Golden Gate Bridge at 80: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

A closer look at an OpenSFHistory image.

“Mayor Rossi will never make good as a welder. There were three links to be burned. William P. Filmer had a gold one. Frank P. Doyle, a copper one and Mayor Rossi’s was silver. He came in a poor third.” – San Francisco Chronicle, May 29, 1937.

Mayor Rossi cutting chain at Golden Gate Bridge opening, May 28, 1937.
Mayor Angelo Rossi cutting a silver chain with acetylene welding torch. Timothy Reardon (President, Board of Public Works) wearing an overcoat, stands at the Mayor’s left, and George C. Miller, Vancouver mayor, is in the top hat. – (Courtesy of a private collector.)

This week marks the eightieth anniversary of the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge. As with every round number anniversary for the span, stories shall be published on the engineering, the design, the perseverance of its creators, and the role the world famous icon plays in popular culture. But in reviewing the many images in our OpenSFHistory collection of the opening week celebrations in 1937, the best story has to be Angelo Rossi, San Francisco’s 31st mayor, using an acetylene torch to cut a chain for the traditional “ribbon cutting.”

In some ways, the two men described by the Chronicle reporter as handier with a blowtorch had stronger connections to the famous span than Mayor Rossi. William P. Filmer served as president of the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District, the special-purpose governing agency in charge of bridge operations as well as running Golden Gate Transit and Golden Gate Ferry. Frank Pierce Doyle, a Santa Rosa banker, was described as the father of the Golden Gate Bridge for his tireless work rounding up support and funding for its construction. The San Francisco approach to the bridge from the Marina District—recently rebuilt as the Presidio Parkway—was named Doyle Drive in his honor, and his car, driven by a bridge worker on an inspection a few weeks before the official opening of the bridge, was the first private automobile to cross the span.

Being first to cross the bridge was an honor shared by many during the week’s festivities. Harland Swanson, a 16-year-old living at 2116 18th Avenue, “ran under three women and a dog and was first through the turnstile.” Del Jones from 1307 12th Avenue drove the first motorcycle with his friend Ted Cossman being the first motorcycle passenger. The first twins crossed, the first man on stilts, and the Chronicle even noted the first misplaced child: Betty Tandy, nine years old, of 1221 29th Avenue.

Florentine Caleger, on stilts on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Florentine Calegeri, a houseman from the Palace Hotel, has the distinction of being the first to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge and back on stilts on May 27, 1937. (Courtesy of a private collector.).

The man in the top hat on Mayor Rossi’s left was George C. Miller, His Worship the Mayor of Vancouver, British Columbia (that’s really how they say it up there). He and his Canadian contingent were brave to wear high-topped headwear. Winds were howling at 25 mph during the ceremony. A wise-cracking reporter noted “someone could have done a thriving business reclaiming Mi-lady’s hairpins from the bridge deck,” and that “one hat blew over the railing and the sharks got that for a souvenir.”

The chain-severing ceremony took place at the north tower and the dignitaries proceeded to drive towards San Francisco. At the toll plaza they faced a barrier perhaps more daunting than chains of gold, silver, and bronze. “Queen Empress” Vivian Sorenson and her court of nineteen beauty queens, all in fiesta outfits, met them in a human chain of mantillas and ruffled skirts. FasTrak® accounts were not accepted.

Queen Empress Vivian Sorenson and her court of 19 California beauties blocked the San Francisco side of the bridge until officials arrived from Marin.
“Queen Empress Vivian Sorenson and her court of 19 California beauties blocked the San Francisco side of the bridge until officials arrived from Marin.” (San Francisco Chronicle, May 29, 1937).

Mother Minerva: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

A closer look at an OpenSFHistory image.

Minerva Hartman lived in a residence made of three relief cottages moved from a 1906 earthquake refugee camp to the Daly City/Colma border. The State of California wanted the structure condemned to widen El Camino Real, and “Mother Minerva’s” campaign to defend her home, at times with a Colt pistol in her hand, was big news in 1927. We have three images on OpenSFHistory taken at the time, all courtesy of the Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt collection.

Minerva Hartman, 1927
“Mother Minerva” Hartman telling stories while her home was being moved. (Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection).

Relief cottages or “refugee shacks” were constructed in camps organized in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire. When the camps closed the following year, refugees removed thousands of these cottages to private property. Twenty years later, in 1927, the California Division of Highways (predecessor to today’s Caltrans) began widening El Camino Real where Daly City and an unincorporated part of Colma met. The engineers faced an obstructing ramshackle house made of three wooden relief cottages occupied by an elderly woman of unusual character.

Minerva Hartman said she was a 94-year-old nurse that had served in the U.S. Civil War, Spanish-American War, Indian Wars with General Custer, and even the Crimean War, befriending the world’s most famous nurse, Florence Nightingale. Known to locals as “Mother Minerva,” Hartman usually wore an old Army campaign hat with faded cords of blue, yellow, and red in recognition of the infantry, cavalry, and artillery of the U.S. Armed Forces. She raised an American flag on a pole outside her door every morning, and made her living telling fortunes to travelers.

The Division of Highways wanted to cut into the embankment onto which Minerva’s residence stood. The old lady refused to leave or have her house moved. Brandishing an antique revolver, Hartman vowed to defend her “fort” and made personal pleas to the War Department, the governor’s office, and the media. A compromise was reached and Hartman’s home stayed in place by shoring it up with stilts and building an exterior staircase down to the roadway.

Minerva's Fort, 1927
Hartman raising the flag at “Minerva’s Fort,” 1927. (Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection).

The arrangement certainly wouldn’t comply with any modern building code. Hartman had a thirty-step climb to get to her front door, and her rickety “shacks on stilts” home hung two dozen feet above the roadside. Even if she lost some fortune-telling customers who didn’t want to make the climb, the indefatigable Mother Minerva became a folk hero and her house a local tourist attraction.

The end for Hartman and her home came ten years later. On March 25, 1937, an oil lamp tipped over in the bedroom. One of the responding volunteer firemen later reported the scene to a coroner’s jury: “…we responded to the call and went down to Minerva’s Fort and when we got there the house was a mass of flame. We boys all got together and did the best we could. We went through the remains of the shack and as we went we came across Mrs. Hartman’s body.”

Mother Minerva Hartman, reportedly 103 or 104 years old, had died of smoke inhalation before the flames reached her. Her body was interred at Olivet Memorial Park under the auspices of local veterans groups.

For sharing Minerva history we thank the late Rich Higgins at Caltrans, researcher Russell Brabec, and our friends at the History Guild of Daly City/Colma. Other sources: San Francisco Call-Bulletin, San Francisco News, and San Francisco Chronicle, March 26, 1937, and Daly City Record, April 1 and April 8, 1937.

Minerva reading
Mother Minerva Hartman inside her home. (Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection).