September 3, 2013

Henry J. Kaiser and the building of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge

Graphic from "Spanning the Bay" column in the Oakland Tribune, 1934

Contributed by Lincoln Cushing, Archivist and Historian

With the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge finally completed, it’s interesting to note that the industrialist founder of Kaiser Permanente played a major role in the creation of the original bridge, which has served the region for more than 75 years.

Henry J. Kaiser and his construction companies participated in at least four significant aspects of building the bridge:

  • Helping secure U.S. government support and funding for the project.
  • Construction of piers and footings on the East Bay side.
  • Providing concrete for the other bridge components beyond the East Bay piers.
  • Initial painting of the bridge.

Support and funding for the overall bridge project

In early 1934, Earl Lee Kelly, California Director of Public Works, sent a letter to Henry J. Kaiser asking for help in getting federal funding for the Central Valley Water Project. The letter begins:

“I understand that you intend to leave shortly for Washington, and knowing of the fine legislative work which you did concerning the Boulder Dam, and the assistance that you gave us in your connections in Washington with securing of the money for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, I would greatly appreciate it, when you are in Washington, if you would again render the same valuable assistance to the California Water Authority that you have in the former instances where you have secured funds for California, which means so much to the people of our State.” [i]

Kaiser’s involvement at the national level was crucial because the bridge was to be paid for through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation established in early 1932. The Great Depression quashed the usual options for funding such a project through conventional revenue bonds. The RFC was originally intended as a financial industry bailout, but passage of the Emergency Relief and Construction Act offered expanded opportunities for cities to fund projects. Between August 1932 and April 1933, California sent

Henry J. Kaiser caisson barge, circa 1933. Photo courtesy Caltrans archive.
Henry J. Kaiser caisson barge, circa 1933. Photo courtesy Caltrans archive.

East Bay piers and footings

The major elements of the bridge construction were divided into seven contracts.  Different members of the "Six Companies" (the original construction consortium that worked on Boulder/Hoover Dam) were affiliated with the Trans-Bay Construction Company (also called “Transbay”) and Bridge Builders, Inc., and competed with one another for Contracts 2 and 4, with one group winning Contract 2 and the other group winning Contract 4. The fact that these companies bid against one another in this project illustrates the transient nature of these project-specific arrangements.

Bridge Builders was a consortium formed in 1931-32 with partners to bid on work on the Golden Gate Bridge. For the Bay Bridge, Bridge Builders consisted of a slightly different group of affiliated companies:  Missouri Valley Bridge and Iron Company, Kansas City; Raymond Concrete Pile Company, New York; Dravo Construction Company, Pittsburgh; Bechtel-Kaiser-Warren Company, San Francisco; and the Utah Construction Company, San Francisco. Henry J. Kaiser was the president of Bridge Builders.

On April 28, 1933, the State of California signed Contract #4 with Bridge Builders, Inc., for the East Bay Substructure — the 21 piers between Yerba Buena Island and the Oakland shoreline. This was no simple task, and included digging E-3, “the deepest pier known to man,” located 1,400 feet west of Yerba Buena Island and embedded 242 feet below the surface of the bay. This contract was completed December 24, 1934.

[i] Letter from Earl Lee Kelly, California Director of Public Works, thanking HJK for legislative help, 1/10/1934; BANC83-42c-3-8

[ii] Historic American Engineering Record, San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, HAER no. CA-32