Company, J. F. Shea, McDonald and Kahn, Bechtel Company, Henry J. Kaiser Company, and Warren Brothers Company.
In 1931 Henry J. Kaiser assembled Bridge Builders, Inc., as a consortium when contracts were being posted for the two huge bridge projects in San Francisco Bay.
Kaiser gets contract to build substructure for the Bay Bridge
One of the main authoritative sources describing the vast scope of Kaiser Industries and construction companies is Alma Lindbergh’s succinctly named “History,” an unpublished two-volume record of all Kaiser projects and businesses through 1934. Lindbergh’s document describes two projects under “Bridge Builders, Inc.,” both for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge – the contract to build the East Bay Substructure (the 21 piers between Yerba Buena Island and the Oakland shoreline, completed 12/24/1934) and painting the bridge (completed 1/11/1934).
The East Bay Substructure was no simple task, and included digging E-3, “the deepest pier known to man,” located 1,400 feet west of Yerba Buena Island and embedded 242 feet below the surface of the bay.
“History” includes details such as the 143,000 tons of paint used to protect the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge under “Painting Contract number 9” and how many coats (“West Bay Towers – last 2 coats; Cables & Accessories – paste on cables, 4 coats of paint on balance; West Bay Spans – last three coats; East Bay Spans – last three coats”).
The partners and partnership involvement of “Bridge Builders, Inc.,” for the Bay Bridge project were:
Henry Kaiser’s group withdraws from Golden Gate project
We know that in 1932 Bridge Builders bid against former Six Companies ally Pacific Bridge Company for work on the Golden Gate Bridge. Pacific Bridge won the larger substructure contract, but Bridge Builders got the approach work.
Bridge Builders, Inc., a syndicate of contractors, bid low on anchorages with $1,859,854. The bid was contingent on the syndicate receiving awards of the other features of the project and was withdrawn. Barrett & Hilp, San Francisco, with a bid of the same figure, was given the contract. Other awards [included] San Francisco and Marian [sic, “Marin”] county approach spans, Bridge Builders, Inc., $934,800.
– “San Francisco Span Contracts Awarded,” The Bulletin (San Francisco) November 4, 1932
One would assume that a prestigious project such as the iconic Golden Gate Bridge would be recorded in Lindbergh’s “History,” but it is not. The reason was revealed in this small article in a local paper:
Bridge Builders, Inc., of San Francisco[was awarded the contract for] the steel superstructures for the San Francisco and Sausalito approaches, $934,800. The company has asked to assign this contract to one of its partners in the undertaking, the Raymond Concrete Pile Co.
– “S.F. Firms Win Big Contracts Largest Job, Construction of Superstructure Awarded on $10,494,000 Bid,” San Francisco News, 2/23/1933
So there we have it. Kaiser Construction, as part of Bridge Builders, Inc., did bid on part of the Golden Gate Bridge construction, and was awarded a contract – but pulled out, and relinquished the work to one of its partners. The likeliest reason is that Kaiser Construction realized it far had too much on its plate with multiple other construction commitments.
Further evidence comes from a full page ad in the July, 1934 trade publication Western Construction News. It announces “FOR SALE – The entire construction plant & equipment of Bridge Builders, Inc.”
But before then Kaiser Industries, in various capacities, maintained a distinguished performance in significant Bay Area construction projects. Those included the Caldecott Tunnel east of Oakland, the distinctive San Francisco Transamerica Pyramid office building, and Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), but as we now know, it passed on the most iconic regional structure of all.
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