The Sea Letter Magazine

Sausalito: The Place of Little Willows

By Phil Frank
Excerpt from the Sea Letter, 2002, No. 62

BIO: Artist and writer Phil Frank was a board member of the Sausalito Historical Society and a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Sausalito, the southernmost town on the Marin peninsula, is best known today as a must­see tourist destination and as the former residence of the infamous Sally Stanford — madam, restaurateur and, for a while in the 1980s, the town’s vice-mayor. To the seafaring set, however — be it early explorers, sea captains, present-day sailboaters, or commercial fishermen — it was and is ‘the first left’ upon entering San Francisco Bay.

It’s no coincidence that Lieutenant Don Juan Ayala, the first known European explorer to enter the normally fog-enshrouded bay, anchored his Spanish exploration ship San Carlos in the pristine waters of what is now Richardson’s Bay on Sausalito’s eastern boundary.

The year was 1775, and the protected anchorage met all of Ayala’s needs: fresh water, firewood, plentiful seafood and abundant game. Even the local residents at the rime, the coastal Miwok Indians, were extremely friendly and helpful to the visiting mariner. Fresh water came from strong-running springs that poured forth their abundance in a number of locations, feeding stands of willows and prompting Ayala to name the site “Sausalito,” Spanish for “place of the little willows.”

Lieutenant Ayala and his ship had been sent from Mexico to further the north ward expansion of Catholic missions and Spanish military presence in upper California, in an effort to discourage the Russians from pressing their claims southward. The following year, an overland expedition established the mission San Francisco de Assis and the military structure El Presidio at the entrance to the bay. The mission and the presidio were separated by a distance of several miles, with little between them but sand dunes and scrub grass.

By the time the British whaler Orion entered San Francisco Bay in 1822, many other European ships had come to call and trade with the inhabitants of the mission and the presidia but few Europeans had been allowed to stay.

The first mate aboard the Orion was 27-year old Will­ iam Richardson. Richardson was not only fluent in Spanish but also a navigator, cartographer, carpenter, and ship master. He saw his future in this tiny community. Based upon his many abilities, the governor granted him the right to stay.

William Richardson was to have a major impact on the entire region, bur especially upon the little place we know today as Sausalito.

When Richardson arrived aboard the Orion, Mexico had just recently achieved independence from Spain. The years between the Spanish arrival in the area in 1775 and Richardson’s arrival in 1822 had not been kind to the mis­sion, the presidia, the inhabitants, or the native Miwok. The presidia was so under-supplied that there wasn’t enough gun powder to fire a salute to the Orion; the few soldiers at the dilapidated military structure hadn’t been paid in years. Supply ships from Mexico no longer arrived. Many of the Miwok had died from European diseases.

Richardson set about making changes. First, he taught local Indians how to construct sailing craft. Then he acquired and rehabilitated several old boats and established a lucrative business trans­ porting people, hides, tallow, and grain between the local ranchos and merchant trading ships. He courted and married Maria Antonia Martinez, daughter of the commandant of the Presidio. He then built the first structure at Yerba Buena Cove.

In 1835, Richardson was appointed captain of the Port of San Francisco — a large title for such a humble location. The village of Yerba Buena was still a tiny settlement, the presidio was under-equipped and under-funded, and visits by merchant ships were anything but steady. Richardson moved his family and headquarters to Sausalito that same year, becoming the only residents of the area. In 1838 he became the holder of the Mexican land grant to all of Rancho Sausalito, which then included 19,571 acres of southern Mari n. He accumulated large herds of cattle and horses, and had cargo vessels in both coastal and bay trade.

Richardson’s life as a rancher and owner of a fleet of merchant ships plying trade up and down the coast, and his title of Don Guilenno Antonio Richardson, major land owner and head of an extended family, fostered an idyllic image of early California.

All that was soon to change. Within a few years he had witnessed and been deeply and directly affected by the Bear Flag Rebellion and the Gold Rush. The great influx of humanity after 1849 caused legal troubles with his land grant. California statehood and its resulting property taxation only added to Richardson’s woes. Finally, a series of ill-advised maritime ventures in the early 1850s wiped him out financially. Richardson died a broken man in 1856, his land lost to lawyers and his family nearly destitute.

Today, the city of Sausalito continues to honor Richardson. A plaque and an anchor attached to a large boulder were recently dedicated to his memory with several surviving descendants present. The boulder is lapped at high tides by the waters of Richardson’s Bay.

Sausalito has always had a split personality because of its topography. Elegant estates blossomed on the steep hillsides in the 1870s — homes to English bankers, merchants, traders, and other representatives of the fleer of square-rigged ships that anchored in the bay. At the same time, down on the town’s flats, a burgeoning community of Italian fishermen, Portuguese farmers and boat-builders, Chinese laborers, and the families of ferry and train workers populated the shoreline. The railroad tracks that served all points north separated the town into two distinct halves.

Ferryboats brought visitors to Sausalito in the 1880s just as they do today, more than 120 years later. The early visitors were headed for hiking on Mount Tamalpais, picnicking in Sausalito’s wooded glens, or frequenting the numerous bars and poolrooms downtown.

