The Net [an excerpt].


Eleven men died during the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge—an impressive figure considering the bridge industry usually estimated one death for every million dollars spent on building costs (Golden Gate = 35 million). In order to help lower this morbid statistic, bridge engineer Joseph Strauss installed a safety net that hung under the bridge and inched outward as the structure came to life. Although similar nets had previously been proposed by labor unions, Strauss was the first engineer to invest in what was likely a necessary PR strategy for such a highly publicized and widely disputed endeavor. San Franciscans were already skeptical about the bridge’s future safety issues, considering the extreme winds blowing in from the Pacific and, of course, the high incidence of earthquakes in the bay area. Strauss didn’t want a high death toll during construction to further taint the bridge’s already precarious reputation or shroud the project in bad omens, so he dropped $125,000 on an industrial trapeze web that dangled under the bridge’s skeleton like a belly, waiting to catch the inevitably falling men. Strauss believed his net would warm the bridge workers up, ease some of their fears and push them to work a little faster. Bridgemen lived like sailors—at the mercy of the elements, always on the brink of being swallowed into the current and swept away. Part of working a bridge was fully embracing the immediacy of self-preservation. Every gust of wind and foolish glance downward brought reminders of their own mortality. The mesh trap offered some solace, ultimately saving a total of nineteen lives over the course of four years. These nineteen men went on to form an informal group called the “Halfway to Hell Club,” on the premise that they had all cheated death. Another less fortunate group included ten of the bridge’s eleven casualties[1], all of whom fell at once along with a five-ton platform whose scaffolding had given way a mere three months before the bridge’s completion. The platform and the men hit the net and rested there for an instant (two seconds? four?) before the immense weight tore the web from the bridge’s undercarriage, dropping its contents into the bay. A photo taken that day from the shore depicts the net half-detached from the bridge, its far end already submerged in the water. The sheer gauze-like apparatus resembles a chute of liquid pouring from a huge pitcher. Behind it, several indecipherable black dots fall to their destiny.

On May 27, 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge opened to the public. Eighteen thousand people showed up to be the first pedestrians to cross Strauss’s architectural beast. On opening day the safety net still hung below the structure, then only catching deliberate and accidental debris: trash, hats, purses, cameras. Two young boys climbed down the bridge’s beams and crawled into the net, likely acting half out of mischief and half out of sheer amazement at the experience of hovering over the immense and endless water. They may have been the last to utilize the life-saving device, which was removed sometime between the bridge’s opening ceremony and August 8th of that same year, when a bargeman named Harold Wobber walked across the bridge with a friend he had just met on the bus ride there. Midway over the bay Wobber took off his coat, threw it at his new friend and said, “This is where I get off.” And then he jumped.

[1] The other casualty was a worker named Kermit Moore, who was unable to utilize the safety net. A pin had come loose from a traveling crane sending the machine awry; the device’s leg trapped Moore against a girder and decapitated him. He was actually the Golden Gate’s first victim.