The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the best-known landmarks in American history, at once an engineering marvel and an aesthetic icon. What most don’t know is that it was first drafted by Wesleyan alumnus Charles Alton Ellis ’00 (1900, that is), who brought his towering vision to life with little more than paper, pencils, and the creative and algebraic powers of his own mind. Designed in an age before computers, the Golden Gate is now inextricably linked to them, forming the structural conduit between the high-tech world of Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Peninsula and artsy, bucolic Marin County and wine country beyond. So why isn’t Ellis better known? Here’s the full story by John W. Paton ’49, P’75—including how Ellis’s significant contributions were purposefully erased—from the fall 1987 issue of The Wesleyan University Alumnus:
“Two Men and a Bridge” by John W. Paton ’49, P’75
In the summer of 1986, with extraordinary spectacle and more than a little Gorgonzola, we celebrated the centennial of that wondrous French statue in New York’s harbor. For many, the Statue of Liberty symbolizes America, the beckoning torch. Out on the West Coast stands another edifice that many regard as equally symbolic of our country: the Golden Gate Bridge.
This past May, Californians noisily celebrated the bridge’s 50th birthday. They had cause to be proud. To see that glorious span rising out of the Pacific fog, its slender orange-red towers reaching for the sky, strong and delicate at the same time, its great cables dipping gracefully toward the whitecaps below, is to observe a dazzling combination of applied science, daring, and art. Much that man does despoils the natural scene; the Golden Gate seems to have been created just to hold this bridge. It has been called the world’s most beautiful manmade object and is America’s most photographed artifact.
During the days of celebration, much was made, quite appropriately, of the bridge’s chief engineer, Joseph B. Strauss. Some mention was even made of its virtually anonymous design engineer, Charles Alton Ellis, a member of Wesleyan’s Class of 1900. After half a century of oblivion, Ellis was brought to public attention in 1986 through an eye-opening book, The Gate: The True Story of the Design and Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, by John Van der Zee.
Strauss, barely five feet tall, was a man of action, forceful, humorless, and tenacious. Contemporaries saw him as ill-tempered, devious, and colossally vain. Ellis was virtually his opposite, even in humor and height: a tall man of ruminative habit, highly intellectual and reserved, he had a wry wit. Brilliant mathematically, he was at home with abstractions. Though not without vanity himself, he was decorous and loyal. They made a strange and (until their falling out) most effective team.
Strauss devoted almost two decades—nearly a third of his life—to the bridge. First he had to sell the idea of a span at the Golden Gate, then he had to demonstrate that it could be built without federal or state money, next he had to beat out highly qualified contenders for the job of chief engineer, and finally he had to build the bridge itself. Only a man of extraordinary self-confidence and determination would have taken on the task; only a man of great staying power would have seen it through.
Ellis’s part, by contrast, was less conspicuously difficult. He had none of the bitter political, financial, and legal battles to fight. He suffered none of the cruel public attacks on his character and competence that Strauss did. But Ellis’s role can be considered minor only if you believe the fundamental engineering design of a great structure to be incidental.
To understand what their combined talents achieved you need first to envision the Golden Gate.
Unlike New York’s harbor, San Francisco Bay does not sit right out in the open for any passing ship’s lookout to see. Hidden behind a ridge of coastal hills, it lies five miles inland, where it forms a huge two-winged natural harbor. The Spaniards sailed the West Coast for 200 years before discovering this 60-mile lake, and then it wasn’t a seaman but a soldier traveling overland who stumbled on it in 1769.
The bay forms a huge basin that collects about 40 percent of the runoff from California’s rivers and streams. Some come from the Sierras, 200 miles to the east, and some from as far north as Mount Shasta, 400 miles up the coast.
Twice a day the Pacific tides force their way through a slim cleft in the hills. This vast in- and outpouring of salt and fresh water—seven times the daily flow of the Mississippi River—sluices through the Golden Gate, the narrowest part of the passage. In some places the channel is only 43 feet deep; in others, more than 300. Even when the Pacific deserves its name, the turbulence in the strait can be dangerous. Huge ocean swells pound in. Still water is seen only at peak high and flat low tide, and then just for minutes. The passageway is often lost in fog. Danger is further heightened by storms that batter the coast. Winds of 40 mph are common; of 60 mph, not all rare.
