Sausalito History: 200 Years Ago
Two hundred years ago the area was inhabited by Coast Miwok people, including a village called Liwanelowa in the area of Sausalito. The European settlers who supplanted them documented very little about the people and their pre-Spanish-colonization lives, and archaeologists continue to work today to learn more about their culture of that era.
The Town of Sausalito started in the 1830’s as a place where ships could pick up fresh water near San Francisco, while this region was still part of Mexico. A stand of small willow trees in Old Town marked the location where the fresh water ran down to the Bay, a clue that mariners knew to look for.
The Spanish word for willow tree is “sauce” (pronounced in two syllables as SOW-say), and a little willow would be called “saucelito” (sow-say-LEE-to). You can actually find old maps and documents online that refer to the town as Saucelito, because the town leaders only changed the spelling to the more phonetic Sausalito in 1887, not long before my family first came to the area. Presumably they were tired of English speakers calling the place “Soslito.”
The town grew throughout the mid-1800’s into a small fishing, boat repair and ranching center. The ranches in this area are gone, but the boat repair businesses remain active to this day. Many of those early fishermen were Portuguese, and there is still an active Portuguese community in town over a century later.
War with Mexico in 1846-48 and The Gold Rush in 1849 propelled California into becoming part of the United States and the flood of miners turned San Francisco into a boom town.
In the late 1800’s the railroad tracks came to Sausalito, where they linked to large ferry boats that served San Francisco. Sausalito became a key hub connecting San Francisco to the rest of Northern California.
In addition to fisherman, Sausalito was a stopping point for many of San Francisco’s newly emerging upper class, for whom owning a yacht or sailboat and touring around the Bay was a symbol of success. Sausalito’s many yacht harbors are descended from that tradition, although the modern vessels berthed here include many smaller sailboats owned by middle-class sailors.
Sausalito History: 100 Years Ago
Although the Golden Spike that signaled the connection of the railroad lines from the East Coast to California, routine rail service did not spread across the state until the mid to late 1880’s. The ability to travel here easily from the East Coast created sharp population growth up and down the west coast, and many major cities trace their roots as major hubs to this time period.
With a population of 7,000 the Sausalito of today is considered a small local town, only a little more than 10% of the size of larger Marin cities like San Rafael and Novato and less than 1% of San Francisco. But a century ago Sausalito’s status as a small Marin town was not the case. Located at the junction of the north coast railroad routes and the ferries that ran north from San Francisco, Sausalito grew to be the second largest city in Marin County, eclipsed only by County Seat San Rafael.
Though both neighborhoods are over 100 years old, Old Town averages out at being about 40 years older than New Town, which was a big difference to locals at the time. The spectacular narrow road and sidewalk that today forms the Bridgeway Promenade was also created during this time.
When San Francisco burned after the Great Earthquake of 1906 Sausalito did not catch fire. While hundreds of thousands of San Franciscans lost their homes (including my family) the population here remained intact.
In 1922 the ferries to San Francisco started carrying cars to the City in addition to passengers, and commuters formed long lines stretching down Bridgeway as they waited to drive aboard. Local residents used to describe how they hated all the exhaust fumes in the winter when people kept their engines running as they waited so they’d keep their cars warm. Despite nostalgia for the old days, it’s clear when you read locals’ accounts that the 15 years from the coming of the car ferries to the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge turned Bridgeway into a smelly, noisy parking lot that would be unrecognizable to residents today.
Above: A World War II era patriotic film about the Marinship shipyards.
Sausalito 75 Years Ago
In 1941, during World War II a marshy area north of Sausalito was hastily filled in and turned into the massive Marinship Shipyards, producing merchant ships to carry supplies around the world. This large area today represents the Marinship neighborhood of Sausalito, which are largely filled with offices, parks (including the sites of the Bay Model Visitor Center and of the Sausalito Art Festival), maritime businesses and art studios. The area to the north where housing was built for wartime workers became known as Marin City.
After the War ended Sausalito history took another dramatic turn as the shipyard was abandoned as quickly as it had been built. The Army Corps of Engineers was given control of the property, and they gradually sold off portions of the land to local government and schools, to private shipbuilders (along the shores of the Bay) and to land developers (along parts of Bridgeway). A community of artists, maritime workers and craftspeople — and a few characters from a film noir script — moved in to fill the vacuum. Boatbuilding and boat repair businesses blossomed. The waterfront was used as a set in Orson Welles’ dark mystery film The Lady from Shanghai, starring his then-wife Rita Hayworth.
Many small naval and civilian vessels were also left behind when the shipyards were closed, and in later years decommissioned ferry boats would join this improvised fleet. This was the beginning of Sausalito’s famed houseboat communities, and provided a place for Sausalito’s already active artist community to grow. Many art galleries started to dot the downtown area.
