Iron legacy: 4 generations of bridge builders

May 25, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
There are few people who can look at the Golden Gate Bridge and say their grandfather worked on it. There are fewer still who can say that same grandfather fell from it and survived.

That grandfather, Al Zampa, was the first of what is now four generations of Bay Area ironworkers.

Zampa was already a seasoned ironworker by the time he was working on the San Francisco Bay Bridge project in 1935. He'd cut his teeth on the original Carquinez Bridge in 1927, which was one of the first spans in the Bay Area.

From there he worked on jobs across the western states, becoming not just an ironworker, but a bridgeman -- working at dizzying heights in the elements, hanging steel and driving rivets.

"Dad would always say, especially if he'd had a drink or two, he'd say it took 90 percent guts and 10 percent know-how," Al's son, Dick Zampa, Sr., said.

It was from the Bay Bridge that Al Zampa spotted his next job across the Bay.

"They could see the towers going up on the Golden Gate, and his raising gang said we gotta get on. These bridgemen, these ironworkers want to get on the big job. They want to be able to say I worked on that job," Dick Zampa, Sr. said.

Al Zampa almost didn't survive that job. While working on the job, he fell. A safety net broke his fall but he still crashed into the Marin Headlands and spent 12 weeks in the hospital with a multitude of shattered bones.

After then he went back to work. He was a founding member of the Halfway to Hell Club, which is made up of those who survived falls from the Golden Gate.

He said he'd been halfway to hell and halfway to heaven and neither place wanted him so he just kept on working," said Don Zampa, Al's grandson.

Dick Zampa, Sr. was 1 year old when his dad fell. Against his mother's wishes, eventually Dick too became an ironworker and union leader. Then so did his sons Dick Jr. and Don. And now a fourth generation, Angelo and Johnny Zampa, are ironworker apprentices.

"Every job site I go on, I'm told I've got big boots to fill," Johnny Zampa, Al's 20-year-old great-grandson, said.

Johnny Zampa is working on the new San Francisco General Hospital project and spends one week a month at the Benicia apprentice training center run by his uncle.

These days the apprenticeship lasts four years. In Al's day -- there was no training -- except what you got on the job.

"The training has evolved, the wages and benefits have increased dramatically. Bottom line, it's still hard ass work. There's no getting around it," said Dick Zampa, Jr.

The Golden Gate Bridge was the first all-union bridge project. Now Al's grandson Don is an ironworker union leader.

"In the day when they built the Golden Gate there were probably in the thousands of workers. Now in building of the new Bay Bridge, it's maybe 10 percent of that amount," Don Zampa said.

Like the bridges he worked on later in life, Al became a kind of icon himself -- representative of the ironworkers who helped shape the Bay Area as we now know it.

In 2003, just around the corner from where he spent his entire life, a new Carquinez Bridge replaced the original one that started his career. He died just a few weeks before it was officially named after him.

"Gramps was the best. I mean there's no replacing that man," said Dick Zampa, Jr.

His family is the living legacy -- four generations of ironworkers and counting.


Load Comments