narrow Bosphorus Strait or “Golden Horn” in Turkey by John Charles Fremont in 1846, the Golden Gate bay is more than a mile wide but engineers were convinced that a bridge was possible and plans proceeded to this effect during the early 20th century. Originally estimated to cost as much as $100 million to construct, the Golden Gate Bridge was completed for almost a third of that estimate ahead of schedule. In fact, although inclement weather conditions and other obstacles hampered construction, the Golden Gate Bridge was completed in less than on May 27, 1937. The purpose of this paper is to deliver a review of the juried, scholarly and popular literature concerning the Golden Gate Bridge concerning the top management strategies and the cost estimation that were used in its construction. In addition, a discussion concerning the risk management strategies and duration of the project as well as engineering obstacles and barriers are also provided. Finally, an evaluation of the project’s forecasting effectiveness is followed by a summary of the research and important findings about the Golden Gate Bridge project in the conclusion.

Project Management Challenges and Successes at the Golden Gate Bridge Project

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In June 1846, the explorer and veteran of the Mexican-American War, John Charles Fremont, described the opening to “the great bay” in San Francisco and, drawing on his recollection of Turkey’s narrow Bosphorus Strait or “Golden Horn” named the opening of the bay, Golden Gate (Fireman and Kale 9). On November 4, 1930, taxpayers approved a $35 million bond measure that was intended to fund the administration, engineering, and construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, but lawsuits over the financial arrangements of the project postponed the commencement of construction (Fireman and Kale 10). The Golden Gate Bridge was am ambitious project that was an important part of California’s environmental reconfiguration through a series of major public work project that also included Shasta Dam, the Central valley Project, and a deep-water port at Stockton, all of which were widely regarded as being essential components for a modern infrastructure for the state (Fireman and Kale 10). This paper provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed, scholarly and popular literature concerning the Golden Gate Bridge to identify the top management strategies that were used in its construction, its cost estimation, risk management strategies, the duration of the project and engineering obstacles and barriers. Finally, an assessment of the project’s forecasting effectiveness is followed by a summary of the research and important findings about this major engineering project in the conclusion.

Top Management Strategies

In 1921, Joseph Strauss, the chief engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge project, recruited Charles Ellis to head the project team and subsequently assigned him to lead the bridge design and construction management for the project (Design and Construction 1). According to bridge historians, “In 1925, the newly constructed Board of Consultants examined Strauss’ design and concluded that they were practical from an engineering standpoint and could be built” (Design and Construction 1). The original plans for the bridge conceptualized by Strauss in 1921 were subsequently replaced in 1925 with a design for the world’s longest suspension bridge (Fireman and Kale 10).

The research that resulted in the new suspension design for the bridge was conducted by a group of consultants hired by Strauss, including the aforementioned Charles A. Ellis, who was design engineer for the Chicago-based Strauss Engineering Corporation; Leon S. Moisseiff, a prominent bridge theoretician; Othman Hermann Ammann, who was the designer of New York City’s George Washington Bridge; and Charles Derleth, Jr., the dean of engineering at the University of California, Berkeley (Fireman and Kale 10). According to Fireman and Kale, “In 1929, the renowned Chicago-based theatre architect John Eberson (1875-1964) introduced Art Deco to the bridge’s design, contributing to its final elegant form” (10). Besides being the longest suspension bridge in the world at the time, the Golden Gate Bridge also enjoyed other superlatives, including the world’s tallest cable masts, highest and largest bridge towers, and greatest navigational clearance (Fireman and Kale 10).

Three main engineering strategies were used in the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge: (a) structural engineering, (b) construction engineering and project management and (c) geotechnical engineering which are described in Table 1 below.

Table 1

Engineering Strategies Used in the Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge



Structural Engineering

Structural engineering is a discipline of civil engineering that deals with the analysis and design phase of construction. The structural components of the Golden Gate Bridge required an immense amount of time. Everything from the overall design to the strength of the rivets had to be taken into account, resulting in an incredibly complicated structural analysis/calculations. As noted previously, there were no major calculators or design simulation programs. Everything had to be done by hand. The structural engineers had to account for the complicated external forces such as wind, ocean currents, weight loading and earthquakes that were inevitably coming. In such a project, the engineers in charge had to start by making sure a bridge across the strait was even structurally feasible.

