The Golden Gate, San Francisco Bay

The Golden Gate, San Francisco Bay

by | Oct 1, 2021

The Golden Gate is a turbulent strait about 1 mile (1.6 km) wide, between Lime Point to the north and Fort Point to the south, that connects San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean, about 4 miles (6.4 km) west-northwest of downtown San Francisco and 2.2 miles (3.5 km) south of Sausalito, California. The strait is defined by the headlands of the Marin Peninsula to the north and the San Francisco Peninsula to the south. The Golden Gate is often shrouded in fog, especially during the summer when the heat generated in the California Central Valley creates a low-pressure area that draws cool humid air from the ocean through the strait. The name ‘Golden Gate’ was given to the entrance of San Francisco Bay by John C. Fremont in the spring of 1846. He chose this name because he foresaw the day when the riches of the greater Orient would flow through the Golden Gate just as the riches of the lesser Orient had once flowed into the Golden Horn. In his Geographical Memoir published in 1848, Fremont justifies his choice but was apparently determined to use the Greek name ‘Chrysopylae‘ for the entrance. Charles Preuss was a surveyor and cartographer who accompanied John C. Fremont on three of his five exploratory expeditions of the American west, and in 1848 made the first map of the strait labeled “Chrysopylae or Golden Gate”, and the latter name became commonly used.

The area around the strait and the bay was inhabited for thousands of years by the Ohlone people to the south and Coast Miwok people to the north. Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo was an Iberian maritime explorer best known as the first European to explore the coast of California for the Spanish Empire in 1542 but missed the entrance to San Francisco Bay. In 1579, Francis Drake sailed along the coast of California, stopping to claim the area for Queen Elizabeth I and every successive English monarch. When they departed, Drake briefly anchored his ship at the Farallon Islands where the crew hunted seal meat, but never saw the strait. Nearly 200 years later, in 1769, Sergeant José Francisco Ortega was sent with a scouting party, north along the San Francisco Peninsula to locate the Point Reyes headlands by Don Gaspar de Portolá. He reported back to Portolá that he could not proceed further north to Point Reyes because of the strait. On August 5, 1775, Juan de Ayala and the crew of his ship San Carlos became the first Europeans known to sail through the strait. In 1769, Spain occupied the San Francisco area and by 1776 had established the area’s first European settlement with a mission and a presidio. To protect against encroachment by the British and Russians, Spain built Castillo de San Joaquin in 1794 on the south side of the narrowest part of the bay entrance. It was an adobe structure housing nine to thirteen cannons. In 1821, Mexico won independence from Spain gaining control of the region and the fort, but in 1835 the Mexican army moved to Sonoma effectively abandoning the adobe Castillo. On July 1, 1846, during the Mexican-American War, U.S. forces, including Captain John C. Fremont, captured and occupied the empty fort. The site of the Castillo was used for the construction of Fort Point between 1853 and 1861 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of a defense system of forts planned for the protection of San Francisco Bay. In 1850, President Millard Fillmore created the Lime Point Military Reservation across from Fort Point on the north side of the Golden Gate, and in 1897, the reservation was renamed Fort Baker. In 1972, President Richard Nixon signed a bill that established the Golden Gate National Recreation Area from land that included U.S. military reservations. Today the park protects 82,027 acres (33,195 ha) of ecologically and historically significant landscapes surrounding the San Francisco Bay area.

Before the bridge was built, the only practical route between San Francisco and what is now Marin County was by ferry across San Francisco Bay. Regularly scheduled service beginning in the 1840s. In 1867, the Southern Pacific Railroad began a subsidiary called the Sausalito Land and Ferry Company that eventually became the Golden Gate Ferry Company, which was the largest ferry operation in the world by the late 1920s. The idea of a bridge across the Golden Gate was very popular but many experts claimed that a bridge could not be built across the strait, which is 373 feet (113 m) deep with strong swirling tides and currents. In 1916, a proposal that eventually took hold was made by James Wilkins who was San Francisco’s city engineer, and a preliminary design was offered by Joseph Baermann Strauss. However, because he had little understanding or experience with cable-suspension designs, responsibility for much of the engineering and architecture fell on other experts. The final graceful suspension design was conceived and championed by Leon Moisseiff. Irving Morrow designed the overall shape of the bridge towers, the lighting scheme, and Art Deco elements, such as the tower decorations, streetlights, railing, and walkways. Senior engineer Charles Alton Ellis, collaborating remotely with Moisseiff, was the principal engineer of the project. Ellis was also tasked with designing the southern abutment that needed to be built over Fort Point. Construction began on January 5, 1933, by the McClintic-Marshall Construction Company, a subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel Corporation founded by Howard H. McClintic and Charles D. Marshall. The project was finished and opened on May 27, 1937. Read more here and here. Explore more of the Golden Gate here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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