At the southern side of the Golden Gate, San Francisco stands at the tip of a 40-mile-long peninsula. The Bay, into which the city juts, once blocked overland passage to the north. To get to Marin County, to northern California, Oregon, or Washington, motorists had to drive the long way around or take one of the many ferries.
As far back as the mid-19th century, Californians had spoken of a bridge at the Golden Gate. But a mile-wide bridge in such a hazardous setting was beyond the technology of the time. During World War I, though, when the automobile was beginning to transform American life, new attention became focused on the site. It was an expansive era. People were on the move. Economic development of the region depended on access to the fertile valleys to the east and the lovely hills, rich forests, and scenic coasts to the north. Once opened, these sparsely populated areas would grow and prosper, as would San Francisco, their port as well as their marketplace.
Local newspapers clamored for a bridge. Some politicians made it their cause. But the obstacles were immense. The strait was the mouth of the principal harbor on the West Coast. San Francisco handled ship traffic from the Panama Canal and Alaska; it served the American possessions in the Pacific. It was the port of entry for the Far East as well as a vital naval base and military headquarters. Bridges aren’t built across the sole exit from a major harbor. All military doctrine, as far back as the Romans, argued against offering an enemy such a juicy target. Its destruction might not only impede shipping, but could bottle up the fighting fleet.
Other objections abounded. Could a bridge be built high enough to allow unrestricted passage of large ships? Could a single-span bridge that long be built? The bridge’s two piers would have to support millions of tons of weight and resist enormous pulling and twisting pressures in the twice-daily suck of powerful tides. One of these piers would have to stand more than 1,000 feet from shore in virtually open sea, subject to the wrath of the ocean. The geology of the region made the undersea bedrock suspect, and the devastating earthquake of 1906 stayed fresh in local memory. A mere six miles west of the Golden Gate runs the San Andreas fault.
The Army’s Corps of Engineers, responsible for America’s navigable waters, opposed a bridge at the Golden Gate. Compounding the problem, the Army controlled the property over which all bridge traffic would have to flow on both sides of the Bay. Historic Fort Baker stood on the Marin side. The lovely Presidio looked down on the Golden Gate from the San Francisco side, and down below on the water nestled Fort Winfield Scott, known locally as Fort Point.
Political opposition, surreptitiously led by the Southern Pacific Railroad (owner of the ferries), was formidable. Together these obstacles made the dream of a bridge seem impossible.
Strauss, whatever his faults, did not scare easily. Obstacles to him were mere challenges. He ran a successful engineering company in Chicago and had built hundreds of bridges throughout the world—none nearly as large or as sophisticated as a bridge at the Golden Gate would have to be. Strauss was more than just an engineer, though, he was an entrepreneur-promoter. He was willing to wade in and slug it out in the political arena—or slip behind the curtain and wheel and deal in secret.
In 1917 San Francisco’s politically powerful city engineer informally asked a number of engineers, among them Strauss, to submit proposals for a bridge. Strauss, who had already been campaigning for the job, produced his plan in 1921. He estimated the cost at $17 million—substantially lower than the figures entered by any of his rivals.
Anyone who has seen the Golden Gate Bridge afire in the westering sun, or lifting out of the fog, will shudder at Strauss’s original plan. It melds two familiar bridge styles: the cantilever and the suspension. Either can be beautiful; his hybrid is anything but. He thought so much of it, however, that he had it patented. Rival engineers called it dangerous, and perhaps it was. What is indisputable is that it was massive and utterly alien to the natural setting of the Golden Gate.
Strauss even moved his personal office to San Francisco in order to campaign relentlessly for “his” bridge. Finally, in 1929, after Herculean efforts to sell himself and his idea for a bridge, he was chosen from a field of 11 that included seven renowned builders. He had already invested 12 years in the project. Now he was chief engineer of a bridge yet to be designed, a long way from being approved and for which funding was far from certain. He expected to start promptly and complete the bridge in four years, but it would be four more difficult years before the work could even begin.
In 1923 the California legislature had passed a unique enabling act. This law allowed San Francisco, and those other counties that wished to join it, to form a bridge district with the power to levy taxes and issue bonds to be redeemed by the future revenues from the bridge. Neither federal nor state funds would be sought. The bridge would pay for itself. This unprecedented method of financing, which Strauss wholeheartedly supported, looked risky to many; and it would spawn bitter legal and political challenges throughout the next decade.
