Today in History

Today in History: May 27

Opening of the Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge,
Photograph 43: General View, Looking North, Showing the 'Bay' Side of the Structure,
San Francisco, California,
Jet Lowe, photographer, 1984.
Built in America: HABS/HAER, 1933-Present

On May 27, 1937, San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge was opened to the public for the first time for "Pedestrian Day," marking the start of the weeklong "Golden Gate Bridge Fiesta" held to celebrate its completion. More than 200,000 people paid twenty-five cents each to walk the bridge. The following day at noon President Franklin Roosevelt, from across the continent at the White House, pressed a telegraph key and the Golden Gate Bridge was officially opened for vehicular use. A compilation of raw film footage (external link) of both day's events is available as part of the Prelinger Archive (external link), acquired by the Library of Congress in 2002.

Completed just six months after its neighbor, the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge is painted a striking hue (external link) known as international orange, a reddish color that was chosen to compliment the bridge's natural surroundings. Like the George Washington, Brooklyn, and Williamsburg bridges in New York City, the Golden Gate is a suspension bridge, held up by massive steel cables strung between towers. Its central span, at 4,200 feet, remained the longest in the world until 1964 when the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, also in New York, was completed. (As of 2007, the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge in Japan, at 1,991 meters—about 6,532 feet—has the longest single span of any suspension bridge.)

The area known as the Golden Gate is the narrow channel formed at the mouth of San Francisco Bay, where a gap in the line of low mountains opens to meet the Pacific Ocean. Although topographical engineer John C. Frémont first named these rocky straights the "Chrysopylae or Golden Gate" in his report to Congress in 1848, evidence suggests that the term was in use at least a few years earlier. Fremont's designation, which also appeared on his accompanying map of the region, caught the popular imagination when gold was discovered in California soon after.

View of San Francisco
Birdseye View of San Francisco and Surrounding Country,
G. H. Goddard, perspective map, 1876.
Map Collections

The idea of bridging the mile-wide Golden Gate channel was proposed as early as the 1870s, but it was not until the San Francisco Call Bulletin began an editorial campaign in 1916 that the plan received popular backing. Rocky terrain and difficult weather conditions made the task appear impossible. Following feasibility studies, however, in 1923 the California legislature passed the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District Act; the District itself was formed six years later. Voters, despite financial uncertainty following the 1929 stock market crash, approved a $35 million construction bond in November 1930.

Bridge designer Joseph Baermann Strauss, a long-time advocate for the project, was selected as the Golden Gate's chief engineer. Important design contributions were made by engineers Charles Ellis and Leon Moissieff and by architect Irving Foster Morrow. Construction began on January 15, 1933. Strauss instituted unprecedented safety measures including an early version of the hard hat and a safety net that stretched end-to-end under the bridge. While eleven workers died during the course of the project, nineteen others whose falls were broken by the net became known as the "Half-Way-to-Hell Club."

Detail View Showing Connection of Suspender to Floorbeam
Golden Gate Bridge,
Photograph 34: Detail View Showing Connection of Suspender to Floorbeam, San Francisco, California,
Jet Lowe, photographer, 1984.
Built in America: HABS/HAER, 1933-Present

The Golden Gate Bridge links San Francisco to the south with Marin County to the north. It connects a host of natural wonders ranging from Seal Rock to Mt. Tamalpais and the Muir Woods old growth forest; and to architectural achievements from San Francisco's early modern Hallidie Building to Marin County's Civic Center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Like New York Harbor's Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge has become an icon for San Francisco. In May 1987, to celebrate the bridge's fiftieth anniversary, some 300,000 individuals walked the bridge in an event dubbed "Bridgewalk '87." Two years later, on October 17, 1989, the gracefully suspended bridge withstood the 7.1-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake without incident.

Wild Bill Hickok

Deadwood
Deadwood, South Dakota, copyright 1900.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America, 1880-1920

Frontiersman, lawman, army scout, gambler, and legendary marksman James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok was born on May 27, 1837, in Troy Grove, Illinois.

As a youth, Hickok became acquainted with the risks incurred by those willing to take a stand against slavery. His father frequently assisted escaped slaves as they made their way north through Illinois and young Hickok joined in the adventure. Hickok left home in 1856, moved to Kansas to farm, and became involved in the Free State movement.

In July 1861, near the outset of the Civil War, Hickok crossed paths with Southern sympathizer David McCanles at Rock Creek, Nebraska Territory. In a 1938 American Life Histories, 1936-1940 interview conducted in Wilbur, Nebraska, the Hickok-McCanles encounter was recounted by F. J. Elliot (based on an earlier 1882 history of the event). As Elliot told the tale, McCanles "came to Wild Bill and tried to persuade him to join" a company he was raising to assist the South. He also tried to force Hickok to turn over the stock he was tending for his employer, the Ben Holiday State Company at Rock Creek station. "On [Hickok's] refusal," Elliot continued:

McCanles threatened to kill him and take the stock. That afternoon McCanles returned with three other men and started to enter the house. Wild Bill shot him. Two of the other men were killed, one got away. At Wild Bill's trial, which was held in Beatrice, no one appeared against him. His plea was self-defence [sic] and he was cleared.

"F. J. Elliott," Wilbur, Nebraska,
George Hartman, interviewer, November 26, 1938, 2.
American Life Histories, 1936-1940

His reputation as a marksman was assured after the McCanles incident, but Hickok remained loyal to the North, working as a teamster, scout, and spy for the Union.

Hickok next held a number of positions in law enforcement: as village constable in Monticello, Kansas; a deputy U.S. marshal; sheriff of Hays City (1869); and marshal of Abilene (1871).

"Wild Bill" Hickok was shot and killed by a drunken stranger at a poker table in Nuttall & Mann's Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood on August 2, 1876. Hickok had come to the Black Hills to explore the gold fields there, leaving his wife in Cincinnati. The story of his death is recounted in American Life Histories, 1936-1940 interview, "Ed Grantham."

Buffalo Bill's parade
Buffalo Bill's Wild West Parade,
American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, photographed April 1, 1901.
The Life of a City: Early Films of New York, 1898-1906

  • After Abilene, Hickock travelled with William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody and his company from 1873-74. After Cody created his touring Buffalo Bill's Wild West show in 1883, other actors played Hickok in stage roles for the show. While Hickock did not live to see the dawn of the film industry, members of the show's cast did and were recorded by Edison and Biograph company cameramen. A search on Buffalo Bill in the Motion Picture collections features elements of Bill Cody's Wild West show including Native American Indian dancers, in scenes that constitute the American Indian's first appearance before a motion-picture camera.
  • A search on Bill Cody in History of the American West 1860-1920 yields 100 photographs.
  • To read more stories about the legendary Hickok, search on Wild Bill Hickok in American Life Histories, 1936-1940.
  • See the Today in History feature on author Owen Wister whose novel The Virginian helped establish the American cowboy as a mythic and heroic figure. Search the Today in History Archive on cowboy for additional features.
  • The collection Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945-1982 provides a look at U.S. cattle ranching and its traditions. See the Special Presentation Buckaroo: Views of a Western Way of Life, an essay by Howard W. Marshall, to learn more about the working life of the modern cowboy. Also, search on Native American or Paiute to find more about Northern Paiute Indians from the Fort McDermitt Reservation who have worked the ranch from its earliest days.