The weather was in the balmy 70s on Nov. 12, 1936, just about perfect for the celebration about to take place for the opening of the Bay Bridge.
It would happen that Thursday. First came the speeches by county and city officials and former President Herbert Hoover, whose help moving things along during the financing period was crucial.
Hoover, who was an engineer himself, called the bridge the greatest in the world. Charles Purcell, the bridge's chief engineer, talked about how hard it had been to build the span.
As the clock approached 12:30 p.m., Gov. Frank Merriam told the crowd to watch a red light; it would turn green when President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressed the telegraph key to signal the opening of the bridge.
Merriam cut the gold chain blocking the entrance with an acetylene torch. A thousand pigeons were let loose to fly overhead, and then came the roar of 200 Navy planes. Bombs exploded high in the sky, letting loose parachutes decorated with American flags. Whistles, sirens and automobile horns sounded.
Hoover and Merriam were in the first car to cross the bridge. Within the first 12 hours of opening, 200,000 cars had crossed the bridge. And within the first nine hours, $45,000 was collected in tolls.
The 65-cent toll was reduced to 50 cents each way after a few months, and again to 25 cents each way. Bridge officials said this was done to compete with the car-carrying ferry boats still plying the bay.
Newspapers devoted story after story to the bridge and its opening.
The Oakland Tribune published a story about how long it took flash bulbs that photographers dropped to hit the water -- six seconds. Another story told of a group of boys who persuaded a Chinatown merchant to let them climb on his truck to cross the bridge. The truckload of boys confused the bridge toll taker for a few minutes before he figured out that the charge for truck, driver and boys should be $2.50.
Two cars had flat tires on the bridge during the first few hours. A California Highway Patrol unit especially organized for aiding drivers was dispatched from Berkeley to take care of the backup caused by the disabled cars.
The Tribune reported that Darlene Taylor, at 1 month, 17 days, was the youngest to have crossed the bridge that day. She slept most of the way across in her mother's arms.
Construction on the bridge started in July 1933 and was financed by $61.4 million in bonds issued by the Reconstruction Finance Corp. and $6 million in bonds backed by the state gas tax.
In the beginning, cars traveled in both directions on the upper span, while trucks and electric rail cars used the lower deck.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the bridge cost $53.6 million to build, which was about $6 million under estimates. Other websites, however, put the cost at $77 million.
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