During the building of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, CA, 19 men were saved by the use of a safety net. These men were called the Halfway to Hell Club.
San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge was built during the Great Depression. Construction began in January 1933 and continued until the completion of the Bridge in 1937. Jobs on the Bridge were highly desirable, and workers bought addresses and social security numbers to meet residency requirements in order to qualify for the jobs. Since ironworkers were desperately needed, men learned to say they were trained in ironwork even if they weren’t. Everyone from taxicab drivers to farmers became ironworkers overnight.
Conditions on the Bridge
Workers didn’t clock in until they reached their work site, even if it was at the top of one of the 745 foot towers. Their pay was between $4 and $11 a day, which was good money in a era when one in four men were unemployed.
The workers needed nerves of steel to work on the high towers and cables, especially given the weather conditions in the San Francisco Bay. The fog drifted in and out all day, making the catwalks many men worked on as slippery as ice. The wind was another factor the men had to contend with. It literally could pick a man up and hurl him off the bridge. Such conditions lead to many delays.
The Safety Net
The safety net was cantilevered into place underneath the bridge during construction of the road surface. It was not in place prior to that. The net was designed by Joseph Strauss and was similar to a circus net. It cost over $130,000 and was patented by the J. L. Stuart Company. The net was ten feet wider than the bridge, and it extended an additional fifteen feet beyond the end of the road surface. By giving the workers an increased sense of safety, they worked more rapidly on the slippery steel, and the construction was able to proceed more quickly.
Russell Cone, the project’s resident engineer, also enforced the wearing of safety helmets at all times on the build because most injuries were caused by flying objects that were either dropped or thrown.
The Halfway to Hell Club
Workers who lost their footing or were blown off the Bridge fell into the net, thereby cheating death. These workers called themselves The Halfway to Hell Club to describe the experience and their survival.
Stunting Was Grounds for Dismissal
Some men believed so firmly in the safety of the net, they had to be threatened with dismissal to keep from diving into the net. Men were dismissed for any kind of “stunting” during the construction. Drinking alcohol was another grounds for immediate dismissal.
Tragic Falls From Golden Gate Bridge
Ten men were killed in a single accident on the Bridge. On February 16, 1937 a stripping platform came loose from the rest of the Bridge. It dangled in the net for a moment, but the net wasn’t designed to hold a five-ton structure, and it tore. One worker, Tom Casey, lunged for and grabbed a beam, from which he was later rescued. The rest of the ten man crew and two men who had been working in the net plummeted hundreds of feet to the water below. Unbelievably, two survived.
The men who died were: O.A. Anderson; Chris Anderson; William Bass; O. Desper; Fred Dümmatzen; Terence Hallinan; Eldridge Hillen; Charles Lindros; Jack Norman; and Louis Russell.
One other man died during the construction of the Bridge. On October 21, 1936, Kermit Moore died when a derrick lifting steel roadway beams toppled onto him.
The Golden Gate Bridge was a marvel of success not only because of its construction, but also because of its safety record. In an era where one man was expected to die for every million dollars spent on a construction project, only eleven men died on a project costing thirty-five million dollars.