Bay Area Woman, 99, Remembers the Before and After of Bay Bridge Eastern Span

Louise Fraser dipped into the plastic storage container, gingerly tugging at a pile of yellowed newspapers. Her 99-year-old hands clutched a newspaper with the word “Progress” dashed across the top in giant letters - with a cartoon of the Bay Bridge beneath. The paper was one of the official opening day editions from the day the Bay Bridge opened on Nov. 12, 1936.

“Ferries continuing despite span opening,” Fraser read from another headline.

You would think with a box of clippings from the Bay Bridge’s opening day, Fraser held a sentimental place in her heart for the Eastern span with its cantilever frame jutting across the water like an erector set. While Fraser does admire the grace and the elegance of the Western span’s suspension towers - the Eastern span… not so much.

“There’s so many cantilevers around it doesn’t stand out,” said Fraser. “Just another bridge.”

Still, growing up in the East Bay, Fraser couldn’t help but feel a connection to the lumbering steel beast rising across toward Treasure Island.

“When you went on the ferry to San Francisco,” she remembered, “you were going alongside so you got to see the bridge as it was being built.”

When San Francisco held a parade in 1937 to mark the completion of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, Fraser was asked to ride on a float representing her home city of Oakland. She was dressed in overalls and a plaid shirt to symbolize the city’s agriculture.

She remembered once the bridge opened, her father worked on the trains that once carried passengers across. She recalled the toll to drive across the bridge was a measly 25 cents.

“They said ‘oh it’ll be 25 cents for so many years and after that it’ll be free,’” she said breaking into a giggle.

Fraser, who studied engineering for a year at Cal, said she preferred the design of the Golden Gate Bridge. Now that was a work of art. The other one; “the Eastern part," she said, "was just a bridge.”

And so goes the history of the Eastern span – out shined by its famous cousin across the Bay, disfigured by the Loma Prieta earthquake and now replaced by a sleeker, younger model.

“It’s the working man’s bridge,” said Martin Meeker, a historian with the Bancroft Library’s Oral History Project. “It’s also the bridge that’s one of the most widely traveled, widely used bridges in the world.”

Over the past couple years, Meeker has been collecting stories of people whose lives connected in some way with the bridge; from former toll takers to commuters to engineers. He discovered people have strong feelings for the Eastern span.

“People now are thinking as they’re driving over it, this is the last time they’ll drive over it,” Meeker said. “And I think some people are surprised the emotional response and the memories.”

Fraser, however, won’t be among those shedding tears as the old Eastern span is demolished over the next several years. But she may start a new scrapbook with pictures of the new span.

“I think it’s lovely. I think it’s really different,” Fraser said. “Makes a much better statement than the other one about Oakland.”

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