AROUND NJ

Golden Gate Bridge: A Roebling Legacy Turns 75

By Young Soo Yang

Photo courtesy of the Trenton Public Library.

When one thinks of the world’s great cities, what usually comes to mind is a famous landmark that emblemizes the city. Paris has the Eiffel Tower, New York has the Empire State Building and Sydney, the Opera House. And San Francisco? Well, it has the international orange sensation that is the Golden Gate Bridge. It ranks up there as one of the handful of iconic symbols that single-handedly identifies a city. Well, this year America’s most glamorous bridge turns 75 and it has not lost any of its allure. It continues to dazzle people from around the world who visit, not just to get from San Francisco to Marin County, but to gaze upon the engineering marvel that gracefully spans the opening of the San Francisco Bay into the Pacific Ocean.

As celebrations and events get underway 3,000 miles away to mark the anniversary, we would be remiss here in the Garden State if we let the occasion pass without a reminder of the Jersey connection to what has often been called the most beautiful suspension bridge in the world.

The New Jersey connection is owed to John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, a wire rope company which was once based in Trenton. The company built the cables for the Golden Gate Bridge which opened to the public on May 27, 1937. Until then, the George Washington Bridge, which opened six years earlier, held the title of having the longest span in the world at 3,500 feet. The span of the Golden Gate Bridge is 4,200 feet.

The Roebling Company was responsible for the cables on both bridges. In fact, Clifford Zink, author of The Roebling Legacy, says the George Washington Bridge set the stage for the building of the Golden Gate Bridge.

“The George Washington Bridge opened in 1931 and it was twice the main span which is the span between the towers on the George Washington Bridge — twice the length of the record span at the time. So it required a lot of innovations in order to be able to build those cables that big and that long. So the Roebling Company built a lot of innovations on the George Washington Bridge and then they used those innovations in building the cables on the Golden Gate Bridge.”

John Roebling was a German bridge designer who immigrated to America in 1831. He started a wire rope company in western Pennsylvania that instantly boomed. Roebling moved the family and the business in 1849 to Trenton on the recommendation of industrialist Peter Cooper (who established Cooper Union in New York). Trenton provided an excellent manufacturing base because of its strategic location between New York and Philadelphia.

Zink adds that Trenton also offered great transportation. “At that time, it had the Delaware River, the Delaware and Raritan Canal and of course the railroad.”

Photo courtesy of Smithsonian.

The Roebling legacy can be seen, directly and indirectly, on many of the world’s great bridges. Roebling invented a cable-spinning method of stringing individual wires that all large-scale suspension bridges have used ever since.

“So you lay one wire across the bridge and then another and another and another and then you build those into a cable,” explains Zink. “So there’s something like 27,000 wires in the cable of the George Washington and Golden Gate bridges. Each cable has over 27,000 wires.”

The Roebling Company would learn from the successes and failures of each bridge project. Says Zink, each engineering achievement builds upon the success and often the failures, or limitations, of its predecessor.

“Roebling built a bridge in Cincinnati which is now called the John A. Roebling Bridge that opened in 1867 and that spanned 1,060 feet. And so [he] built upon that knowledge and built the Brooklyn Bridge and that spanned 1,600 feet. And then the George Washington Bridge spanned 3,500 feet.”

The Golden Gate Bridge is 20 percent longer than the George Washington Bridge at 4,200 feet and its towers are 100 feet taller. But it has only two cables compared to the four on the George Washington Bridge.

“When they built the George Washington Bridge, they realized that because of the number of people living in New Jersey and New York that it would have a huge amount of traffic. So they originally built it to hold two decks — upper deck and a lower deck. That’s why it has four cables. The Golden Gate Bridge between San Francisco and Marin County … has much less volume of traffic than the George Washington Bridge. So it only needed a single deck and it only has two cables, not four.”

The George Washington Bridge is still the busiest in the world with more traffic than any other large bridge. So the functional quality of the design, says Zink, is more evident there than in the Golden Gate Bridge which is noted for its elegant design. Public reaction to the Golden Gate Bridge was immediate, causing a sensation even during its construction.

“First of all, it’s a spectacular site. The Golden Gate between San Francisco and Marin County is one of the most spectacular sites in the world and so putting a bridge across there is going to be a dramatic construction no matter what the bridge looked like. And on top of that, the graceful design of the Golden Gate Bridge with the elegant Art Deco towers and the long graceful span, and then on top of that, the international orange which picks up on the sunrise and the sunset … It’s such an icon because it spans a spectacular waterway and it’s beautifully designed and the color was brilliantly chosen.”

The Golden Gate Bridge would become the crowning achievement in the Roebling Company’s bridge building. No other project that followed would come close in scale and vision. The Roebling family sold the business in 1953 to the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company which closed the Roebling factories in Trenton in 1974. The former Roebling steel complex off Route 29 is still there, a listless reminder of its former productivity when workers there took steel and spun it into wire, and in turn, revolutionized bridge construction.

For more information:

Web site: Golden Gate Bridge 75th Anniversary

Read: Zink, Clifford W. The Roebling Legacy, Princeton Landmark Publications LLC, Princeton, NJ 2011.

Museum exhibit: Located in the historic village of Roebling, New Jersey, the Roebling Museum will open a new exhibit “Spinning Gold” on May 26 in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge, featuring never-before-seen photographs from its collection. For more information, visit roeblingmuseum.org or call 609-499-7200.