PBS to air documentary on Golden Gate Bridge
- Published Saturday, May 1, 2004, in the San Francisco Chronicle
Steel, concrete and poetry: the making of a Bay Area landmark
By Peter Hartlaub
Charles Kring, who worked as a cable inspector during construction of
the Golden Gate Bridge, used to speak publicly about the historic
landmark all the time.
But interest in his stories waned as the years passed, and the
94-year- old San Jose resident fell into anonymity. When filmmakers
for a PBS documentary called last summer, he hadn't been asked to talk
about the project in decades.
"I don't know how they got my name," he said earlier this week. "I
was very surprised."
When the American Experience documentary "Golden Gate Bridge"
premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on KQED, Bay Area residents will get a
studious look at the most recognizable structure in the West. But
they'll also get a tribute to the people who were on the scene in the
1930s -- including several who are still around.
"Golden Gate Bridge" director Ben Loeterman said San Francisco
officials didn't have a formal list of surviving bridge workers, but
he was hopeful that a few were still around. He found Kring after
calling four or five of the main bridge engineers' students now living
in the Midwest, one of whom had spoken to the veteran bridge-builder
in recent years.
"Then we got a name and we prayed that someone or some relative might
answer the phone," Loeterman said. "In this case he did. It was a
The documentary focuses on the 1920s and 1930s -- from the early
planning stages to the completion of the bridge in 1937. Along with
interviews of Kring and still-very-much-alive ironworker Walter
Vestnys, "Golden Gate Bridge" is bolstered by input from younger
historians and engineers who have been inspired by the achievement.
The bridge was built despite opposition from an impressive variety of
groups -- from environmentalists to ferry owners who were worried
about lost business. The project's chief engineer originally
suggested a design that looked more like the worst parts of the Bay
Bridge, and the Navy wanted the structure painted in black and yellow
stripes for better visibility.
Loeterman and producer Laura Longsworth cover the basics of the
construction, but their emphasis is more on the people behind the
The driving force behind the landmark, Joseph B. Strauss, was a chief
engineer without an engineering degree who had spent most of his
career building two-lane drawbridges.
"There is an archetypal American kind of personality, I think, who
comes to fruition mythically in the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain,"
California state librarian emeritus Kevin Starr says in the
documentary. "The promoter. The P.T. Barnum. The visionary. Joseph
Strauss was that kind of person."
Among his talented staff was local architect Irving Morrow, who was
responsible for the structure's striking Art Deco look, and an unsung
number- crunching engineer named Charles Ellis.
Ellis is in many ways the tragic hero of the piece, working on the
project at home without pay even after he is exiled by Strauss. Ellis
has gained more recognition in recent years, but his contributions are
still mostly unknown beyond the engineering community.
"Some folks think that Charles Ellis' name should be on the bridge or
that there should be a way to acknowledge his central contribution to
the bridge," Loeterman said. "But all there is, really, is a statue
of Joseph Strauss on the San Francisco side. I don't know, maybe that
will be reconsidered one of these days."
With most of the main players now dead for decades, Loeterman was
hoping to track down one of the hundreds of Depression-era workers who
helped pour the concrete, heat up the rivets and spin the cable used
to build the bridge.
Loeterman said the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation
District couldn't provide names of workers. ("The Bridge District
itself has lost touch with many of those people," Loeterman said.
"They're very anxious to see who we were able to find.")
But the Bridge District did give the crew an unusual amount of access.
While feature films are often forced to use footage from helicopters
or special-effects mock-ups of the bridge, the "Golden Gate Bridge"
crew was allowed generous access to the bridge site, even permitted to
film a scene that involved dropping a pair of cameras on a bungee cord
over the edge.
The shot was set up to simulate a Feb. 17, 1937, accident that claimed
11 lives when staging beneath the roadway fell, breaking through an
innovative safety net that had saved 19 other workers.
"The first thing (the bungee-cord shot) did of course is put the fear
of God into the Bridge District people because it brings to mind all
the questions of suicides and jumpers off the bridge," Loeterman said.
"We had to assure them we were not interested in telling that story."
One man, Slim Lambert, survived the fall. But his son Skip explains
in the documentary that his father was haunted by a friend he couldn't
save, and he was upset that newspapers labeled him a hero.
Loeterman said he was lucky to find Skip Lambert. But he expects he
has missed others who have stories to tell, whether they worked on the
bridge, walked it on opening day or had family involved with
Loeterman said he hopes those people understand that the documentary
is a tribute to them as well.
"Our only regret is knowing that the bridge has touched so many people
in terms of their personal experiences," Loeterman said. "One always
wonders, in our position, is there someone, somehow we missed who had
a great story."
E-mail Peter Hartlaub at phartlaub@...