History of the Design and Construction of the Bridge: All In A Day's Work

Bridge construction began in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. The unemployment rate was 25 percent, and jobs were much sought after. With the exception of highly specialized jobs, the Bridge was built by local labor. Besides the pay, the men working on the Bridge had a special incentive. They knew they were building more than just another bridge: this was going to be one of the greatest works of modern engineering.

The weather was often cold, windy, and foggy. Work had to go on inside cramped spaces. Climbing up and walking high atop the Bridge was as dangerous as it was scary.

Safety was a priority. Workers wore helmets, special wind goggles, and headlamps for the dark, enclosed areas - a first in bridge construction. The undercoat of paint, the primer, contained lead to prevent the steel from rusting. Workers wore respirators to protect them from lead fumes released during the installation of red-hot rivets. Today, the paints used on the Bridge contain no lead.

Another first in bridge building was the installation of a safety net during construction. The 19 men who fell and were saved by the net called themselves the Halfway to Hell Club. The Bridge had only one fatality until February 1937. Then a heavy scaffold fell through the net, causing 10 men to fall through to their deaths. Although tragic, the number of lives lost was very low compared to the size of the project and the dangers involved.

More Images

Riveter exiting tower door.

Helmet, goggles, and respirator – all firsts in bridge construction.

Members of the Halfway to Hell Club look through the Bridge deck to the safety net below that saved their lives.

A Golden Gate Bridge innovation, a safety net, was rigged to catch workers if they fell during deck construction.

Explore this Topic Further

Safety First from the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District (GGBHTD) (all ages)
Safety was a priority during the construction of the Bridge. Safety lines, safety nets, hard hats, respirator masks, and goggles were used to prevent injuries and deaths. Workers who would not use the safety equipment were threatened with dismissal.

“Cheating Death”: Worker Safety During Construction from the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District (GGBHTD) (all ages)
The safety net was a particularly innovative safety feature and saved 19 lives. Unfortunately 12 died when a section of the safety net was torn by falling scaffolding.

Tales from Original Golden Gate Bridge Workers from the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District (GGBHTD) (all ages)
This video shows original footage of the workers on the Bridge and interviews with Rolf Jensen and Charles Heinbockel about their experiences working on the Bridge. (8:03 minute video)

Recounting the 1937 Construction Accident from the Labor Archives and Research Center
This oral history gives first- person accounts of the collapse of scaffolding that tore through the safety net and plunged 12 construction workers into the water. Two of the workers survived. (5:56 minute video)

Memorial Plaque from the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District (GGBHTD) (all ages)
This plaque on the Golden Gate Bridge commemorates those who died during the construction of the Bridge.