Golden Ironwork


In ’65 or ’66, Bill decided to visit to San Francisco, following the hippie lure.  What he was in Salt Lake, was an ironworker.  He belonged to the local union and he was a thorn in their side.  Most of the big steel buildings in Salt Lake had church money, and the church wanted the buildings to be built by Mormons.  But they kept hiring Bill because it was a short list at the union hall, and he was good worker.

He finished the season, it was September, and he decided to drive out to San Francisco to see what it was all about.  He came in from the north, through Marin County, out the south end of the tunnel, and there was the Golden Gate Bridge.  The Golden Gate bridge is a bridge-builder’s bridge, it’s an ironworker’s bridge, it’s a magnificent piece of work.  He drove across the bridge at about two miles an hour with his head craned out the window.  He got to the parking lot on the far side, parked his old Chrysler, got out and walked back along the walkway.  When he got near the South tower, he swung over the guardrail, let himself down hand over hand on a wide flange, and made his way along the understructure looking at the quality of the workmanship.

The towers were built as cells, much like the cell structure of a tree. In the case of the bridge, the cells were divided by heavy plate riveted together with heavy angle. All the holes were pre-punched according to the shop drawings back at the Bethlehem factory. Once the cells were assembled with erection bolts at the corners, the rivet teams went in and riveted them together.

  • 1024px-Rivets_on_the_Golden_Gate_bridge_in_San_Francisco_103One man worked at a coke-fired forge with a hand-cranked Buffalo blower on wooden staging at the top rim of the 4’x4’ cells,
  • A 4” diameter aluminum tube led down to the bottom of the cell where,
  • Another man, the bucker, waited with a bucket, a pair of tongs, and a bucking bar,
  • In the adjacent cell, a third man, the riveter, held the pneumatic rivet gun,
  • The air line for the rivet gun ran over a plank of the staging, and the forgeman stood with one foot on the hose.
  • When he felt the pulsing of the rivet gun stop, and he’d pick a red hot 7/8” rivet – 1,900 degrees – out of the fire with his tongs and drop it down the tube,
  • The bucker caught the hot rivet in a cone-shaped bucket,
  •  Picked the rivet out with his tongs and slid it into the next hole,
  • When the riveter saw the red-hot rivet appear in the hole, he waited a minute for the bucker to drop his tongs and get his bucking bar in place,
  • Then he hammered a nice round head on the rivet with the concave driver of the rivet gun,
  • The hammering swelled the body of the rivet, taking up any inconsistencies between the plates and locking them together,
  • As the rivet cooled, it shrank, drawing the plates tightly together.

With rivet guns running all over the tower, it wasn’t possible to think, much less hear anything, so this intricate ballet could only be choreographed by pre-arranged banging on the aluminum tube, or by signalling bursts on the rivet gun. You can imagine what a painful learning curve this might entail, a rivet caught in the tube, the next one hitting it, aluminum melts at 1,200 degrees, so the hot rivet would melt right through the tube and bounce around in the 4’x4’ area, any piece of human skin it touched would be vaporized.

But they did it; 600,000 rivets in each tower, man-years of work. Nicely formed hemispherical heads on the 7/8” rivets, coped ends on the angle braces, lattice beams and plate beams with perfectly even spacing on the rivets.

After an hour or so of marveling at the bridge, Bill climbed back over the guardrail, walked back to his car, and was just about to get in it when a couple of burly old San Francisco police officers came up and grabbed his arms.  He looked at them and thought, “They’re no match for me..” but then again, “They’re close to retirement, it wouldn’t be fair.”

They hustled him into the office, and sat him in a chair.  Against one wall was a whole bank of little black and white TV’s aimed at all parts of the bridge. One of the cops said to a third man behind the desk,

“Good thing you spotted the jumper, Sarge”

They made Bill produce identification and empty his pockets. They took his car keys and went out while the sergeant was talking to him.  The cops came back about ten minutes later just as white as ghosts.

“Sarge, you’ve got to see this.”

They cuffed Bill to the chair, left one of the cops with him, while the sergeant and the other walked back out to the car.

Bill spent his first weekend in San Francisco in jail.  It was the end of September, and it was the end of hunting season in Utah.  In his trunk was a thirty-odd-six with a big scope and a bloody sheet where he’d wrapped his deer up. 

Those policemen were sure they had a hot one.

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