Of the many different themes which have appeared on United States commemorative coins, by far the most common are those pertaining to historic anniversaries, such as the Pilgrim Tercentenary and the Sesquicentennial of American Independence. In a similar vein, a number have honored statehood centennials, such as those of Illinois and Missouri. Some recognize great Americans — Booker T. Washington and Ulysses S. Grant come to mind. Regrettably, very few have marked achievements in the field of engineering. The 1915-S Panama-Pacific International Exposition coins may be included within this group, as they commemorate the world’s fair which itself celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal. The only coin dedicated solely to recognition of an engineering triumph, however, is the 1936-S half dollar issued to mark the opening of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in November of that year.
Although the site of one of the world’s greatest natural harbors, the city of San Francisco is geographically isolated on the end of a long peninsula. Surrounded by water on three sides and by hills on the fourth, transportation into and out of the city has been a pre-occupation of civic leaders ever since the Gold Rush days of 1849. In the 19th century, ferryboats met the needs of travelers seeking transport between San Francisco and the developing towns on opposite shores of the San Francisco Bay. Among these communities, the largest would prove to be Oakland, situated almost due east from San Francisco and several miles distant. The arrival of the automobile at the turn of the century gave greater freedom to commuters, and the car ferries quickly proved inadequate to handle this increased traffic. Plans for spanning the San Francisco Bay from west to east were proposed throughout the 1920s, but the need for creating jobs during the Depression years of the 1930s provided the additional incentive that saw this massive undertaking launched at last. Construction commenced on July 9, 1933 and was completed during the last months of 1936. The grand opening was held the weekend of November 12-14, with a long line of motorists and pedestrians eagerly awaiting their turns. Although not ready for opening day, among the souvenirs available a week later were United States half dollars, coined at the San Francisco Mint and bearing (literally!) a design which honored the engineering achievement.
A question which often arises is why the more famous Golden Gate Bridge, completed less than a year later, was not so recognized. Actually, the original bill included a provision for honoring both bridges, but it was subsequently revised to specify the Bay Bridge alone. The reason for this change is not recorded. Passed on June 26, 1936, the legislation called for the striking of not more than 200,000 half dollars, these to be coined of a single design and at a single mint. These provisions addressed the complaints by many collectors over the “serial” commemoratives which were being coined annually and at several mints, sometimes with added features that created instant rarities. Realizing that a mintage of 200,000 halves would deter the profit-minded among coin collectors, the bill’s sponsors, the Coin Committee of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Celebration, quickly announced that only half of the authorized figure would be requested.
Selected to design this commemorative was young sculptor Jacques Schnier, a Romanian immigrant then living in San Francisco but who ultimately settled in Oakland. His drawings were submitted to the Mint on July 20 and were forwarded to the Commission of Fine Arts two days later. Examined by the Commission’s sculptor member, Lee Lawrie, it was his recommendation that Schnier enlarge the lettering before preparing actual models. In September, the Commission reviewed photos of Schnier’s models, confining its comments to the obverse. Suggesting that the bear’s snout be modified somewhat and that the mottos be rearranged to create a more balanced presentation, the Commission requested that it be furnished with a photo of the revised model before granting its approval. The motto E PLURIBUS UNUM was ultimately dropped altogether, solving the problem of balancing the mottoes. In October, the finalized models were approved by both the Commission and the Treasury Department.
The obverse is dominated by a facing view of a grizzly bear, symbolic of California. To the left is the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, to the right Schnier’s monogram. Arranged in arcs around the periphery are UNITED STATES OF AMERICA at top and HALF DOLLAR at bottom. The legend LIBERTY appears in small letters above the coin’s value. Balancing the composition are a single star at lower left and three stars at lower right. The mintmark S is alongside the bear’s forepaws. The reverse is a highly stylized depiction of the bridge as seen from San Francisco, looking toward Oakland and Berkeley. The Ferry Building is in the foreground, these two structures representing the old and new methods of transit. Yerba Buena Island (through which the bridge passes) appears to the left of the bridge, although in reality it is mostly on the other side. In the bay are a ferry boat and an ocean liner. Arranged in an arc around the periphery is the inscription SAN FRANCISCO-OAKLAND BAY BRIDGE. The date 1936 appears below within an exergue.
The Bay Bridge halves were coined at the San Francisco Mint in early November, 1936, and were ready for distribution on the 20th. Sold over the counter at several locations in the Bay Area for $1.50 apiece, perhaps the most novel sales venue was the bridge’s own tollbooths. This was the first and almost certainly the last commemorative coin to offer drive-through service! Mail orders were taken on a graduated price scale, with prices ranging from a high of $1.65 per single coin to as little as $1.55 for ten or more coins, all orders being postpaid. Sales were quite satisfactory, despite a drop-off in the speculative fever over commemoratives which had gripped the coin hobby earlier in the year. Of the 100,055 pieces coined (the odd 55 were reserved for assay), some 71,369 were sold. The remaining coins were melted during 1937.
Bay Bridge halves are quite common in grades AU-50 through MS-64. Even in MS-65 it is fairly plentiful, while MS-66 coins are smaller in number. This issue's availability in higher grades is very slim. Grading centers mostly on the coin’s obverse, as its reverse is such a “busy” design that flaws will rarely be noticeable. Luster ranges from dull and satiny (most commonly seen) to intense and satiny (scarce). The obverse is frequently more lustrous than the reverse, due to differences in die preparation. Because of its large distribution to the general public, many specimens are worn or show other signs of mishandling. Check for wear on the bear’s left shoulder and the hills above the bridge.
The first 200 coins struck were reserved for presentation purposes, although no special effort was made in their coining. Some 22 pieces remained on hand years later, and these coins, with their accompanying documentation, were mounted in plastic display holders and offered to collectors. Specimens that were left in these holders will usually be in high grades, so the premium attached to such mounted sets depends mostly on the desirability of their documents. In 1980, sculptor Jacques Schnier was induced to sign 500 cards that depicted him with his creation. These were sealed in plastic with ordinary coins that typically graded AU-55 to MS-63, and these souvenirs were sold to collectors. Matte proofs may have been coined of the Bay Bridge half, but none have yet surfaced.