It’s been a San Francisco tradition among runners for about 15 years: Run along the waterfront of Crissy Field to the end of the sidewalk under the Golden Gate Bridge and high-five the plaque on the fence outside Fort Point that says “Hopper’s Hands” before turning around.
On any given day, you can see runners and walkers doing their version of this ritual, touching the sign with high-fives or fist bumps; some even hit it two or three times. Below the sign, there’s a small metal plaque bearing dog paws for the pups along for the journey, too. Curious onlookers, often tourists, usually stare, wondering what it’s all about.
However, while runners love the route—which is arguably one of the most scenic in the Bay Area, with views of the bridge, the Marin Headlands, and Alcatraz—and this ritual, many don’t know the full story behind it: What does it mean, who (if anyone) is Hopper, and why are his/her hands there?
The simple answer is this: The sign was put up in late 2000 thanks to the efforts of Ken Hopper, a former ironworker on the Golden Gate Bridge who often worked on the bridge’s fences, including the one around Fort Point. Hopper, who’s now retired, noticed while working that runners would come up and touch the fence before turning around. One thought kept coming to him—why not put a pair of hands up there so they’d have something more pleasant to touch than cold, chain-link fence?
So Hopper told the bridge’s sign maker about his idea, and though it took a bit longer than anticipated, a small wooden sign bearing two outstretched hands was finally put on display.
“If I’d had my way, the sign would have been up 10 years before,” Hopper says, chuckling. “But I kind of understood, because I was asking for something that wasn’t an official bridge project.”
Soon thereafter, after noticing a woman touch her dog’s paws to the fence below, Hopper thought of the idea to put a smaller sign with a pair of paws just a few feet off the ground. “I asked the sign worker if he wouldn’t mind building another sign,” Hopper says. “I told him why, and he said, no problem. He’s a dog person, and that sign was up within a week.”
Since then, the sign has undergone several iterations to help it stand up to the wear and tear of thousands of hand touches, as well as the constant fog, salt air, and wind of the San Francisco Bay. More than ahalf-dozen variations have included San Francisco Giants and 49ers color schemes, and the most recent sign is made of the same highly durable plastic as some cutting boards.
“The first one didn’t last very long at all,” Hopper says. “The paint wore off first, and then it cracked and broke, and we had to put up a new one. Each time it got better and heavier.”
About two years in, one of Hopper’s coworkers took the initiative to paint the words “Hopper’s Hands” on the sign. “I didn’t want to put my name on it, and he kept trying to get me to do it. Finally he took it upon himself to write Hopper’s Hands on there,” Hopper explains. “I thought it was pretty cool after he did it. But I didn’t mind being anonymous.”
Soon after the sign was put up, a story came out in the San Francisco Chronicle that added a whole new level of meaning to the ritual of touching the hands. The article centered on the dark side of the iconic bridge: that of suicides. The bridge is the world’s deadliest spot to take one’s own life, with some 1,400 confirmed suicides since it was built in 1937. The annual number varies, but about once every two weeks someone jumps from its famous span, based on figures from the Bridge Rail Foundation, a Marin-based nonprofit that advocates for a suicide prevention barrier (plans for a barrier have now been approved, but the project has been delayed, and there’s no official word on when it will be constructed).
The Chronicle piece focused on the difficult task of bridge workers like Hopper who volunteer to be on the bridge’s rescue team, helping to talk or wrestle down troubled souls on the precipice of throwing themselves into the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay. The story also mentioned the sign and quoted Hopper, who told the Chronicle reporter he estimated he’d helped some 30 people off the bridge.
But looking back, Hopper says, he knew that number was far higher during his then 17 years working on the bridge, and that many of his coworkers had been there far longer and helped with many more rescues. “I knew it was as probably three times as many as I told him, but I didn’t want to sound like a braggart,” Hopper says. “Some of the guys I was working with who’d been there 25, 30 years before me had infinitely more experience with that. I wanted the other people who were involved in that stuff [to get the recognition]. That’s always been a sore spot for me.”
The sign, however, remains a source of pride for Hopper, who in his retirement is enjoying fishing, mushroom foraging (“only the tasty morels,” he notes—“no psychedelics”) and other outdoor pursuits around Sonora, a small town near Yosemite National Park. He also volunteers with nonprofits focused on getting kids involved in the outdoors.
Meanwhile, a couple of Hopper’s bridge coworkers have taken over the task of regularly wiping down the sign. From time to time, they also set the story straight when they happen to hear misinformed tour guides at Fort Point, some of whom mistakenly tell their groups that Hopper is deceased. Online reports, too, reveal varying degrees of accuracy about the sign and the man behind it.
However shrouded in mystery it still may be, the sign and its inspiring story help make Hopper’s Hands one of the most beloved running routes in the Bay Area.
“It’s one of the most beautiful runs that I’ve ever done,” says Karen Edwards, a longtime San Francisco resident who runs the route regularly. “It makes me smile every time I start running and I see the bridge and Hopper’s Hands. And knowing the story behind it puts an extra pep in my step.”