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San Mateo Bridge: Construction & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The San Mateo Bridge is not one of California's most famous landmarks, but maybe it should be. In this lesson, we'll explore the history and design of this structure and see how it impacted the history of American bridge making.

The San Mateo Bridge

If we were to start talking about the longest bridge in the San Francisco Bay, which bridge do you think we'd be discussing? Many people would assume it's the Golden Gate Bridge, but those of you who actually read the title of this lesson may have another response. The San Mateo-Hayward Bridge stretches for seven miles across the San Francisco Bay, making it the longest bridge in all of California. Running from Foster City (a suburb of San Mateo) to the town of Hayward, this bridge is a major part of bay area transportation networks, averaging a usage of over 81,000 vehicles a day. Move over, Golden Gate.

The San Mateo-Hayward Bridge
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Background

The San Mateo Bridge that you see today is not the first bridge to cross this part of the San Francisco Bay. The first bridge (also called the San Mateo-Hayward) was built back in 1929. It was a two-lane bridge, built only 35 feet above the water. A lifting section made the bay accessible to boats that needed to pass by underneath. However, the bay area started becoming more popular and more crowded, and congestion on the bridge became a real problem. By 1957, traffic reached a standstill roughly six times a day, since the middle of the bridge had to be lifted up for boats, halting car traffic entirely. Add to this the fact that the bridge was going into decay, and it became pretty clear that a new bridge was needed. The remains of the old bridge can still be seen today, however, in the form of fishing piers running along the bay.

The San Mateo bridge, as seen from the fishing pier that was once the old bridge
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The New Bridge

Design

The new San Mateo Bridge was planned and quickly approved. Construction began in 1961, and six years and $70 million later, was completed in 1967. The new bridge had two lanes going each direction, easing the congestion problems, and also featured a highrise section that gracefully curved up to 135 feet above a dredged channel. Now, ships could easily pass underneath without interrupting traffic on the bridge.

The elevated section of the San Mateo Bridge
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The soft curves of the bridge won it several awards, including the Institute of Steel Construction's ''Most Beautiful Bridge Long-Span'' award (yes, that's a real thing). However, the San Mateo Bridge earned praise for more than just its look. The engineering was notable as well.

Construction

The San Mateo Bridge is essentially, a girder bridge, in which a flat deck is supported on piers. This structure is closely related to the basic and ancient beam bridge, in which a simple beam is laid over a crossing, but the materials are what make the girder bridge so special. Steel girders allow for a surprisingly lightweight structure. Weight management is always a huge issue with bridge building, and the efficiency of this system explains its place as perhaps the most frequently used method in the world today.

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