Today, the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin remembers the federal approval of the bridge 84 years ago and the long process beforehand.
The bridge spent years in the just-a-dream stage. The idea took root at least as early as 1872 with federal approval finally achieved in 1931. Groundbreaking and construction began in 1933 with the grand opening celebration in 1936.
In 1872, the self-proclaimed Emperor Norton of San Francisco stated, “Whereas, we issued our decree ordering the citizens of San Francisco and Oakland to appropriate funds for the survey of a suspension bridge from Oakland Point via Goat Island; also for a tunnel; and to ascertain which is the best project; and whereas the said citizens have hitherto neglected to notice our said decree; and whereas we are determined our authority shall be fully respected; now, therefore, we do hereby command the arrest by the army of both the Boards of City Fathers if they persist in neglecting our decrees.”
Though the technical capabilities did not exist when the idea was in its infancy, people still pursued the dream of a San Francisco to Oakland Bridge.
In June 1916, the San Francisco Municipal Record included:
“That the War Department will hold a public hearing in San Francisco in the near future regarding the plans for the bridge across the San Francisco Bay was the word received yesterday by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce in a telegram from Mr. O. E. Hotle, chairman of the executive committee of the San Francisco-Oakland bridge committees.
“Hotle went to Washington recently to present the matter to the War Department and in his telegram he states that a hearing was held Monday before General Black, Colonel Keller and Colonel Taylor of the War Department, at which the bridge situation was fully reviewed. The plans for the bridge, which had previously been forwarded to the department, had already been carefully gone over by its engineers. Wilbur J. Watson and William Russell Davis of the Associated Bridge Engineers, who prepared the plans for the bridge, were present with Mr. Hotle at the hearing and explained in detail the plans.
“Hotle reports that at the conclusion of the hearing General Black assured them that he would at once instruct Colonel Rees in San Francisco to hold a public hearing before a board of engineers. Hotle stated in his telegram that the object of their mission had been fully accomplished and that this was largely due to the preliminary work done by Senator Phelan and Congressmen Elston, Nolan and Kahn, who before his arrival had taken the matter up with the War Department and assisted in securing the preliminary consideration of the plans which enabled General Black to reach a decision at once in regard to ordering a public hearing held.”
Even after Mr. Hotle, the engineers and the Congressmen’s success, the bridge remained a dream for several more years.
In June 1921, the Pacific Municipalities printed this optimistic paragraph about the bridge:
“San Francisco—Endorsements of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge are “piling” themselves up in such a mass that care must be taken or some will be satisfied with crossing the bridge before it comes. Incidentally, construction is necessary—we’d better begin! San Francisco’s tax rate, says Herbert Fleishhacker (banker and president of the city’s Park Commission), is the lowest of any city and county in the country.”
But, again, it took several more years to achieve the federal approval to proceed.
The 71st Congress passed:
“CHAP. 238.-An Act Granting the consent of Congress to the State of California to construct, maintain, and operate a bridge across the Bay of San Francisco from the Rincon Hill district in San Francisco by way of Goat Island to Oakland.
“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the consent of Congress is hereby granted to the State of California to construct, maintain, and operate a bridge and approaches thereto across the Bay of San Francisco, at a point suitable to the interests of navigation, at or near the general site from Rincon Hill, in the city and county of San Francisco, to and across Goat Island, in San Francisco Bay, thence to Oakland, in the county of Alameda, in accordance with the provisions of an Act entitled “An Act to regulate the construction of bridges over navigable waters,” approved March 23, 1906, and subject to the conditions and limitations contained in this Act : Provided, That permission for such bridge to cross the Government reservation on Goat Island shall first be obtained from the Secretaries of War Navy, and Commerce : Provided further That if any buildings, improvements, or facilities on such Government reservations are damaged or destroyed by the construction of said bridge they shall be repaired or replaced by the State of California on a site or sites acceptable to the respective head of the department having jurisdiction over the property involved.
“SEC. 2. If tolls are charged for the use of such bridge, the rates of toll shall be so adjusted as to provide a fund sufficient to pay the reasonable cost of maintaining, repairing, and operating the bridge and its approaches under economical management, and to provide a sinking fund sufficient to amortize the cost of the bridge and its approaches, including reasonable interest and financing cost, as soon as possible under reasonable charges, but within a period of not to exceed forty years from the completion thereof . After a sinking fund sufficient for such amortization shall have been so provided, such bridge shall thereafter be maintained and operated free of tolls or the rates of toll shall thereafter be so adjusted as to provide a fund of not to exceed the amount necessary for the proper maintenance, repair, and operation of the bridge and its approaches under economical management. An accurate record of the costs of the bridge and its approaches, the expenditures for maintaining repairing, and operating the same, and of the daily tolls collected, shall be kept and shall be available for the information of all persons interested.
“SEC. 3. The right to alter, amend or repeal this Act is hereby expressly reserved, and the United States shall incur no liability of any kind whatsoever for the alteration, amendment, or repeal thereof.
“Approved, February 20, 1931.”
The San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin shows against a drawing of the proposed bridge, circa 1913.