Municipal Government

A Depression Era Story Told by Those Who Lived It

May 19, 2016
By Bill Hohlfeld

A Review of: Building The Golden Gate Bridge – A Workers’ Oral History By Harvey Schwartz

San Francisco, CA “An Army cannot exist of officers alone, however talented; and a great bridge – while it owes so much to its designers and construction supervisors – owes an equal, if not superior, debt of gratitude to the workers who built it.” – Kevin Starr. Thus reads the epilogue to Mr. Schwartz’s fascinating story of the building of the Golden Gate Bridge as recounted by those who climbed the towers, spun the cables and riveted the steel.

Throughout its pages, this oral history tells two discrete tales. It tells the story of the erection of an iconic American bridge, but it also pays tribute to an American generation that was capable of dreaming big, working hard, and seeing things through to the finish. It is often this second story that is the more compelling of the two. For while technical journals and as built drawings can be found on file and can easily enough explain the bridge’s design and its subsequent implementation, the recorded interviews in Building The Golden Gate Bridge preserves for posterity the ethos of a working class America, that subscribed to the belief that all things were possible in the country they called home.

Their willingness to do whatever it takes to succeed is found, not just in the actual erection of the bridge, but in their attitude toward any obstacle they may encounter. Whether it is the willingness of engineer, Fred Divita, (who put himself through night school to get a degree) to work scraping paint, or the self determination of cable spinner, John Urban to conquer his own fear of heights to get to the top of a tower and complete his ironworker apprenticeship, this book paints a vivid portrait of those who were faced with the prospect of abject poverty during the great depression, and dipped into personal reserves of strength and character in order to survive. 

Harvey Schwartz, ILWU

Of course, not everyone did survive. Such was the case of Kermit Moore, the first ironworker to die on the project. Mr. Moore’s story is all the more chilling because it is told by his coworker with a certain matter of fact resignation. They are coworkers, not close friends. They knew one another to say hello to, or nod at during union meetings. Then, one day, one of them is a statistic and no longer present. The harsh reality of the times is that dozens of men line up to take his job.

Yet, also present, as is the case in any workplace, is humor. It ranges from the living life with gusto attitude of “halfway to hell” club member, Al Zampa, to the nods and winks of Sister Mary Zita Felciano, who made it her business not to be on the ward when the injured men who inhabited the hospital (sometimes for months) played cards with a deck adorned with “girlie pictures.”

Amidst all the self- reliance are also stories of interdependence and self -sacrifice. There is the poignant recollection an anonymous man who while hospitalized, but still ambulatory, holds a basin beneath another bedridden worker’s chin so he can preserve a bit of dignity while he retches. There is also the more tragic story of “Slim Lambert” who after falling 220 ft. from a scaffold and sustaining multiple injuries, including a broken neck, tried desperately, but unsuccessfully to save the life of fellow worker, Fred Dummatzen.

They came from the Bay Area and the Ozarks and Montana. Their parents were Italian or Norwegian or Irish. They’d had previous jobs as fisherman or cooks or cowboys. Some had managed to get an education and others had not. Today, nearly eighty years later, those workers are gone, but the beautiful bridge that they built still stands tall- a monument to who they were.  And thanks to the diligent and painstaking work of Harvey Schwartz, curator of the Oral History Collection of the ILWU Library, their personal stories remain with us, inspire us, and remind us that after all the rhetoric, grand visions become a reality when very ordinary people work hard to accomplish the extraordinary.

May 19, 2016

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