San Francisco Tour Tales

Top of the World

by Susan Saperstein

When I was 8 years old, my mother took me to the Statue of Liberty. I was so afraid looking down as we were ascending to the crown, that I would not budge after the second level. But when Cynthia Gregory asked if I would accompany her on a trip in the teeny tiny elevator to the top of the Golden Gate towers, well…..I jumped at the chance.

Daniel Belman, who works security on the Bridge, offered Cynthia the trip after she performed his marriage. He met us in the parking lot. We got hard hats, signed releases (and probably a criminal background check), and then Daniel took us in a small Cushman cart to the south towers along the bridge walkway. This was a navigational feat itself around the mobs of summer pedestrians and bikers on the walkway.

Passing through a door at the south tower, the three of us scrunched ourselves in an elevator purported to be phone booth size. No way to get four people in, no way to move an arm to scratch an itch. It is a hand-operated elevator, and designed for the bridge in the 1930s.

The climb is over 700 feet, about 75 stories, stopping at a landing. At the landing we climbed up a fixed ladder of 20 rungs up to a small hatch. And then pulling ourselves up through the hatch there was the VIEW. It was thrilling and magnificent, even on our foggy day. It felt like landing on the moon.

The height of the towers is 746 above water, and the sway of the bridge is 27.7 feet. It was too exciting to be scary, not once did we think about the height. My friend Louis said that once you go past 35 feet (as he was told in the Army), you have passed the acrophobia limit.

Former City Guide Director Elaine Molinari told GuideLines that in the 1970s members of the San Francisco Suicide Club had climbed from the Marin side, along the catwalk under the bridge, and then inside and up the north tower. Former North Beach tour guide and coordinator Laura Stillman held several Waltz Across the Bridge parties. At the first dance, the group waltzed to the first tower and then had champagne at the second tower. At successive events, the dancing began after walking past the office building because security got on the loud speaker and told them to stop.

Although these shenanigans were never legal, security since 9/11 has changed all that kind of activity. The people who guard the bridge watch for everything. Daniel says he can tell when someone on the walkway looks like they are contemplating something, like a suicide attempt. They have the look.

Bridge construction began in January, 1933 and was completed 4 years later. The bonds to finance it were paid off in 1971. At the 50th anniversary celebration in 1987, the bridge was open for walkers.

City Guides provided an information booth for the event and Elaine was included in the planning meetings. She recalled, “The Bridge District hired someone who had put on the LA Olympics, and, at these meetings, he kept using a reference number of 80,000 people expected to walk the bridge. We true San Franciscans tried to correct his estimate, explaining that this was San Francisco and there would be MANY more people than that. We asked for security radios at the booth, in case of problems, and were denied because they weren’t expecting any problems.”

It was estimated that 800,000 people walked, with 300,000 on the bridge at any time. The City Guides booth became the lost-and-found booth, joining the last lost kid and grandparent around 4:30 pm.

When I asked Daniel if they were going to close the Bridge for walkers for the 75th Anniversary next year, he said no way. During the 50th, the multitudes from the San Francisco and Marin sides collided in the middle. The slight upward arch of the bridge roadway was flattened. There are videos and photos of the flattened bridge on that day


San Francisco Almanac, Gladys Hansen 

Editors note: This article originally appeared in the September, 2011 issue of Guidelines, a publication of SF City Guides.