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Sausalito's Colorful History

A Bayside Community with an Interesting Past

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One of the most unique Bay Area communities, Sausalito has always had a flair for being slightly different than its neighbors, an attitude that has been present throughout the city’s history and one that lives on today. From a humble fishing and boating community to a major shipbuilding and defense area, Sausalito has retained its character and retains pieces of each of its incarnations today.

Sausalito’s Origins

Originally settled by the Coastal Miwok peoples, Sausalito began its metamorphosis into the shape that we now know it in 1838 when William Richardson, an Englishman who had become a Mexican citizen, was granted 19,751 acres and began calling it “Rancho Sauselito”, which translated roughly to the Spanish term for small willow trees. Although it had been widely used as a way station and regular use as a ranch and trading area, the formal recognition of the area would prove to also be the start of a change from a mostly uninhabited area to a well known North Bay town.

During and immediately after the Gold Rush days in California, Sausalito became known as a fishing village and enclave for boaters and those who could gain access. San Francisco’s nearest geographical neighbor, Sausalito became well known while also remaining isolated by the San Francisco Bay. In the 1870’s, with the addition of a rail spur into the city from the north and the ferry service leaving toward San Francisco to the south, Sausalito became both more popular and more accessible. The opening of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937 further spurred this development and change and increased access to Sausalito to the point hat travel to and from San Francisco was now manageable and simple.

World War Two in Sausalito

World War Two and the nation’s need of reliable warships and coastal defenses along the Pacific created a brief but enormously influential population shift in Sausalito and the North Bay that would forever change the face of the area. Thousands of troops poured into the area to man the defense installations in what is now the Marin Headlands and man defensive batteries along what is now the Golden Gate National Seashore area. Point Cavallo, Fort Baker, Fort Barry, and others were occupied and maintained by the huge force of new North Bay Residents and with them came the service industries, theaters and entertainment complexes, housing, and infrastructure needed to accommodate them.

The war also created a massive shipbuilding industry along the Sausalito waterfront that required yet more men to work the facilities and helped the United States Navy turn out modern warships and transports for several years.

The More Recent Changes to Sausalito

After the war, Sausalito became a community within its own right and a community sprang up along the waterfront area in place of the wartime and shipbuilding industries. Being close to San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area without being literally in the midst of the other communities created its own draw of sorts and the city began filling with some of the more artistic and eclectic residents of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Now famous for the houseboat communities in the area, Sausalito had a brief period of disquiet and civil conflict regarding the houseboats and lack of proper regulation during the 1970’s. Known as “the Houseboat Wars”, the period resulted in some of the most extensive and expansive houseboat communities and marinas in Northern California.

Throughout its storied history, Sausalito has attracted those who love the San Francisco Bay Area and its decidedly artistic bent, but choose to live in a smaller community slightly isolated from the city itself. Shaped by the wartime and shipbuilding industries, and flavored by the constant influx of the artistic and local maritime communities, Sausalito’s history can be seen in many forms throughout town.

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Photos copyright by Jay Graham Photographer