by Frank Dunnigan
Since the time of the California Gold Rush, local residents and government officials desired to have a direct transportation link between San Francisco and Oakland. It wasn’t until the late 1920s, however, that those dreams began to take shape.
In 1929, well after automobiles had become increasingly present on local roadways, the State of California established the California Toll Bridge Authority to build a bridge between San Francisco and Alameda County. By 1931, Governor James Rolph, Jr. (aka: “Sunny Jim” who was Mayor of San Francisco from 1912 until 1931) authorized the use of revenue bonds to finance the building of State bridges, with future toll income earmarked for the repayment of such bonds.
Land was acquired for the approaches, and Congress authorized the use of Yerba Buena Island, which was a United States Navy property at the time. Beginning in the summer of 1931, Pacific Telephone and Telegraph, then headquartered in San Francisco, began to relocate underwater telephone cables that were located in the construction area of the proposed bridge.
Ground breaking took place on July 9, 1933 at the Admiral’s Residence on Yerba Buena Island. Former United States President Herbert Hoover (who had been replaced by FDR just a few months earlier as a result of the 1932 election) was present, along with Governor Rolph, San Francisco Mayor Angelo Rossi, plus a crowd of dignitaries, local residents, and a military marching band. NOTE: The site of the ceremony, the Admiral’s Residence, still exists on the island, and holds an interesting historical footnote related to the Bay Bridge that took place 65 years later in 1998. Read more about it in this California Sun article. Once the ground breaking ceremonies were complete, work commenced on what was to be a three-and-one-half-year project that would transform the entire Bay Area.
Military band playing on Yerba Buena Island pier for Bay Bridge groundbreaking, July 9, 1933. (wnp14.10276;Courtesy of a Private Collector)
Invited guests arrived by Ferry at Yerba Buena Island July 9, 1933 for the official groundbreaking ceremony for the bridge, accompanied by a military marching band. It was an exciting time for civic officials and local residents, as the ground breaking for the Golden Gate Bridge had just taken place a few months earlier in February of 1933.
Bay Bridge construction and Yerba Buena Island, October 1934. (wnp27.3392; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
Most of the early work in 1933-34 involved building foundations beneath the surface of San Francisco Bay. By late 1934, the bridge towers began to emerge upon the skyline, allowing residents to follow construction progress on a daily basis. In this image, the easternmost tower of the western span near Yerba Buena Island was beginning to rise in October of 1934.
West Portal of Bay Bridge tunnel on Yerba Buena Island during construction, circa 1934. (wnp70.0710; J.K. Piggott, photographer – Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of Molly Blaisdell)
Construction of a tunnel through Yerba Buena Island is shown here in 1934. The tunnel itself took another full year to be completed.
Bay Bridge construction from Rincon Hill, 1934. (wnp14.12371; Ralph W. Demoro, photographer / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
San Francisco’s Rincon Hill, site of the bridge’s western anchorage and approach ramps, was a residential neighborhood prior to 1906, but became industrial following the Fire. In this 1934 image, most buildings had already been removed, save for these shacks which soon disappeared.
Bay Bridge construction near Beale and Bryant Streets, April 24, 1935. (wnp37.02166; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
By April of 1935, the remaining buildings had been cleared and construction was underway on the western anchorage for the bridge at Beale near Bryant Streets. Telephone Building and Call Building are seen at right.
Bay Bridge approach construction from Perry near 4th Street, September 1935. (wnp14.3350; Bill Eaton, SF Examiner, photographer / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
Later in 1935, on- and off-ramps for bridge traffic were under construction at the western anchorage. In this view looking east, the Schmidt Clock Tower is visible in distance.
View west from Yerba Buena Island at Bay Bridge construction, April 1935. (wnp37.02160; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
By April of 1935, the towers of the western span, along with its center anchorage, were nearing completion and ready for the support cables to be installed.
Bay Bridge construction and Yerba Buena Island, November 26, 1935. (wnp27.6074; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
At the time of this image on November 26, 1935, the cables were being installed on the western span, as the cantilever eastern span was nearing completion.
Night view of Bay Bridge construction, circa 1936. (wnp70.0707; J.K. Piggott, photographer – Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of Molly Blaisdell)
A dramatic nighttime shot before the roadway was installed. Lights on the cables were in place during construction, but did not remain when the bridge opened. They were reintroduced at the time of the bridge’s 50th anniversary celebration in 1986.
Bay Bridge construction, circa 1935. (wnp27.7181; J.K. Piggott, photographer / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
Soon after the cable work was completed on the suspension bridge western section, installation of the roadway commenced.
View of Bay Bridge construction from top of Tower 2, June 26, 1936. (wnp27.4658; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
On June 26, 1936—just four-and-one-half months before Opening Day, a worker on a girder near the top of Tower 2 at upper right inspected progress, as the roadway neared completion.
Bay Bridge approach on Rincon Hill, circa 1936. (wnp70.0733; Zan Stark, photographer – Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of Molly Blaisdell)
The San Francisco approach was nearing completion in late 1936. The original traffic plan was for three lanes in each direction for automobiles with three lanes of truck and bus traffic–with autos allowed–and rail service on the lower deck.
View of cantilever section of Bay Bridge nearing completion, circa 1936. (wnp14.12689; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
At the same time in late 1936, the eastern cantilever span from Yerba Buena Island to Oakland was nearly complete.
First cars across Bay Bridge on opening day, November 12, 1936. (wnp14.4474; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
Early on Opening Day for the Bay Bridge—November 12, 1936—before the crowds began to gather.
Bay Bridge opening day from offramp, November 12, 1936. (wnp14.4472; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
Just prior to the 12:30 p.m. Opening Day ceremonies, crowds gathered on the upper deck of the bridge and its approaches, as well as on the adjacent hillside.
Governor Frank Merriam being interviewed at Bay Bridge opening day, November 12, 1936. (wnp14.4464; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
A news reporter interviewed Governor Frank Merriam at the Opening Day ceremonies. San Francisco Mayor Angelo Rossi can be seen at left wearing a vest, and former US President Herbert Hoover was standing among the crowd behind the reporter on the left.
Vehicles traveling across Bay Bridge on opening day, November 12, 1936. (wnp37.01735; Zan Stark, photographer – Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
See more images from the Bay Bridge Dedication parade here.