Along the way, Strauss had bolstered his engineering staff. He brought in Ellis from the Chicago office to help out. Ellis was a Downeaster, born in Parkman, Maine, in June 1876. At Wesleyan, he had studied Greek and mathematics and played catcher on the baseball team. (For the rest of his life he remained devoted to baseball, and in later years he often ducked out of his office at Purdue University to watch the college teams practice and play.) After graduating from Wesleyan, he began a lifelong career in structural engineering, first as a draftsman for the American Bridge Company, then as an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Michigan.
The chance to work on actual construction drew him to the Dominion Bridge Company for which he co-designed the cantilever bridge in Montreal Harbor. By 1916, he had returned to the academic world as professor of structural engineering at the University of Illinois. It was there that Strauss found him in 1921 and persuaded the tall bespectacled Yankee to join the Strauss headquarters in Chicago as general manager and chief design engineer. Before leaving the company under painful circumstances in 1932, Ellis would rise to vice president.
That Strauss and Ellis had to clash seems obvious in retrospect. Ellis was an idealist, with many of the strong as well as weak connotations implicit in the word. Strauss was a realist, with many of the sound as well as harsh possibilities that word suggests.
It would be simple—in fact, it is tempting—to make arrogant, corner-cutting Strauss the villain, and reserved, correct Ellis the victim. But life is usually more complex than that, and there is much that we don’t know about either or about their working relationship.
In 1924, when Strauss was battling hard for the contract to build the bridge, he summoned Ellis from Chicago to examine the Golden Gate site and make preliminary analyses of the engineering problems involved. Whether Strauss understood the implications of the enormous advances then taking place in bridge design and metallurgy is unclear. Through the bold theories of a Latvian immigrant named Leon Moisseiff, bridge design was leaping into previously uncharted territory. Suspension bridges could now stretch farther, use less mass and weight, be built more quickly, and cost less. Moisseiff, designer of the Manhattan Bridge, would see his theories tested later in New York’s George Washington Bridge, built in 1931.
Ellis, the scholar, mathematician, and respected structural engineer, quickly grasped Moisseiff’s theories of wind forces and the distribution of stresses. Strauss, who had made his fortune as a builder of small, practical bridges, needed Ellis as his envoy to the elite of the engineering world. Once again operating from the Strauss Company’s Chicago headquarters, Ellis worked smoothly with the distinguished consulting engineers (one of them Moisseiff) Strauss hired after he was named chief engineer. They exchanged theoretical views and ideas about the possible applications of Moisseiff’s heretical notions. For Ellis, the magic of the bridge that was taking shape in their minds and on paper was its limber construction. Lighter, stronger steel and new design, stressing flexibility rather than rigidity, would enable the bridge to shift stresses, to stretch in warm weather and shrink in cold, to move laterally and yet maintain its equilibrium under great weight and wind pressure.
When it came time for Strauss to present to the bridge commissioners a specific engineering plan with hard estimates of costs, Ellis did the design work. Strauss quietly abandoned the hybrid plan of which he had boasted so long. The suspension bridge plan became his own.
Like any profession, engineering travels in well-established paths until someone’s daring leap of the imagination leads to a new state of the art. But speculative theory is one thing; building a bridge is something else. Before a bridge can be brought to reality in steel, cable, and concrete, that theory has to be translated into specific mathematical formulae applicable to that particular bridge. These were precomputer days, and the number of algebraic equations needed to relate weight, mass, wind pressure, piers, towers, cables, and span seems mind-boggling. Yet when Strauss finally decided to proceed with a high-towered suspension bridge with a record-long center span of 4,200 feet, he simply handed Ellis a pad and a fistful of pencils and told him to go to work. Go to work Ellis did, and the bridge we so admire today is the one that, with some later modifications, he designed.
Perhaps the break between Strauss and Ellis had its roots in a talk by Ellis that seemed to upstage his chief. In 1930 the National Academy of Science held its annual meeting at Berkeley—its first ever on the West Coast. Even though the Golden Gate Bridge was major news in terms of applied science, politics, and economics, to say nothing of local pride, Strauss, the man responsible, was not invited. Ellis was. He was asked to speak on the new theories of bridge construction and their application there in San Francisco Bay.
