Ernest L. Ransome is a famous but often misunderstood 19th century California engineer and builder. Architectural historians and engineering professionals see him as a central figure in developing reinforced concrete as a usable building material decades before its use became prevalent. He is most commonly recognized as building the first reinforced concrete bridge, San Francisco's Alvord Lake Bridge, which was built in 1890 and is still in use. Historical accounts of his work, however, are based chiefly upon secondary sources and are sometimes incorrect or misleading. This article clarifies Ransome's true role in concrete building in California and debunks misinformation about the famous Alvord Lake Bridge. It traces his career in the United States (he emigrated to California in 1870 at the age of 26), first as a manufacturer of imitation stone and later as a builder of increasingly large and complex buildings and structures. It discusses his work on a series of iconic Northern California buildings and structures: the 1888 Bourn Winery (now the Culinary Institute of America school in St. Helena); the 1890 Torpedo Building, still standing on the Oakland side of Yerba Buena Island; the 1890 Alvord Lake Bridge and its near twin the Conservatory Bridge, both still in use in Golden Gate Park; the 1891 Art Museum, now being used as the Canter Center on the Stanford University campus. It also discusses Ransome's partnership with Sidney Cushing, a railroad magnate in Marin County for whom the Cushing Amphitheater on Mt. Tamalpais was named, and Francis Marion “Borax” Smith, who built the borax industry in Death Valley and who founded and owned the Key System transit in the East Bay. The article concludes with observations about Ransome's true place in the history of concrete engineering in the United States and concrete construction in California.
Andrew Smith Hallidie (1836–1900) played a central role in the development of the suspension bridge, not only in California but across the United States. While Hallidie did not invent the suspension bridge, he made improvements in the manufacture of iron and steel cables for such bridges. He also built at least eight substantial bridges, all in remote regions of California and elsewhere in the late 1850s and early 1860s. He made a meaningful contribution to the transportation history of the Mother Lode, building bridges that were able to withstand the ferocious floods that decimated the region during the early 1860s.