Marin County Genealogy

Marin County - Our Towns - Sausalito

Hosted by permission of Cathy Gowdy of the Marin County Genealogical Society.



A seafaring town

Sailors have been savoring shore leave here since the Spaniards first dropped anchor


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Anne T. Kent California Room of the Marin County Library

The Walhalla biergarten and the Castle by the Sea (far right) were hot spots in 1903.

Sausalito got its name from the first person to sail a ship through the Golden Gate, Juan Manuel de Ayala, who dropped anchor in the little cove that has so informed the history of the area and gave it the Spanish name for "willow tree," after the thickets growing along its shores. The city has been shaped by its proximity to water and its location along Marin's southernmost banks ever since.

Whalers were the next wave of seafarers to take advantage of the tranquil cove and the freshwater springs found in its hills. They were followed in 1826 by John Reed, a prominent figure in Marin's historical chronicles; he operated a tiny ferryboat between his shack on Shelter Cove and the pueblo of Yerba Buena (now San Francisco) before snagging for himself a lucrative land grant from the Mexican government. Fellow adventurer William Richardson (whose own 19,000-acre grant, Rancho Saucelito, dwarfed Reed's relatively piddling 4,000 acres) was next on the scene. A jaunty Englishman who, like Reed, had married one of the Presidio commandant's beautiful daughters, Richardson was named captain of the port of Yerba Buena and, in this capacity, charted the shoreline of San Francisco Bay.

Sausalito obviously appealed to him more than the rest of the bayshore, as he settled here with his family in 1841, running his rancho, plying the bay in three schooners, serving as a local justice of the peace and supplying fresh water to the San Francisco elite, who found the Sausalito product tastier than the stuff found in San Francisco's inadequate springs and wells. (His Saucelito Water Works was established in 1850; its spring-supplied tank was so sturdily built, it was still operating on automatic pilot when it was unearthed over a century later.) Grand fiestas were the order of the day-at one of them, future Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman courted a comely Richardson daughter.

The Bear Flag Republic ended Mexico's dominion over California. Rancho-related legal tangles quickly wiped out most of Richardson's holdings, and when he died in debt in 1856 his lawyer, Samuel Throckmorton, inherited most of the estate. Sausalito was then made up of little more than a sawmill, a hotel and the occasional home (some of which had been brought in sections around Cape Horn); and even these were dismantled and sent upriver to Sacramento to rebuild that city after the fire of 1852.

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Sausalito Historical Society

The San Francisco Yacht Club, shown here at the turn of the century is now Ondine and Horizon restaurants.

Then, in 1868, twenty San Francisco speculators bought three miles of Sausalito waterfront from Sam Throckmorton, divided it into lots and parcels, laid out streets and instituted a regular ferry run to the city (25 cents to North Beach). Within a decade the burgeoning city boasted a newspaper, a stable, shops, saloons, hotels, two yacht clubs and a Methodist church, which only lasted three years. Young William Randolph Hearst installed his then-mistress Tessie Powers in his Sausalito digs while he went about the business of making his new toy, "The Examiner", a growing concern. But Hearst's plans for a perhaps overly grand hillside home were transferred down the coast, to San Simeon, leaving its massive foundation behind.

The North Pacific Coast Railway, which built its southernmost terminal and machine shop in Sausalito, attracted a new wave of Chinese and Portuguese immigrants to go with the town's many Greeks, Scots, Irishmen and Germans. (The Portuguese are especially prominent in the city's history through their annual Pentecost Festival, when cattle festooned in bells and flowers were driven overland all the way from Bolinas to be sold at auction in Sausalito.) The town incorporated in 1893, about the same time Jack London wrote "The Sea Wolf" in a house at the south end of Bridgeway.

By the turn of the century, the resort of Sausalito boasted many a summertime attraction: bathing, fishing, yachting, picnicking (especially in Wildwood Glen with its oompah bands, reservoir and treasure-laden Indian mound) and (if you were one of the wealthy San Franciscans targeted by the town fathers) dwelling in one of the city's many elaborate hilltop villas. A French restaurant at Caledonia and Pine streets kept a bowl of live frogs on its bar.

Earthier pleasures were also available; three lowdown hotels burned to the ground during one particularly convivial Independence Day celebration. A ballot box-stuffing scam was linked to the town's even more profitable bookie establishments. Opium smoking, prizefighting and pool playing (!) were a way of life. On the other hand, the powerful Sausalito Women's Club not only protected the city's trees from developers, it integrated the board of trustees, sponsored municipal street lighting, hired a town constable and purchased the fountain and the elephant statues that now grace Vina del Mar Plaza. Sausalito still had plenty of wicked spirit, however, and its location near the Golden Gate made it a foggy haven for Canadian rum-runners during Prohibition. (Baby Face Nelson even lived here awhile, in 1934.)

With the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge came less seclusion and more tourism. Free-spirited artists reveled in the town's lovely vistas, cheap rents and picturesque waterfront with its retired schooners and barges suitable for restoration and habitation. The seclusion was further obliterated by World War II and the establishment of Marinship, one of the largest shipbuilding operations on the West Coast. Ground was broken in the spring of 1942 on 202 waterfront acres (some of it landfill from Pine Hill and Waldo Point), where 15 Liberty ships, 16 fleet oilers and 62 tankers were constructed with six shipways, a ferry slip, a wide channel into deep water and the best-integrated work force in California. Among Marinship's prominent visitors were FDR, Bing Crosby, Marian Anderson and Sally Rand.

The postwar baby boom brought more settlers, more houses and, consequently, less parkland to relax in. Thousands of now-adrift Marinship workers (most of them African-American) lived in Marin City, a prefabricated community constructed at the war's onset on marshes and farmland. It fell into disrepair even before the war ended. In the late '50s the Marin Housing Authority purchased the community from the federal government with the intention of rebuilding it as low-cost housing for minorities. Local tempers continued to flare, however-there was no school or shopping area, just a windswept weekend flea market. New housing, a new library and the Gateway Shopping Mall were constructed in the mid-'90s.

San Francisco Bay still dominates the life of Sausalito, from the ferries that unload thousands of tourists onto Bridgeway each weekend to the restaurants with the million-dollar views of the city across the water. But there's also, still, the fog and wind of Hurricane Gulch, the screech of the sea gulls, the haunted old houseboats, and the dazzling herring run that has occurred every January from time immemorial.

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© Copyright 2007 Ron Filion and Pamela Storm. All rights reserved.