Charles Derleth, dean of civil engineering at Berkeley and one of Strauss’s consulting engineers, introduced Ellis enthusiastically. Then Ellis, the old professor, at home with such a group, spoke for nearly an hour in what Van der Zee describes as a droll, wry, anecdotal talk. He outlined Moisseiff’s new theories about transferring wind pressures and distributing stresses, and he explained their application to the Golden Gate Bridge plan.
“This was not,” he assured them, “just another structure to be designed similar to many others in which the computations were more or less a mechanical process, but one that required considerable original thought.”
Whether Ellis also addressed these words to his boss or whether he even had Strauss in mind at all, can only be guessed. His successful appearance at Berkeley could not have seemed other than a slight to the prickly chief engineer.
The plan to which Ellis referred called for the longest single-span bridge ever built. It would exceed by 600 feet the George Washington Bridge’s 3,600 feet. The towers were to be the tallest in the world—476 feet—and its 220 feet of clearance allowed for ships of any size. It had none of the Erector-set look of Strauss’s earlier plan. Simple horizontal bars climbed the huge towers like steps on a ladder. What the automobile driver, the sailor, or the shorebound onlooker could expect to see was a series of diminishing rectangles framing patches of the sky, or, more likely, the fog. In its magnificent setting, the bridge would present a light, airy—almost fragile—look, a combination of strength and grace.
Foes of the bridge, still attempting to halt construction, attacked the new design as dangerous; and Dean Derleth, responding to the critics, may have sealed Ellis’s fate. With gentle irony, he hinted that such opposition was based on ignorance of engineering principles. He credited Ellis with the imaginative design that overturned old beliefs about mass and weight. Even if he, himself, and Strauss and O. H. Ammann (the other design consultant) did not fully comprehend all the mathematics involved, he said, Ellis certainly did.
Quick to respond to slights and injuries, real or imaginary, Strauss is unlikely to have found Derleth’s wry remarks amusing. He was the chief engineer, responsible for all aspects of the bridge from design to completion. He shared credit with no one. First Ellis had publicly taken credit for the design. Now his friend Derleth had suggested that Ellis understood its complexities better than Strauss did. We don’t know that Strauss’s famed temper exploded, but it seems fair to assume that it must have.
The chief engineer still had his hands full in the courts, in the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, in the Bridge Commission, in the political back rooms, and in the press. The site was wrong, the design was unsafe, the geology uncertain, the financing unsound, the cost estimates too low—the same criticism that had plagued him for years.
By this time the Army, which had grudgingly given its approval, then withdrawn it, had renewed it. The voters had approved a bond issue, and a coalition of bankers led by A. P. Giannini (the immigrant whose tiny Bank of Italy had grown into the Bank of America) had agreed to take the bonds. But the opposition remained relentless. Strauss demanded full speed to allow them no further room for attack. Delay enraged him. But careful, cautious Ellis had been thinking further about the implications of Moisseiff’s theories, and in particular about the relationship of tower to span.
The showdown came in 1931. Ellis wanted above all for the bridge to be safe. He asked for time to rework some computations for the towers. In particular, he wanted to check the work of his former pupil Charles Clarahan, another Strauss employee.
Strauss said no. No more time.
Van der Zee, author of The Gate, characterizes the differences between the two this way:
“Strauss, impatient with abstraction, wanted to get on with the work; Ellis, devoted to engineering ethics, would not be rushed into consenting to a design that he was convinced was in error.”
Strauss finally wrote Ellis, who was back at the main office in Chicago, suggesting that he take a two-week vacation. Ellis responded that he could not while worrying so much about the towers. As a responsible engineer, he spelled out in more detail what he thought might be wrong and worth checking. Strauss fired back a telegram ordering him to take leave at once.
Then three days before the end of his enforced rest, Ellis received a cruel letter from Strauss. The chief engineer wrote: “… the structure is nothing unusual and did not require all the time, study, and expense which [you] thought necessary for it.”
He directed Ellis to turn over all his papers to Clarahan and take an indefinite furlough without pay. Ellis was fired. Virtually all evidence of his contribution to the bridge was then obliterated. Even his name, which had appeared in the official stationery as designing engineer just below that of the chief engineer, disappeared. Strauss, presumably, saw to that. It was as though the principal designer of Strauss’s bridge had never existed.
By then the Depression was in full swing. It was a disheartening time in which to seek work. Except for some consulting assignments, Ellis remained unemployed for three years. But he was never idle. On his own time, and without pay, he continued to work on the computations and shared the results with Derleth and the other design consultants working for Strauss.
