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Fun with Highways: The Bay Bridge Turns 75

This past Saturday, November 12, marked the 75th anniversary of the opening of the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge, known conventionally as “The Bay Bridge.” It is a regular part of life for many of us here, one of our main connections to the communities across the bay and a principal landmark during walks in my part of the city. It has been featured in many previous articles here on CatSynth.

The Bay Bridge is a workhorse, spanning over 4 miles and carrying an estimated 270,000 vehicles a day, making it second busiest in the U.S. after the George Washington Bridge in New York. But the western double-span is quite a beautiful structure, both as seen from the hills of San Francisco and from up close.


[Click to enlarge]

[Click to enlarge.]

Don’t let that last photograph fool you. Even though it may look like it was taken 75 years ago, it was actually taken yesterday using the iPhone Hipstamatic app during an early afternoon walk by the bridge.

It was quite an engineering feat when it was built, the longest bridge of its time and built in challenging geography of the bay.

[Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

This video (as seen on the official Bay Bridge info site) captures both the era and the engineering:

Much like the Brooklyn bridge when it was first built, the Bay Bridge towered over the surrounding architecture of the cities it connected. It is anchored in the middle to Yerba Buena island with tunnels connecting the two spans of the bridges. On the the San Francisco side, it is anchored to Rincon Hill, once an upscale neighborhood in the late 1800s that fell into rapid decline and largely destroyed in the 1906 quake. The eastern bridge was built resting on mud rather than bedrock. It was the most expensive bridge built to date.

The idea of a bridge crossing the bay has been around since the 1800s. Indeed, such a bridge was proposed by Emperor Norton in the 1870s (I think this even made it into Gino Robair’s opera I Norton). But unlike his other proclamations, this one seemed like a good idea. After that, there were many proposals, such as this one that in some ways resembles the bridge that was actually built.

The bridge proposed in this drawing connected to Telegraph Hill rather than Rincon Hill, and has suspension bridges on both sides of Yerba Buena island.  The spires also make it look like some of the older suspension bridges on the East River in New York.

When bridge first opened, it carried US Highways 40 and 50 as well as the trains from the Key System in the East Bay. The upper deck had longer ramps leading to Harrison and Bryant Streets at 5th, roughly the same as the rather long ramps at those streets today. On the Oakland side, the bridge had viaducts from Cypress Street (Highway 17) as well as San Pablo Avenue and the Eastshore Highway (US 40). The bridge now carries Interstate 80 across the bay. The railway is long gone. Gone also are the connections to the old Transbay Terminal and Embarcadero Freeway, both of which have been demolished. The area under the bridge on the San Francisco side, once a gritty industrial waterfront, is now a picturesque boulevard that is great for walking. Through all of the changes, the bridge itself has not changed very much at all…

[Bay Bridge approach, 1940s]

[Bay Bridge and Embarcadero, 1970s and 1980s. Photos from Wikimedia Commons.]

[Present day, Bay Bridge and southern Embarcadero. Photo by CatSynth]

…until now. The eastern truss span, which was badly damaged in the 1989 earthquake, is now being replaced with a new more graceful cable-stayed span. The construction has progressed to the point where the tower is in place and the cables are being hung. It is indeed a bit distracting when traveling the bridge. But I am looking forward to seeing it completed, probably around the 77th anniversary in 2013.

10 thoughts on “Fun with Highways: The Bay Bridge Turns 75

  1. Happy Bday, Bay Bridge! 75 years more!
    Beautiful pics. It’s great to see the history of building it, the difference between then and now.

  2. So was the reminder to check out the Bay Bridge article for me, the fellow highway buff? This is a very interesting piece, and it’s fun to see how this matches up to our Bay Bridge, over the Chesapeake just outside of Annapolis, MD.

  3. Wow that is one amazing bridge. I did not know anything about it since I live in the East. It really is a gorgeous bridge. Take care.

  4. What a fantastic post! «Louis» somehow missed the fact that the anniversary was this week, though he knew the bridge was 75 this year. We need to remember to link this to «Louis» Sunday Bridges meme this coming Sunday.

  5. I think you are in New York right now, Check out the Highline park for some Ideas about what we can do with the old east span when the new one is done. So My grandpa alway told me that the baybridge was supposed to be free forever. or that’s what they said at the time. Thanks.

  6. Interesting history and it seems like you covered the bridge from every angle. I agree they should do something with the old eastern span as opposed to tearing it down.

  7. Thanks for linking to this wonderful history. I wouldn’t have known to come looking for it, and I had limited internet access this week. I’m glad I didn’t miss this! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

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