Bancroft Library’s Regional Oral History Office looks for Bay Bridge accounts that span the years

Interviewers at the Bancroft Library’s Regional Oral History Office (ROHO) are betting there are just as many cool stories to tell about the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge as its colorful cousin across the bay.

In fact, the ROHO team at UC Berkeley is issuing a widespread appeal for accounts from the people who designed, built and painted the Bay Bridge as well as its toll takers, managers and maintenance teams, engineers, painters, architects and others involved from the early days of the span’s construction and through the 1950s.

“This is part of an oral history series that will explore the role of the iconic bridges in shaping the identity of the region, as well as their place in architectural, environmental, labor and political history,” said Sam Redman, a historian and director of ROHO’s Bridges and the San Francisco Bay Oral History Project. 

Some interesting tidbits about the Bay Bridge:

  • Present at its official opening on Nov. 12, 1936, was former U.S. President Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) and California’s then-governor Frank Merriam, who used an acetylene torch to cut gold chains strung across the traffic lanes.
  • It once had operating fog horns.
  • Its upper deck was originally limited to cars, with trains and trucks limited to the lower deck.
  • The self-proclaimed and eccentric Emperor Norton I of San Francisco (1819-1880) decreed several times that a suspension bridge – and an underwater tunnel – should be built between Oakland and San Francisco.
  • The original bridge cost $77 million to build. 
  • The Bay Bridge was the longest bridge in the world when it was built.
  • The Bay Bridge, one of the world’s longest bridges, is really two structures – a suspension span stretching from San Francisco to Yerba Buena Island (previously known as Goat Island), and a cantilever bridge running from the island to Oakland.

The purpose of ROHO’s project is to provide new resources for scholars, students and members of the public who are interested in the region’s rich history and the role in that history of the Bay Bridge and other spans stretching across various parts of the bay.

In addition, the oral history series will help inform and be part of a major, multi-disciplinary exhibition focused on the environmental history of the San Francisco Bay, opening at the Oakland Museum of California in September 2013 to coincide with the opening of the new Bay Bridge.

The oral history series is sponsored by the California Department of Transportation, which is working in partnership with the Bay Area Toll Authority and the California Transportation Commission to replace the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge’s eastern span.  ROHO’s oral history research helps satisfy mitigation requirements for the replacement of the Bay Bridge’s historic eastern span. The new eastern span is being built after a segment of the bridge deck collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The replacement is scheduled to conclude in fall 2013. 

Anyone wishing to share their accounts and recollections of the bridge directly connecting San Francisco and Oakland can contact Redman at redman@berkeley.edu or (510) 643-2106.

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