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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The bridge they said could not be built, is turning 75. Strong winds and rough currents made it hard to imagine building a roadway over the Golden Gate Strait. That's the passage where the Pacific Ocean enters San Francisco Bay. But the Golden Gate Bridge has since become one of the most photographed structures in the world.

On opening day - May 27, 1937 - only pedestrians were allowed to cross. NPR's Richard Gonzales has stories from some those who were there.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Standing on the bridge today, or even watching it from afar - as I've done for most of my life - it's difficult to imagine a time before the bridge became a symbol of San Francisco. But that time still exists in the living memory of people who were young back in the days of the Great Depression.

EDGAR STONE: My name is Edgar Stone, native San Franciscan at 91 years of age. I was 16 at the time the bridge opened.

GONZALES: The night before, Stone and two friends decided they should be the first in line to cross. They hung out all night, unable to sleep. Come morning, they trotted across the almost two-mile span. When they got to the other side, the three teens collapsed on a railing.

STONE: As we stopped, we were so darned tired when we got across. And some photographer came by and took our picture - from the News Call Bulletin, which was a - one of the major papers then.

GONZALES: Stone has a copy of that photo, published 75 years ago. You can see it at npr.org.

There's the three of you, and you're kind of leaning together. Your eyes are closed, like you're taking a nap.

STONE: We were truly tired, although we were putting on a little bit of a show there.

GONZALES: I'm trying to put myself in your position - imagining going over the stretch of water, and looking down.

STONE: Right.

GONZALES: It must have been really thrilling, at that stage.

STONE: Well, it was scary, really, if you want the truth. The fact that it was so far down to the water was kind of - really, a little frightening to look over.

GONZALES: Eighty-five-year-old Nancy Kent Danielson had the same feeling seeing the vast ocean on one side, and the bay on the other. She was only 11 when she crossed the bridge on opening day with her parents.

NANCY KENT DANIELSON: But I was looking at people's waists. And I did notice that the roadway rose under our feet, that we were going uphill, and that took all the way till the middle of the bridge before it leveled off and then, we could go down a bit.

GONZALES: The Golden Gate was the longest suspension bridge in the world, at the time. And it would make it easier to drive from bustling San Francisco to sleepy Marin County to the north. But Danielson says not everyone liked the idea.

DANIELSON: My father had a friend who thought the worst crime in the world would be to put a bridge there and spoil the beauty of nature. We suspected the bridge was going up just so it could ruin Marin County. And the Marin Garden Club had meetings saying there are going to be saloons and quick food stands, and they're going to ruin our area.

GONZALES: So did it ruin Marin?

DANIELSON: Well, certainly. I love people, but there are too many of us.

GONZALES: Ninety-five-year-old George Klein recalls his first crossing. It was a cold day, and he was only wearing shorts. He was a high school track star, and he hoped to be the first to cross from the north end of the bridge in Marin.

GEORGE KLEIN: And I ran all the way over to the other side, but I couldn't find any officials.

GONZALES: So, he says, he just turned around and jogged back. What Klein or no one else could foresee was that the Golden Gate Bridge was destined to become a global tourist attraction. Back then, it was a symbol of progress even during hard times. It propelled San Francisco's growth because the only way to get around the bay was by ferry. But Klein says the ferry had its advantages.

KLEIN: I could take a train, and then take a ferry, and then go over and take another ferry, and then take a train, and make it to downtown Oakland in an hour and five minutes. And I defy you to do that today with the bridges. That's how things have changed.

UNIDENTIFIED FERRY WORKER: OK, folks, bikes on first.

GONZALES: The ferries still run today. Mostly, they're for tourists now. And some do use them to commute. But riding on one, you can't beat the scenery. And you have a priceless view of the Golden Gate Bridge, which turns 75 on Sunday.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) There's a silver moon on the Golden Gate smiling through along the blue Pacific shore...

MONTAGNE: You can see an audio slide show about how the Golden Gate came to be painted red, at NPR.org. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: The bridge is painted a reddish-orange hue.]

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