The post-war Sausalito history also saw the arrival of notorious San Francisco madame Sally Stanford, whose establishments were reputed to have hosted as many organizational meetings of the original United Nations as the supposed U.N. meeting rooms at the Opera House. Stanford declared that she had abandoned her prior profession in favor of running a bar and restaurant, and bought the Valhalla Inn in southern Sausalito. She ran for the City Council of Sausalito on several occasions… and ultimately won in 1972. She became Mayor of our town in 1975 at age 72, and stayed active in city life until her death in 1982.
During the 1950’s and 1960’s Sausalito’s fame as an Artist’s Colony grew, and writers and musicians were drawn here as well. Philosopher and author Alan Watts (who remains influential today), Artist Jean Varda and actor and writer Sterling Hayden joined the improvised floating homes community and began to hold floating (as in maritime) 1960’s versions of Gertrude Stein’s Paris salons of the 1920’s.
Some describe this era of Sausalito history as one of extended parties lubricated by alcohol and then by drugs. Others see it as a high point in the history of American creative thinking, with leaders from philosophy, theology, music, literature and art inspiring and debating each other. The facts I’ve read in different Sausalito history articles appear to support both theories.
Sausalito 50 Years Ago
50 years ago residents would talk about the “great years” between 1945 and 1960, after the massive shipyard closed down and before travelers to San Francisco added Sausalito to their list of must-see local places. For that one generation of Sausalito history, the now-old-timers would say, “the local residents had the place to themselves again, like it was before the War.” But the link to San Francisco created by the new Bridge and the Age of the Automobile gradually changed Sausalito into a more crowded, more visited place.
After the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937 the ferries lost most of their traffic and were phased out in 1941. In 1970 congestion on the Golden Gate Bridge led to the return of passenger ferries, including the popular Sausalito Ferry routes. The local bus systems were inaugurated at about the same time to take still more traffic off the Bridge.
When San Francisco went through the Summer of Love in 1967 and developed its own signature sound of rock music, some of its best-known bands had roots or ties here in Marin, including the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Dan Hicks, It’s A Beautiful Day and Janis Joplin. You could say that Sausalito history was vibrating in harmony with the history-making Haight in San Francisco.
Young people gathered to hang out and play music on the lawn around the fountain in what is now called Viña del Mar Park in downtown Sausalito, drawn by Sausalito’s reputation for progressive thinking and beauty. The occupants of the park lawn included everyone from local high school kids to area musicians to the occasional transient. (Not to mention future OurSausalito.com editors!)
The city fathers (and mothers) of the time grew frustrated with the scruffy downtown gatherings. When enforcement of local laws for everything from public drinking to jaywalking didn’t discourage the young visitors, the City of Sausalito closed off the park entrance with a wrought iron fence. On it they placed a sign that read, “This historic park is for your viewing pleasure. Please do not enter.”
That barrier stayed in place for almost 30 years, until December 12, 1996, although today it now seems odd that generations of Sausalito residents had to gain “viewing pleasure” from the fountain while standing outside the park!
The Record Plant recording studio opened here in 1972 and drew many of the biggest names in Rock and popular music, who then dined — and sometimes jammed — at The Trident (where Robin Williams once served as a busboy) and other local restaurants.
Sausalito 25 Years Ago
In the late 1980’s the anchor-out floating home community faced a crisis. The long-time residents had always maintained a very tolerant, mutually supportive (and often self-policing) attitude in the area. New, less-committed arrivals and increased crowding, however, had combined with the rapid aging of the World War II era floating housing stock to create problems.
Some of the 1940’s era vessels were disintegrating, and there was no money to restore them. Incidents of violence increased. Sewage being dumped into the Bay became an issue that anyone with a nose could not ignore — at low tide the area smelled awful, and you’d notice it just driving past the Sausalito exit on Highway 101.
The result was what is sometimes called “The Houseboat Wars”, as anchor-outs were forced to move their boats into the harbors and connect to sewers and utilities. Some resisted, and to this day there are resentments about how County personnel enforced the regulations.
There are as many interpretations of that era as there are residents, but in my view much was lost and much was gained. Lost was a free-wheeling creative community that had spawned talented artists, writers and musicians for decades — many of the people remained but they felt that the curtailment of so many freedoms took away something very special.
The destruction of the sadly-deteriorated “Ark” ferryboat robbed us of a rich cultural centerpiece of this floating community and Sausalito history… along with the location of some infamous long-running parties.
On the plus side, the fringe of the maritime community where violence had started to flare up was brought back under control, and the improvements in sanitation made low tide once again a tolerable time to open your windows.
Today the floating homes community — with everything from a floating mansion to a pier where most residents are working artists on low incomes — is a source of great pride in the city, and the subject of international admiration for its architecture.
Seminal 1960’s and 1970’s musicians like the Redlegs’ Joe Tate still play regularly in Sausalito, giving us continued ties back to those eras.
Sausalito in 2008
In 2008 we founded OurSausalito.com. We’re doing our best to make that Sausalito history date memorable and worth celebrating, too!
If all this sounds interesting, check out the Sausalito Historical Society!