From Native Americans and Spanish explorers, to rum runners and hippies, Sausalito’s story boasts a rich and fascinating history filled with interesting characters amidst stunning settings.
For thousands of years the verdant area was home to a Coast Miwok settlement known as Liwanelowa. The Coast Miwoks enjoyed plentiful fish and game, including deer, elk, bear, sea lions, seals and otters. The Spaniards who visited the territory in 1775 reported the native peoples to be peaceful, friendly and hospitable.
The first European to arrive that year was Don Jose de Canizares, head of an advance party from the ship San Carlos. He was charged with finding a place to anchor the ship near shore. He not only found excellent anchorage, he and his party noted the large amount of food and fresh water resources, as well as an abundance of mature timber in the hills, perfect for creating masts and planking for ships. The Spaniards dubbed the site “Saucelito”, named for the clusters of willows they spied growing along streams in the woods.
Despite its abundance of resources, the Spanish colonial government largely ignored the area for at least a half century. The Presidio of San Francisco and the Franciscan Mission, Mission Dolores, were built on the opposite shore, with easier access to the government’s capitol in Monterey. It wasn’t until after Mexico won its independence from Spain that development of the area began in earnest.
At that point the main character in Sausalito’s story became an English-born Mexican citizen named William Richardson. The enterprising mariner who was fluent in Spanish arrived in 1822. He converted to Catholicism and married the daughter of the Presidio’s commandant, setting his eyes on acquiring a large land grant across the bay for himself. He had already set up business along Sausalito’s shores of what is now known as Richardson Bay, selling fresh water and supplies to visiting ships. He petitioned the governor for the land grant, to be called “Rancho Saucalito”.
His dream of owning the rancho was thwarted at first, however, due to previous claims and Mexican law, which had set aside the headlands for military purposes. He lobbied for years to acquire the grant, in the meantime building the first permanent civilian home outside of the Presidio, and laying out the streets within the Puebla of Yerba Buena, now known as San Francisco. On Feb. 11, 1838, he won the title to more than 19,000 acres for “Rancho del Sausalito.”
As the years continued, Sausalito’s unique location became as much a character in the city’s story as the people. It was only two short miles from San Francisco, but with no bridge, it was in fact more than a hundred miles for wagons forced to travel around the entire bay by land. Since boats could sail there in about a half hour, the isolated city became the home to two classes of people, the working class fishermen, and wealthy yachtsmen.
In the 1870s the North Pacific Coast Railroad arrived, making Sausalito a transit hub. A rail yard and ferry to San Francisco were created. No longer as isolated, Sausalito became a choice location for wealthy San Franciscans who built comfortable summer homes in the hills. A colony of British citizens grew in the town, with a fleet of British-owned square-rigged ships anchored in the bay just off shore.
A new chapter in the city’s story opened during the prohibition era, from 1920 to 1933. Location again played a key role: the city was just isolated enough from San Francisco, but had perfect access to water travel to make it a choice spot for bootleggers and rum runners.
The city’s story changed yet again in 1937, when a new character, the Golden Gate Bridge, came on the scene. The bridge connected to Highway 101, which bypassed downtown Sausalito. Large-scale ferries were no longer needed. The city’s traffic went from a constant flow to merely a trickle. Car ferry service ended in March 1941, although passenger ferries continue running to this day. In addition, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad closed its terminal the same year.
It wasn’t long before Sausalito was hopping again, however, after the United States entered World War II, and a new chapter unfolded. Two forts in the area, Fort Barry and Fort Baker, were used to house troops. A major shipyard was constructed in Sausalito, with 20,000 workers working around the clock to build and launch more than 90 ships during the era. To honor the city for its contribution to the war effort, a Tacoma-class frigate was christened the USS Sausalito in 1943. Ironically, the ship was not built in Sausalito, but in Richmond, across the bay to the east.
At the war’s end, the shipyards were abandoned, and in their place a thriving arts community blossomed along the waterfront. Sausalito became home to musicians, dancers, writers, painters and sculptors; a tradition that continues today. In the 1960s the bohemian community attracted many hippies to the town.
Houseboat communities became popular during that time, providing less expensive housing for artists and others. The floating communities were threatened during a protracted battle in the 1970s called the “House Boat Wars”, pitting waterfront residents against wealthy developers. Three houseboat communities exist today, and walking tours of the houseboats are popular with tourists.
The on-going narrative of Sausalito continues to be a fascinating one, drawing people from around the world. The character and charm of the beautiful enclave will continue to entertain and enchant those who take interest in its story.