Book Review: Harrowing and Hilarious Tales of What It Took to Build the Golden Gate Bridge

Building the Golden Gate Bridge, A Workers’ Oral History, by Harvey Schwartz, University of Washington Press, $29.95

How would you like to work 600 feet up in the air, standing on a two-foot beam, catching red-hot rivets?

The rivets are heated in a coal-fired forge. When they’re red-hot, one man will toss it to a second man, who catches it in a bucket. The bucket man holds it out to the bucker, who picks it up with a bucking bar and holds it in place over a hole in a steel plate or beam. Then the riveter drives that red-hot piece into place.

Sometimes some scale from the red-hot rivet falls into the bucker’s overalls, or into his boot. But you dare not let go—it would interrupt the riveter’s rhythm, and the job has to be done. So you put up with the pain and earn your scars.

In Harvey Schwartz’s Building the Golden Gate Bridge: A Workers’ Oral History, you read about the cold San Francisco winds blowing rain and making the walkways sway. In the winter, with icicles hanging from the beams, the men would wear their woolen dress pants underneath their bib overalls. Some even packed newspaper inside their work clothes to keep warm.

ENGAGING STORIES

You had to be tough to be an iron worker like Glen McIntyre, the son of Scandinavian parents, or Fred DeVita, son of Italian immigrants. Many of the men in the book were born to immigrants who came to the U.S. in the great migrations of 1880-1914.

John Urban, son of Lithuanian parents, wove the cable that’s strung over the tops of the towers. They even had toilets up there, he recalls. When a toilet needed cleaning, they would drop it down into the bay and let the seawater flush it out—then hoist it back up again, nice and clean.

Fred Brusati got an electrician’s job. His crew installed red beacon lights on the tops of the towers to warn off airplanes. They ran electrical cables to power the elevators that ran up and down the towers. Brusati serviced the 440-volt electric motor that ran the spinning wheel that pulled the cable from one end of the bridge to the other, and then back again, weaving the cables.

On their half-hour lunch break, the electricians would run wires into a hot dog and cook it.

Martin Adams came from rural Arkansas. Accustomed to long, heavy farm work, Adams found work unloading lumbar for the cement forms and unloading barrels of cement.

He would unload 600 barrels in half a day, and get paid 68-and-three-quarters cents an hour—a hefty increase from the 10 cents an hour he’d been earning hauling apples back home. It was brutally hard work, but he loved it.

PERILOUS WORK

The workers installed safety nets beneath the bridge, reducing the risk of injury and death. They were the first bridge workers to wear hard hats and safety belts, as well.

Brusati was working when the worst accident occurred. A crane broke and fell, ripping out the walkway, which fell into the safety netting and tore it loose. Of the 12 men who fell to the ocean with the netting, only two survived.

One of the survivors was Evan “Slim” Lambert, who fell into the bay with his feet caught in the net and was dragged down underwater. Lambert stayed calm, freed himself, and swam to the surface—despite suffering broken ribs, shoulder, and neck.

New Book

Secrets of a successful organizer

A step-by-step guide to building power on the job. Buy Now. »

Even with his injuries, he managed to help Fred Dummatzen onto some floating timber, and the two were picked up by a fisherman. Dummatzen died before reaching shore, but Lambert, after a long hospitalization, lived to return to the bridge.

Some men survived the initial impact of the fall, but the tools they carried in their clothing pulled them down into the icy waters. Brusati helped rescue two men who had grabbed a rope and were hanging on for dear life. One, upon his return to solid ground, walked away from the job and never came back.

WOMEN’S STORIES TOO

Sister of Mercy Mary Zita Feliciano was in charge of the orthopedic ward where injured bridge workers were taken. A strict supervisor, Sister Mary took the playing cards with dirty pictures away from the men—but she let them keep their girlie magazines “hidden” beneath their mattresses.

Nurse Patricia DeWeese took great pride caring for the bridge men. “They looked so manly, and yet they were just like little kids,” she says. “I think that poor men didn’t get much attention, you see. But I found them to be just softies.” Nearly all these “manly men” were terrified of the needle.

“Miss [DeWeese] Boen, wear your cape tomorrow,” a patient would say. “My wife is coming to visit.” The wife would bring a loaf of bread, a salami, and a bottle of wine for the nurses—who would hide the illicit food under their capes, take it to their rooms, and enjoy a feast after lights-out.

Joyce “Big J” Harris, an African American woman, fought many battles to earn her iron worker apprenticeship. She also suffered a good deal of harassment from some of the men when she worked on repairing and refitting the bridge in the 1980s.

But despite the enmity she sometimes encountered, Big J found that the men in her work crew were loyal to her. One co-worker told her, “Joyce, you were inducted into a sorority. You’re family. We can pick on you, but can’t nobody else.”

COMMON THREADS

Three themes run through these engaging stories.

The first is the pride these men and women took in working on or being associated with the bridge. They feel they were part of a historic enterprise that will live forever—and they built it.

The second is how quickly they overcame their fears of working high in the air, straddling narrow beams, and working with dangerous equipment. The rhythm of work was so fast-paced and intense that workers scarcely had time to think about the dangers. Besides, there were so many men out of work, hungry to take their places.

And third, the bridge workers are deeply appreciative of the New Deal and President Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts to lift the country out of the Depression. These large construction projects employed hundreds of thousands of workers. It’s no surprise that every worker in the book voted Democratic.

Timothy Sheard is author of the Lenny Moss shop steward detective series and founder of Hard Ball Press, which mentors and publishes working-class writers.