Construction Engineering and Project Management

The complexity of the construction for the Golden Gate Bridge never ceases to amaze. The project was physically large, over water, and groundbreaking. This meant that the project was broken up into distinct larger stages that consisted of numerous smaller projects. The construction lasted roughly four years. Not all of the materials were made on site; therefore some project managers were required to be off-site, coordinating shipments. The north approach tower was constructed first because of earthquake concerns. Construction of the south tower followed, and then the roadway/span was built between the two towers.

Geotechnical Engineering

The geotechnical aspect of this project, while fairly minimal, plays an important role in function and design. Because of the region and proximity to a fault line, the Golden Gate Bridge had to be able to withstand earthquakes. To allow for these hazards, engineers needed to over-design to ensure a greater factor of safety. Because of this, the foundations in all areas needed to be stronger and deeper. The coastal connections were excavated to allow for deeper foundations and geotechnical engineering was very much a part of this.

Source: Adapted from Design and Construction 5

Cost Estimation

The costs of constructions the Golden Gate Bridge were originally estimated at around $100 million, but revised design and planning reduced the price to a more manageable $35 million which the Bridge and Highway District funded through a bond measure that was approved fully one year into the Great Depression (Design and Construction 5). According to Ruiz, “On November 4, 1930, voters within the recently designated Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District went to the polls and put up their homes, farms and business properties as collateral to support a $35 million bond issue to finance the bridge” (2). The construction surety bond for the bridge was underwritten by Fireman’s Fund for the enormous amount of money (Ruiz 2). The bond was purchased in 1932 by a sole investor (Design and Construction 5). In this regard, the WGBH Educational Foundation reports that, “By the time Strauss had public support and a bridge design in hand, the nation was plunged into the Great Depression. With no bank or bond house willing to buy bonds for the bridge, Strauss’s project faced ruin” (Golden Gate 7). The sole investor that saved the day was A.P. Giannini, a banker that recognized the importance of the project to the city’s future growth. As WGBH points out, “In desperation, he turned to A.P. Giannini, founder of a small bank that would grow into the Bank of America. The civic-minded Giannini saw the need and bought the bonds” (Golden Gate 7). Some indication of the amount of money involved in this project can be discerned by extrapolating the more recent costs for such an enterprise, and if the Golden Gate Bridge had been built in the 21st century, the construction would have cost more than $1.2 billion (Design and Construction 6).

Risk Management

Having the construction bond that financed the Golden Gate Bridge project insured by the reputable Fireman’s Fund served to promote public confidence in the project (Ruiz 5). In addition, during the era in which the Golden Gate Bridge was constructed, the industry standard indicated that that would be a loss of life for every million dollars spent; however, the project head, Strauss, took an unprecedented measure to help keep workers safe. In this regard, Stansen reports that, “Hard hats were required. And Strauss insisted on one feature that was at the time completely novel: A safety net” (4). As shown in Figure 1 below, at a cost of $130,000, the safety net was a major expenditure but Strauss was insistent on its deployment and succeeded in getting it approved by the bridge project’s board of directors (Stansen 4). During the course of the bridge’s construction, the safety net was responsible for saving 19 men’s lives who referred to themselves as the “Halfway to Hell Club” (Stansen 5).

Figure 1. Golden Gate Bridge’s Safety Net


The safety net was an essential risk management feature for the bridge project because the bridge needed to be 220 feet tall to accommodate commercial and naval vessels and falls from this height would certainly be fatal (Design and Construction 4). Unfortunately, this turned out to be the case during the final phases of construction. Despite this expensive security precaution, a catwalk collapsed on February 17, 1937, plunging 22 workers 220 feet into the bay below, killing ten of them (one man was saved when his leg became entangled in the safety net) (Stansen 5).

Project Duration

Construction began on January 5, 1933 and was completed on May 27, 1937 (Design and Construction 1).

