When UC Berkeley's Regional Oral History Office announced last week that it was beginning research on a Bay Bridge project, a question leapt to mind: UC Berkeley has a Regional Oral History Office?
Yep, it's been around since 1954 -- as a division of the Bancroft Library -- dedicated to preserving the history of the Bay Area and the western United States by "conducting carefully researched, tape-recorded and transcribed interviews" of those who were witness to the past.
The Bay Bridge project is timed to coincide with the dismantling of the eastern span. Research specialist Sam Redman is seeking recollections of those who watched it go up, helped build it and witnessed how lives were changed.
"One of the surprises is the extent to which it was used right away," he said. "Real traffic was double or triple the projections."
The oral history office has meticulously documented projects ranging from arts and literature to social movement to politics to science and technology, preserving poignant slices of history.
You hear contemporaries reflect on California political giants Ronald Reagan, Edmund G. Brown and Earl Warren. (Ira Heyman, Warren's former law clerk and later chancellor of UC Berkeley: "When Earl Warren was the Republican governor of California he sought, unsuccessfully, to institute a state-financed medicare program. This was an indication of the basic values which he brought to the Court. He valued the ordinary
You hear from those who lived through the tumult of World War II. (Phyllis Gould, who at 21 became one of many females working in East Bay shipyards in 1942: "I was a good welder and I loved it. It was so satisfying. I had always done embroidery, and you want your stitches all to (be) even and look nice. Well, it was the same with welding.")
"People can hear what it was like to live in the past," Redman said. "Almost all of our interviews are audio and video recorded. We make transcripts available online (http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/roho), and you don't have to be a university student to access any of this."
Redman said he and his colleagues, who have compiled thousands of interviews, are in the "century business," meaning they're responsible for preserving history for future generations. The Bay Bridge project has urgency because once the structure is gone, all that will remain is "the mark it made on people."
Even early in his research, Redman has uncovered some interesting tidbits.
He said engineering and budgetary concerns account for its contrasting construction styles -- cantilever to the east; suspension to the west -- but the engineer who oversaw the project had never built either, so he had to bring in expert consultants.
He said the first people to use the bridge thought its 65-cent toll was a bit pricey.
"I talked to a woman who was migrating to California during the depths of the Great Depression," Redman said, "and I asked her if that was a lot of money. Her response was you could buy a hamburger and a loaf of bread for what it cost to cross the bridge. Back then, that was a real consideration."
Research bears her out. With inflation, 65 cents in 1936 is the equivalent of $10.75 today.
Let's make sure the Bay Area Toll Authority doesn't get wind of that.
To share Bay Area stories with Sam Redman, call 510-643-2106. Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org