No evidence exists to suggest that Ellis ever said a harsh word about Strauss. Though he wrote often to the consultants, his letters were remarkably free of acrimony. “In all my interviews,” he assured Derleth, “I have simply expressed a desire to return to university work and have in that way avoided any reference to unpleasantness in my present position.”
All he asked was that, in the event of public criticism of his work, he be given a chance to reply. “I have worked three years and more on this job,” he wrote. “ I have personally made all the computations and design and wrote the specifications and naturally it is very close to my heart.”
Purdue University hired Ellis in 1934, and for the next 12 years he headed its structural design program. A much-respected figure, he spoke of his work on the Golden Gate Bridge without bitterness and joked that he made his living “playing bridge.”
Work on the bridge started at last in January 1933 in the depths of the Depression. The long frustrating delays now showed some surprise benefits. Bonds could be sold at more favorable rates and, as there was a large surplus of labor, construction bids came in lower. The vast unemployment made public support for the $35-million building project certain once it was announced that local workers were to get preference. Men were desperate to work.
Once the actual construction began, something strange happened. Strauss, who had been at the point of the lance for almost 20 years, seemed to fade into the background. Clifford E. Paine, his right-hand man, took over. Strauss might still be the boss, but Paine was the man who got the bridge built.
Increasingly distant, Strauss was often absent from San Francisco. His health was deteriorating. At one point, he was reported to have had a breakdown and to have spent six months in the Adirondacks. Often his clearest view of the progress on the bridge came through binoculars from his apartment on Nob Hill overlooking the back.
Whatever it was that kept him away so much, when it came time for a ceremony, Joseph Baermann Strauss was there. Making no effort to mask his pride, he said, “It took two decades and 200 million words to convince people the bridge was feasible.”
To the extent that Strauss shared credit with anyone for anything, he gave Paine, his indispensable lieutenant, credit for the design. But when Paine—who personally directed the enormous effort of spanning the Golden Gate—asked to be listed in the records as assistant chief engineer, Strauss remained in character. He refused. “Assistant to the chief engineer is sufficient,” he said, and would not budge.
The labor of erecting the towers, stringing cables, and laying the roadway was brutally hard. Skilled men desperate for the good pay of $11 a day pitted their lives against the cold, wet, relentless wind, the blanketing fog, the sheer physical discomfort, and the ever-present danger of a watery death hundreds of feet below. Even with hard hats required, installation of an underbridge safety net and other pioneering protective measures, the bridge took 11 lives before it was completed.
At 3 p.m. (Eastern time), May 28, 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressed a telegraph key in the White House as horns and whistles shrieked throughout the Bay Area. Squadrons of fighters and torpedo bombers, mostly from the carriers Lexington, Saratoga, and Ranger standing out to sea—450 planes in all—flew overhead. A great fleet of warships sailed into the harbor past luxury liners sailing out. Bands played, politicians orated, church bells rang. Thousands of cars made the premier journey across the span. The Golden Gate Bridge was open at last.
The man who had made it all possible shook with emotion. When Strauss spoke it was without the old reckless exaggeration and pomposity. He said simply, “This bridge needs neither praise nor eulogy nor encomium. It speaks for itself.”
Strauss had won. He had built his bridge. That October he resigned from his post as chief engineer. Seven months later, life’s work done, he was dead of a heart attack at age 68.
Ellis, meanwhile, was at Purdue, where he continued to teach and write until his retirement in 1946. As professor emeritus he lectured at Northwestern Technical Institute until his death in 1949—18 years after he had been summarily fired for no apparent reason but his desire to safeguard the structure. Whether he ever saw the splendid reality of the Golden Gate Bridge, no one seems to know.
In Wesleyan’s Science Library, there is a copy of Strauss’s final report to the bridge commissioner. It is a fascinating account, 246 pages long, with excellent maps and diagrams. In language that is for the most part simple and clear, it relates many of the controversies and the obstacles encountered in construction. It gives a powerful picture of the extraordinary artifacts humans can create, and the means by which they do. Once you read the report, you cannot look at any bridge without seeing it anew.
There are many names in the chief engineer’s report. But one name is conspicuous by its absence—that of Charles Alton Ellis, whose design remains an amalgam of strength and beauty, an everyday object of utility that lifts the spirit. In the chronicle of a great achievement, such an omission is not only sad and petty but baffling.