Emerging from the darkness of the Waldo Tunnel as you approach San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge shocks the eye.
Suddenly, there it is. Brilliant and immense. The towers rise up above the headlands of Marin like twin sentinels guarding the bay.
The bridge that spans the mile-long strait that separates Marin from the San Francisco peninsula with awesome grace is rightly regarded as one of the wonders on the modern world.
It is easy to think of the burnished structure as the natural inspiration for the name it bears – the Golden Gate Bridge.
Except that the bridge is clearly not golden. It is orange. The “Golden Gate” is the strait, the stretch of water that now flows under the bridge. And for that piece of poetic inspiration we have to thank a U.S. Army captain.
It was on July 1, 1846 when Captain John C. Fremont came across the narrow strait that penetrates the California coastline.
He had already distinguished himself as an engineer, geographer, scientific collector and explorer. The city of Fremont in California bears his name in testimony to his endeavor.
As he gazed that day upon the nameless strait he sensed there was something legendary in its significance.
“It is a golden gate to trade with the Orient,” he declared. And in that moment, in a sentiment bent more towards mundane commerce, Fremont coined the greatest and most famously resonant place name in the world.
The poetic spark in his observation was fanned to its full brilliance in his journal, published in 1848. He wrote: “to this Gate I gave the name of “Chrysopylae” or “Golden Gate” for the same reasons that the harbor of Byzantium was called Chrysoceras, or Golden Horn.”
In that same year, a few miles east, fate conspired with Fremont’s lyrical fantasy when John Sutter found a few flakes of gold at the bank of the South Fork American River. Soon, the California Gold Rush was underway. Prospectors swarmed by the clipper-full into the Golden Gate in search of nuggets, as big as your fist they were told, and the legend of the golden West was born.
The Golden Gate Bridge is the iconic monument to the legend. It was completed almost a century later in 1937.
To the US Navy, a bridge is a bridge. It wanted this bridge painted black with yellow stripes to ensure visibility for passing ships instead of the standard gray or silver that, they figured, would blend to easily into the fog.
An orange primer being used on towers caught the eye of consulting architect Irving Morrow. With encouragement of local people who were struck by the pleasing hue, and with a natural eye for branding, he championed the use of the orange color as a top coat on the entire bridge.
Officially, the color is a precise shade of orange vermillion that goes by the uninspiring name of International Orange. It is most closely matched by Pantone color 180 and is used extensively by the aerospace industry for visibility.
International Orange is what the bridge may be technically, but it is not what you see as sun sets behind the towers and illuminates the thick gray layer of fog that glows and surges under the span.
What you see is what you came to see – the mythic bridge, the golden gateway to the Pacific shimmering and shining in the bay. The Golden Gate Bridge.