The Source: Doyle Drive and the Father of the Golden Gate Bridge

Apr 25, 2012

You can’t talk transportation in the Bay Area without talking about bridges. Everybody knows the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge. And if you’re driving between the two, you travel on another bridge: an elevated and windy two-lane road through San Francisco's Presidio called Doyle Drive. That's changing this weekend, as the old Doyle Drive, built in 1937, continues the transformation into the Presidio Parkway.

Did you ever wonder why it was called Doyle Drive, though?  It was “a great honor” according to Gaye LeBaron, historian and senior columnist for the Press Democrat newspaper in Santa Rosa. “I mean, there’s nothing named for the engineer, for heaven’s sakes, which is staggering when you think about it,” says LeBaron.

And rightly so, she says. Santa Rosa banker Frank P. Doyle “was overwhelmingly the paternal figure of this community in the first half of the twentieth century.” And really, the bridge might never have happened without his leadership. And in a sense it might not have happened without the 1906 earthquake.

Santa Rosa's downtown was hard hit by the quake, and LeBaron says Doyle “went through the downtown and convinced people to give a couple of feet of their establishments in order to widen the streets for the automobile, which had a huge effect on how the downtown grew from there.”

And if everyone – shoppers, merchants, and especially farmers – were increasingly using autos, Doyle determined that it was essential that they have a dependable way to get to across the Bay, so that they weren’t pushed aside by other ferry traffic, or stopped altogether because of tides or rough weather. That required a bridge, which was a crazy idea at the time.

“It's hard to imagine this now in San Francisco,” says LeBaron, “but this was a time when northern California wagged the dog because they were the agricultural center. In 1920, it was the eighth ranking county in the whole country in agricultural production, not in the State. And in 1935, it was still tenth.”

The Redwood Highway was another of Doyle’s projects, which today contributes greatly to Sonoma County’s billion-dollar tourist industry. No wonder he became known as “The Father of the Golden Gate Bridge.”

This was no empty title. Doyle headed the first meeting to formalize planning and construction of the bridge, drawing 300 people from the North Bay counties, and San Francisco.

LeBaron calls this coalition “staggering,” considering that it was 1929, and the Great Depression was looming. “And they were still able to start the bridge, to start construction,” she says. “And as you know, the bridge came in on time, under budget, and it still works!”

Doyle was the first civilian to cross the bridge by car when it opened in 1937. And he participated in the “ribbon cutting” – which actually involved blow torches burning through thick chains – to officially open the bridge to traffic. And while there was no ceremony involved, the members of the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District elected to name the access road on the San Francisco side of the bridge “Doyle Drive” to honor this civic and business leader for his efforts in making the project a reality.

Today, while the replacement work is informally referred to as “the Doyle Drive reconstruction,” the project’s website states that “Doyle Drive has been re-envisioned as the “Presidio Parkway.”

Yet, officials insist, there are no plans to change the name. The Father of the Golden Gate Bridge will continue to be honored on the access road to his grand idea.