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Bay Bridge Memories Sought for Oral History

The Bay Bridge works harder than its famous neighbor, the Golden Gate Bridge, but receives far less glory. A UC Berkeley project wants to talk to those who've been connected to Bay Bridge from its beginning through the 1950s.

Its official name is the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, but nobody calls it that. It's generally lived a dull and grey existence. For 75 years, the poor old Bay Bridge has labored along, while its venerable neighbor that joins San Francisco and Marin County has captured all the romance and imagination.

But the Bay Bridge boasts engineering and construction achievements of its own. It's much longer and carries much more traffic than the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge. It cost more than twice as much as the Golden Gate to build during the Great Depression.

Now the bridge has a new chance to claim its share of history's spotlight, with help from the public.

The Regional Oral History Office at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library is seeking people to tell their personal stories about the Bay Bridge. The project is asking those who "designed, built and painted the bridge as well as its toll takers, managers and maintenance teams, engineers, painters, architects, and others involved from the early days of the span’s construction and through the 1950s," according to university news release.

“This is part of an oral history series that will explore the role of the iconic bridges in shaping the identity of the region, as well as their place in architectural, environmental, labor and political history,” said Sam Redman, a historian and director of ROHO’s Bridges and the San Francisco Bay Oral History Project. 

The statement issued these facts about the Bay Bridge:

· Present at its official opening on Nov. 12, 1936 was former U.S. President Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) and California’s then-governor Frank Merriam, who used an acetylene torch to cut gold chains strung across the traffic lanes.

· It once had operating fog horns.

· Its upper deck was originally limited to cars, with trains and trucks limited to the lower deck.

· The self-proclaimed and eccentric Emperor Norton I of San Francisco (1819-1880) decreed several times that a suspension bridge — and an underwater tunnel — should be built between Oakland and San Francisco.

· The original bridge cost $77 million to build.

· The Bay Bridge was the longest bridge in the world when it was built.

· The Bay Bridge is really two structures — a suspension span stretching from San Francisco to Yerba Buena Island (previously known as Goat Island) and a cantilever bridge running from the island to Oakland.

The history project is intended to provide "new resources for scholars, students and members of the public who are interested in the region’s rich history and the role in that history of the Bay Bridge and other spans stretching across various parts of the bay.

"In addition, the oral history series will help inform and be part of a major, multi-disciplinary exhibition focused on the environmental history of the San Francisco Bay, opening at the Oakland Museum of California in September 2013 to coincide with the opening of the new Bay Bridge."

The oral history series is sponsored by the California Department of Transportation, which is working in partnership with the Bay Area Toll Authority and the California Transportation Commission to replace the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge’s eastern span. The oral history research helps satisfy mitigation requirements for the replacement of the Bay Bridge’s historic eastern span. The new eastern span is being built after a segment of the bridge deck collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The replacement is scheduled to conclude in fall 2013.

Anyone who would like to share their accounts and recollections of the bridge directly connecting are encourage to contact Redman at redman@berkeley.edu or (510) 643-2106.

Paul D July 15, 2012 at 01:26 PM
First time I drove across the bridge I flipped the guy in the tollbooth a quarter (1968). The last time I drove across the bridge I flipped him a ten dollar bill and got back a few bucks change. Between the toll, the congestion and the mafia-like parking enforcement in the City, I don't have much reason to go there anymore.

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