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Joseph Strauss

builder of drawbridges who is most commonly known for a suspension bridge

Joseph Baermann Strauss

Joseph Baermann Strauss was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on January 9, 1870. His father was a painter and writer, his mother a pianist, and Joseph himself was a lover of poetry and hoped to pursue a career in the arts; such a career would not be forthcoming, however.

Strauss entered the University of Cincinnati, where he studied commerce and economics, while still trying to pursue a career in poetry. Although he was far from superior in physical ability, he tried out for the football team anyway; he ended up recovering in the school infirmary. While recuperating, he had the opportunity to look out his window at the newly completed Cincinnati-Covington Bridge, America's first long-span suspension bridge, and to develop a deep fascination with bridges. His 1892 commencement address included a detailed proposal to build an international railroad bridge across the Bering Strait. Although the proposal itself seemed outlandish, his presentation almost convinced the audience that such an idea was possible. He graduated with a degree in civil engineering that same year.

Early Career

After college, Strauss became a draftsman for the New Jersey Steel and Iron Company. In 1894, he became an instructor in engineering at the University of Cincinnati. From 1895 to 1897, he worked as a detailer, inspector, estimator, and then designer for the Lassig Bridge and Iron Works Company. He was a designer and squad boss for the Sanitary District of Chicago from 1897 to 1899, and then became the principal assistant engineer for the engineering firm of Ralph Modjeski in Chicago. While with Modjeski, Strauss developed his trademark "bascule" drawbridge design. In 1904, he formed the Strauss Bascule Bridge Company of Chicago (later renamed the Strauss Engineering Corporation), which eventually constructed some 400 drawbridges across the country.

Golden Gate Bridge

In 1919, San Francisco city engineer Michael O'Shaughnessy approached Strauss about spanning the Golden Gate, the water entrance into San Francisco Bay. Strauss was intrigued by the idea and personally campaigned for official approval to build a bridge. In 1921 he transmitted a blueprint for the proposed bridge, along with a $17,000,000 estimate for its construction ($13,700,000 for the superstructure, $3,300,000 for the substructure). He was appointed chief engineer for the project on August 15, 1929, and, on November 4, 1930, San Francisco area voters approved a $35,000,000 bond issue for construction of the Golden Gate Bridge.

In 1932, the years of lobbying for support, combined with the more immediate demands of drawing up blueprints, hiring contractors, and dealing with various legal issues, caught up with Strauss and he was forced to take a six month leave of absence. He was back on the job by the time construction actually began in January of 1933, however. The bridge opened to pedestrians on May 27, 1937.

Other Important Work

The Golden Gate was not only Strauss's first suspension bridge it was also his most spectacular. Although less well known, many of his 400 some drawbridges were also quite remarkable, including: the first bascule rail bridge over the Cuyahoga River, near Lake Erie (1902); a double-leaf Strauss bascule bridge over the U.S. Ship Canal at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan (1914); and a double-leaf Strauss bascule bridge over the Neva River in Petrograd, Russia, to the former Winter Palace of the Czar (1915).

Strauss was also the holder of several patents relevant to bridge construction, including: the Strauss Trunnion Bascule Bridge, a Reinforced Concrete Gondola Car (April 1, 1919), a "disappearing" Observation Tower (January 20, 1920), a Bascule Door Hangar (February 3, 1925), and a Yielding Barrier for Vehicles (August 11, 1931). He also received a patent for Military Reconnoitering Apparatus (August 26, 1924), and designed and built the Aeroscope for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.

The years of work on the Golden Gate Bridge left Strauss physically and mentally exhausted, and after its completion he moved to Arizona in order to recover. He died in Los Angeles on May 16, 1938.

American Experience: Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge
Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan
Panama-Pacific Exposition

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This page was last updated on May 15, 2018.