Obstacles and Barriers

The first major obstacle encountered by the design engineers was the fact that the Golden Gate bay is more than one mile wide and more than 300 feet deep (Fireman and Kale 10). In this regard, the WGBH Educational Foundation emphasizes that, “The idea of a bridge linking the city with its neighboring counties was appealing, but the mile-wide gap between San Francisco and Marin presented huge challenges” (Golden Gate 3). Some of the more significant obstacles associated with this site included wind and water. For instance, historians emphasize that, “At the mouth of the Gate, the oncoming force of the Pacific Ocean creates turbulent waves and ripping currents. The location is plagued by gale-force winds and dense fogs” (Golden Gate 3).

In addition, the Golden Gate Bridge project represented an unprecedented attempt to construct a suspension bridge support using a tower situation in open ocean (Standen 3). This engineering barrier was overcome by an ambitious plan by Strauss to have workers initially construct a huge protection fender to prevent damage by from shipping (Underwater Construction 3). The fender, with 40-foot-thick concrete walls, enclosed about of ground on the bay floor and was capable of being dried by pumping the water out, making a working space for bridge workers to build the concrete tower foundation inside (Underwater Construction 4).

With no Occupational Safety and Health Administration at work during this period in America’s history, it is not surprising that the work in the fender was exceedingly treacherous. In this regard, the WGBH Educational Foundation emphasizes that, “Work inside the fender was the riskiest. At any moment, its walls could collapse from contact with a stray ship lost in the fog, or from the intense pressure exerted by the currents” (Underwater Construction 5). One diver that worked in the fender described his experiences thusly: “We were down damn near 50 feet, and every time you go down 29 feet you double your atmospheric pressure. Well, that’s strong enough it can hold you smack against a wall, and you can’t move” (Underwater Construction 5). Following the divers’ completion of work on the fender, water was reintroduced into the fender to provide additional strength against the bay’s strong current (Underwater Construction 4).

Working in the fender was grueling, but the conditions above the water were also arduous. According to Standen, “Divers faced powerful currents as they helped anchor the massive concrete bridge support onto the ocean floor. And up on the towers, workers stuffed newspapers in their jackets to keep warm” (3). Notwithstanding the ever-present dangers involved in working on the bridge itself above water, the conditions below water were truly extreme. The historians at the WGBH Educational Foundation reports that, “Divers were crucial to the plan. They guided beams, panels, blasting tubes and 40-ton steel forms into position and secured them, striving all the while to avoid being swept away in the current” (Underwater Construction 2).

Even today, these engineering barriers would be difficult to overcome, but the during the 1930s were effective but primitive — and dangerous by comparison. In this regard, the WGBH Educational Foundation also notes that, “Workers shot timed black powder bombs deep into bedrock through the blasting tubes, often with such power that dozens of fish would be thrown out of the water and onto the south shore” (Underwater Construction 3). The bridge’s project management team, though, persevered with the vital assistance of the underwater crews that dived up to 90 feet deep to clear debris from the black powder bombs and smooth the floor of the bay with underwater hoses that shot water out at

500 pounds of hydraulic pressure (Underwater Construction 4). Moreover, visibility at those depths in the bay was extremely limited and divers were required to work in virtually blind conditions in cumbersome diving suits amid heavy underwater currents (Underwater Construction 4).

Indeed, the bay’s heavy currents introduced yet another project management barrier since it restricted the timeframes in which divers could work (Underwater Construction 5). Project managers addressed this barrier by allowing divers to remain submerged for just four 20-minute periods a day, but even this limited underwater exposure carried additional risks. Because of the construction team’s tight schedule, the WGBH Educational Foundation reports that “Divers were often forced to surface before having sufficient time to decompress, increasing the likelihood that they would develop caisson disease, a nitrogen deficiency also known as ‘the bends’ (Underwater Construction 5). Because construction was taking place in the Depression-era United States, there was no shortage of willing men to accept these hazardous jobs because they paid well and regularly (Underwater Construction 6).

