Book Review: ‘Golden Gate’ by Kevin Starr and ‘Colossus’ by Michael Hiltzik

Golden Gate

The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge

Kevin Starr

Bloomsbury Press: 216 pp., $23


Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century

Michael Hiltzik

Free Press: 498 pp., $30

The Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam are more than just icons of American engineering. They are Depression-era monuments that transformed not only California’s physical landscape, but its social one as well. The bridge linked San Francisco to rural Marin County, hastening the consolidation of the Bay Area into a huge metropolis. The dam brought reliable irrigation to Imperial Valley farms, as well as drinking water and hydroelectric power to Los Angeles and other Southwestern cities, fostering their explosive growth.

Both structures smashed precedents: Rising 726 feet above the Colorado River bed, Hoover was more than twice as high as the tallest previous dam on its opening day in 1935; the Golden Gate, with its 4,200-foot-long main span, was the longest suspension bridge in the world when the first pedestrian crossed its span on May 27, 1937. With their soaring ambitions clad in sleek Art Deco designs, bridge and dam seem the epitome of New Deal optimism. Yet neither was a New Deal project.

The Golden Gate was built by a county-based bridge-and-highway district, its bonds financed by Bank of America, explains California historian Kevin Starr in “Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge.” Hoover Dam was “conceived and launched by Republicans,” notes Pulitzer Prize-winning Times journalist Michael Hiltzik in “Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century,” but Franklin Delano Roosevelt skillfully used his speech at the dedication ceremonies to appropriate the dam “as a tangible symbol of … his Democratic administration’s economic recovery program.”

In fact, although both projects took shape in the 1920s, both fit comfortably into the New Deal zeitgeist: They provided desperately needed jobs on massive public works that created important pieces of modern infrastructure, facilitating American urbanization and industrialization. Boosters of the Golden Gate, irked by long waits for ferry service, were sure that a bridge would make automobile trips across the bay swifter and more pleasant. Southern Marin County was “suitable for suburban development,” they believed, and for “the North Bay — Sonoma, Napa, Lake, and Mendocino counties — to develop into more than a sparsely settled agricultural and ranching region, it would have to have a more immediate contact to San Francisco than the ferry system currently allowed.”

Starr does a great job of laying out the motives behind the Golden Gate’s construction, but he doesn’t assess the unintended consequences Bay Area residents live with today. He fails to comment on the irony of the fact that, less than 40 years after the bridge was pitched as an alternative to slow ferry service, a fleet of high-speed ferries was put into operation to alleviate excessive automobile traffic on the Golden Gate. And anyone who cares about cities, as Starr clearly does, should at least touch on the issues of whether the development of the North Bay was an unmitigated blessing, and whether the bridge encourages urban sprawl.

Starr favors an optimistic tone throughout his short, impressionistic text. The 10 years of political maneuvering preceding the beginning of construction in 1933 were, in his view, “worth the effort, and in the long run, necessary” to forge a public consensus. The opposition of the Sierra Club, which argued that a bridge would spoil one of the most magnificent vistas in America, played a role in convincing Joseph Strauss, the driving force behind the bridge, to scrap an ugly original design and commission some of the nation’s most distinguished engineers and architects to come up with something better. Most people familiar with San Francisco will agree that the bay was “not marred but enhanced” by the elegant result. Still, the author’s relentless drum-beating can be grating. Must the Golden Gate be “the most beautiful bridge ever built”? “Platonic in its perfection”?

Though it cogently conveys a good deal of history, “Golden Gate” is in essence a highly personal, highly colored love letter. Starr idiosyncratically tosses in his musings on everything from the Golden Gate as an art object to its dubious distinction as a popular spot for suicide attempts. Describing the nine-day opening fiesta — which included fireworks, a parade and a pageant — he segues into the bridge’s role as an enhancer of urban life, with its welcoming pedestrian promenade joining the San Francisco and Marin County sites of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, created in 1972. His passion is appealing, though his assessment of the bridge’s impact could use more critical rigor.

Hiltzik, by contrast, takes a gimlet-eyed look at Hoover Dam, past and present. He frames his history of the construction in a contemporary context, pondering once-unthinkable questions such as “whether it was right to build the dam even then.” Los Angeles and the other cities nurtured by the dam, he points out in his introduction, “have also become its prisoners,” dependent on a supply of water that has proved much less abundant than was thought when commissioners representing seven Western states drafted the Colorado River Compact in 1922.

The compact gave California 58% of the total water supply, plus a “temporary” entitlement to Arizona and Nevada’s unused portion that it would not relinquish until forced to by a Supreme Court decision that also made the federal government the final arbiter of who got how much water — because by 1963 it was clear there wouldn’t always be enough to meet the 1922 allotments. The U.S. government similarly oversold Hoover Dam as a tool for flood control. This became evident after a 1983 deluge that damaged the dam’s spillways and inundated the lower Colorado floodplains, on which the revenue-hungry Bureau of Land Management had encouraged the development of tourist facilities.

Bracketed by a sobering catalogue of flawed assumptions and their late 20th century consequences, Hiltzik’s account of the dam’s construction — an admittedly awe-inspiring engineering feat — has a considerably less triumphal air than Joseph E. Stevens’ 1988 history, “Hoover Dam: An American Adventure.” It was never going to be easy to raise a dam of unprecedented size in a remote desert in blistering heat, and Hiltzik evinces some admiration for the tough engineers and executives of the Six Companies consortium that submitted the successful bid to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Men like chief engineer Frank “Hurry-Up” Crowe got a daunting job done ahead of schedule and under budget, but the scathing depiction of their tactics makes it clear that they did it on the backs of their labor force.

Six Companies skimped on safety; the death and injury rate at Hoover Dam was twice the national concrete-construction average. It fought off union organizers and paid wages partially in scrip, claiming a shortage of ready money while voting cash dividends to its board of directors. The author is fair, recognizing the cadre of trusted foremen who devotedly followed Crowe from job to job and acknowledging the pride many workers felt about their participation in a historic venture. He notes that the consortium’s abusive practices, which relied on the collusion of government officials, were ameliorated after FDR’s election by stricter oversight from a newly vigilant Department of Labor, though by then construction was winding down.

The parade of grim particulars might make “Colossus” a depressing read were it not for the vigor of Hiltzik’s prose and the lively gallery of individual portraits and anecdotes that convey a wonderfully textured sense of what it was like to work on Hoover Dam.

Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”.