Bridging the Golden Gate: A Photo Essay

By Fireman, Janet; Kale, Shelly | California History, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Bridging the Golden Gate: A Photo Essay


Fireman, Janet, Kale, Shelly, California History


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THE MOUTH OF THE BAY

Long before the Golden Gate Bridge became part of the iconography of California and the West, the narrow strait that it spans between San Francisco and the Marin headlands was a place of legend, seafaring, migration, and industry. To Spanish explorers it was elusive and formidable. But always it held the promise of new life in a new land.

For more than two hundred years following Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo's journey up the Pacific Coast from Mexico in 1542-43, word of a huge estuary in Alta California beckoned Spanish mariners seeking a port of call. But the narrow opening to San Francisco Bay eluded them: hidden by fog; protected by dangerous, wave-swept rocks, swirling tides, and treacherous currents; and masked by the appearance of the islands in the bay and the hills beyond as a solid landmass.

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Members of Gaspar de Portola's land expedition first sighted the bay from atop hills south of present-day San Francisco in October 1769 as part of the first Spanish colonization expedition to Alta California. Pedro Fages observed the quantiosa vacana de estero (large mouth of the estuary) in 1770. Two years later, in March 1772, he and Father Juan Crespi viewed the estero from the Berkeley hills, describing it as la bocana, the mouth, of the bay. (1)

It was not until 1775 that Juan Manuel de Ayala, aboard the San Carlos, made the first entrada to the bay. From the sea, avoiding the treacherous Farallones ("rocks jutting out of the sea"), and overcoming perilous oceanic forces, he sailed through the imposing cleft between the San Francisco and Matin peninsulas and anchored at Fort Point. This feat opened the bay to further Spanish shipping and settlement, as well as to the development of its port and village, Yerba Buena, and eventually the world.

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In June 1846, John Charles Fremont, the explorer and a lieutenant colonel in the Mexican-American War, sailed across the bay to San Francisco from what today is Sausalito. In an account of his western excursions, he described the opening to "the great bay" as "a single gap, resembling a mountain pass" Reminded of the entrance from Turkey's narrow Bosphorus Strait into Chrysoceras--or Golden Horn, a deep, natural harbor in modern-day Istanbul--he named the opening to the bay Chrysopylae, or Golden Gate. (2)

The name was prescient. Soon U.S. frigates were joined by other vessels sailing through the Golden Gate with eager passengers from all over the world following the discovery of gold in 1848. Ferries, sailing ships, and steamships crowded the burgeoning port in the bay as mining, fishing, and shipping industries took hold. Once sought after as a portal inward leading to a safe harbor, now the narrow opening beckoned outward, a gateway for the new state's commerce and prosperity.

Even with all this activity--including the familiar recurrence of shipwrecks--the Golden Gate, approximately three miles long, one mile wide, and more than three hundred feet deep, continued to inspire. Nineteenth-century artists, lithographers, photographers, and poets captured its spirit, celebrated its symbolism, and initiated a fascination that would be anchored in the next century by designers of a landmark structure: the Golden Gate Bridge.

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Representations of the Golden Gate proliferated in the artistic, literary, and commercial spheres as painters, poets, and lithographers revealed a new landscape populated by ships, a growing port city, abundant waters, and golden sunsets.

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CLOSING THE GAP

Visions of integrating San Francisco with surrounding communities and the entire region were conceived and developed in time and in tune with the expanding age of the automobile. …

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