The community of wealthy estate-owning families on the hills and the town’s workers and merchants on the flat land co-existed well, maintaining a cautious attitude about each other’s lifestyle. The yachts and yacht clubs that graced the waterfront relied upon the craftsmen who worked at the water’s edge. When financier Templeton Crocker wanted a grand yacht built, he went to the Portuguese Nunes Brothers boatyard for the construction of the magnificent Zaca.

During the Prohibition era many a rumrunner’s boat was anchored in the bay as part of the intricate network that brought Canadian liquor from mother ships anchored off­ shore to waiting trucks in coves and then to market in the speakeasies of San Francisco. The rumrunners’ boats had to be serviced, of course, and more than a couple of the local boatyards kept both rumrunners’ craft and government pursuit vessels in good working order -often at the same time.

World War II brought the construction of the Bechtel corporation’s massive Marinship shipyard to Sausalito’s northern shoreline in 1942. The influx of 20,000 workers into the immediate area and the construction of 93 merchant ships during the war years strained the town’s resources as well as its culture. Half of the homes in Sausalito added second units to meet the need for additional housing. But the town survived and in fact, many of the local boat-builders who had suffered during the Depression found ample work at Marinship. Marinship closed just after the end of the war and today few vestiges of the huge enterprise remain.

These days, houseboats are the dominant fixture on the Sausalito waterfront. The scope and diversity of the community is unique — the craft are moored in six different harbors that stretch for half a mile along the northern waterfront.

How is it that Sausalito ended up with so many houseboats when no other waterfront towns have seen such a phenomenon? Much of the praise, or blame, depending upon how one feels about houseboats, can be laid directly on the doorstep of Donlon Arques, a major waterfront property owner who passed away in 1992.

Don grew up in and around his father Camilla’s boatyards in the 1920s and inherited his father’s dislike of politicians and civic authorities. Don also inherited his father’s Sausalito harbors and began adding early to those tideland holdings, harboring the firm belief that the city’s authority did not extend to areas underwater. He moored derelict pile-drivers, barges, ferryboats displaced by bridges, and World War II sub-chasers and landing craft. When the government surplussed buildings, land, and equipment from the decom­missioned Marinship, Don was there to snap them up.

In the 1950s, Bohemians from San Francisco’s North Beach were moving on to his stranded fleet of ferries and lumber schooners, drawing with them other artists, writers, and actors. They were followed by escapees from San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury scene in the 1960s. The newcomers built a creative, and at times motley, floating city of houseboats that one frustrated Marin County building inspector described as “The Kowloon of the West.”*
*(Kowloon is a densely populated neighborhood in Hong Kong)

Around 1970, county authorities decided to clamp down on the ever-growing fleet as a “health and safety danger,” because of the lack of sewage control and the ever-present danger of fire. They sent in the Coast Guard and sheriff’s deputies. But the police were out of their element on the water, and what ensued is still referred to as “The Battle of Richardson’s Bay” — an incident that set off years of court battles, demonstrations, and arrests. Eventually new, legalized docks were built at Waldo Point Harbor and many of the small boats that had been threatened with eviction were able to stay; but even today, more than 30 years later, details are still being worked out.

It is still possible to see some of Sausalito’s history The Visitor’s Center and Historical Display is located in the historic Ice House, right on Bridgeway, half a block north of the ferry landing. Starting there and walking north, one can get a quick view of some local history and enjoy some great visuals that capture the spirit of the town’s early years.

Magnificent wooden sailboats and yachts are anchored along this waterfront, with a sprinkling of houseboats. The visitor will pass a row of historic arks perched on pilings, yacht harbors, chandleries, boat-builders, two yacht clubs, Galilee Harbor, the commercial fish dock, boatways, and the Army Corps of Engineers SF Bay Model and its fleet of bay-clearing boats.

The Bay Model pier hosts visiting tall ships and, in the evening, berths the Sausalito ferry Golden Gate. Just north of this are the famous Arques Boatbuilding School, the giant ICB building left over from the Marinship days and, at the northernmost end of the town’s shoreline, a feisty fleet of 500 houseboats.

Along the Sausalito shore one can rent a kayak or a sailboat, sample seafood j ust off the boat at Caruso’s restaurant, buy bait and tackle, reserve a spot on a commercial salmon boat and, during January and early February, watch the flotilla of herring boats lay their nets and jostle for position amidst sea lions, pelicans and gulls.

The little willows are long gone, and one is more likely to encounter a wild poet than wild game. But is Sausalito still a port? You bet it is.

Click image for larger picture

Sea Letter Cover Saulsalito Edition

Sea Letter cover, Saulsalito edition


William Richardson was the original owner of Ranch Sausalito land grant 1830

William Richardson,original Sausalito Ranch owner


View of Belvedere from Sausalito, 1910

View of Belvedere from Sausalito, 1910


Mansions on the hill, 1890

Mansions overlook the working waterfront



Brigante family aboard fishing boat 1910

Brigante family aboard fishing boat 1910


Crichton and Arques Boatyard 1914

Crichton and Arques Boatyard, 1914


Sausaltio houseboat community, 1970s

Sausaltio houseboat community, 1970s