Despite the barriers and obstacles that were involved, the underwater work was completed successfully. Three members of the project’s team, the chief diver, the pier job superintendent and a resident engineer descended to an inspection site, inspected the work on the foundation on December 3, 1934 and pronounced the work a success (Underwater Construction 6). Thereafter, a geologist also descended to the underwater site and “reported that the rock of the entire area is compact, strong serpentine remarkably free from seams… When struck with a hammer, it rings like steel” (Underwater Construction 6).

Another enormous construction obstacle faced by the Golden Gate Bridge builders concerned the physical transportation of the bridge’s components (Design and Construction 3). To facilitate the construction process and improve worker safety, some of the larger components and building materials for the bridge were constructed off-site and transported through the recently completed Panama Canal from regions on the East Cost including New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland (Design and Construction 3).

Beyond the foregoing obstacles and barriers, there were still other construction problems experienced due to the site’s extreme environmental conditions (Design and Construction 4). For instance, the WGBH Educational Foundation points out that, “The dense fog proved to be dangerous, decreasing visibility in the mornings. Construction on such a large structure would be nearly impossible without full visibility” (Design and Construction 4). Besides the aforementioned strong currents in the bay, completed the bridge’s foundations was exceedingly challenges due to high winds that became worse at higher elevations (Design and Construction 4). In fact, the bridge was not completely stabilized until the workers completed its construction, meaning that every day was a new adventure in dread (Design and Construction 4). Another obstacles involved in the bridge project was the need to complete the force calculations needed for the design manually since computers were not available, a process that required several months to complete (Design and Construction 3).

A final obstacle to the bridge’s construction involved building the cables needed to span the bay. In this regard, the WGBH Educational Foundation reports that, “The 6,450-foot span would be the longest cable-spinning distance attempted to date. To spin the main suspension cables, Strauss hired Roebling & Sons, who shipped 80,000 miles of wire from New Jersey” (Golden Gate 5). Developing an innovative approach to spinning the cables in place, construction proceeded quickly on this part of the project (Golden Gate 5). As the historians at the WGBH Educational Foundation conclude, “The cable system is really the lifeline of a suspension bridge. That big cable, that looks so solid when we see it today, was spun in place from individual wires that are each about the size of a pencil” (Golden Gate 5).

Forecasting Effectiveness

The scope and location of the Golden Gate Bridge project meant that engineers had a great deal to consider in their forecasting. In this regard, Sumrall and Mott emphasize that, “Engineers, architects, and builders have many factors to consider when planning for construction, including the moral and ethical obligation to protect fellow human beings, cost, and how long the structure will last and what kind of stresses it can undergo” (45). Notwithstanding these forecasting challenges, on May 20, 1936, the last cable wire was laid, two months ahead of schedule (Golden Gate 5).


The research showed that planning for the Golden Gate Bridge begin in earnest in the 1920s and after a major modification, the plans called for what was then the world’s longest suspension bridge. Funded by a taxpayer approved bond for $35 million that was purchased by a single investor, construction on the Golden Gate Bridge began on January 5, 1933 and was completed on May 27, 1937. By all accounts, the bridge has been a world-famous icon of San Francisco since its completion and a lasting memorial to the men that died during its construction as well as the engineering and project management expertise of Joseph Strauss and his team. In the final analysis, it is reasonable to conclude that with proper maintenance and repairs, the Golden Gate Bridge will still be serving the people of San Francisco well into the 22nd century.

Works Cited

“Design and Construction.” The Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. 21 Apr. 2014. Online.

Fireman, Janet and Shelly Kale. “Bridging the Golden Gate: A Photo Essay.” California History

89(3): 12 Sept. 2012, Summer. Print.

“Golden Gate.” WGBH Educational Foundation. 2014. Online.

Ruiz, Janet. “A Local Bay Area Company Underwrote the Construction Surety Bond.” Business

Wire, Inc. 22 May 2012. Online.

Standen, Amy. “Life on The Gate: Working on the Golden Gate Bridge 1933-37.” 21 Apr. 2012.

National Science Foundation. Online.

Sumrall, William and Michael Mott. “Building Models to Better Understand the Importance of Cost vs. Safety in Engineering.” Science Scope 34(3): 45. Print.

“Underwater Construction.” WGBH Educational Foundation. 2014. Online.