For over 3,000 years, Native Americans known as the Coast Miwok occupied the stretch of shoreline and hills that is now Sausalito. From the small willow trees they found growing along its streambanks, they called it Saucito(little willow), a name that stuck with it, later becoming “Saucelito,” and ultimately “Sausalito”.
In 1838, William Richardson, an English seaman married to the daughter of the Commandanteof El Presidio, the Mexican military garrison in San Francisco, was given a 19,571-acre land grant in what is now southern and western Marin County. He built his haciendajust north of Sausalito’s present downtown and prospered until the mid-1850s when, due to mounting debt and unwise business dealings, he lost most of his land holdings. He died nearly penniless.
The bulk of Richardson’s Rancho del Sausalitowas sold in 1868 to the Sausalito Land & Ferry Company, the town’s first “developers”. They laid out streets and subdivided the north-central waterfront into spectacular view lots, then purchased a small steamer, the Princess,to ferry in prospective buyers. In 1875, a railway line from the north was completed, bringing tracks into the center of town. The railroad took over the ferry franchise and Sausalito became a bustling transportation hub.
During this time, Sausalito became a more diverse community. Wealthy San Franciscans occupied the central hills in their gracious summer homes while a vibrant working class developed in the flatlands along Water Street (later to become Bridgeway). This included Portuguese boatbuilders, dairy ranchers, Italian and German merchants, boarding house operators and Chinese railroad workers. In 1893, the hills and the waterfront clashed over whether Sausalito should incorporate as a city. The hill dwellers, who favored the civic improvements and reforms which incorporation would bring, ultimately won.
Soon thereafter Prohibition came and Sausalito became a base of operation for bootleggers (among them “Baby Face” Nelson, the infamous Chicago mobster). Tarpaulin-draped trucks laden with contraband – smuggled into the coves and inlets of West Marin – regularly rumbled through town, rushing to meet the midnight ferry for transport to San Francisco’s speakeasies.
With the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937 and the loss, in 1941, of its train and car ferry services, Sausalito seemed destined to become a sleepy backwater. But World War II and the hasty construction of a major shipyard on its northern waterfront suddenly swelled its tiny population to 30,000. The Marinship yard operated 24/7 until September of 1945, producing 93 Liberty Ships and tankers for the war in the Pacific.
As abruptly as it began, the war effort ended and, with the continued routing of bridge traffic over the town rather than through it, Sausalito shrank to near its former size. What took its place was to define the community for the next several decades. Attracted by Sausalito’s striking beauty and cheap rents, artists, writers, musicians, hippies, and even a bordello owner by the name of Sally Stanford took refuge along its waterfront bringing a cultural “golden age” to the local scene. Some of the most notable were Sterling Hayden, Alan Watts, Shel Silverstein, Otis Redding and Jean Varda. Those who came created a bohemian aura that persists to this day, giving the town its reputation as an art colony and literary enclave. For many during that time, life was often a party in Sausalito and famous haunts such as Zack’s (currently Salito’s Crab House), Juanita’s and the Trident (now Horizons) offered great entertainment.
With the return of passenger ferries in 1970, visitors to the Bay Area began including Sausalito on their itineraries and the secret of its many charms became wisely known. Today its northern waterfront is shared by software, multi-media, financial and entertainment enterprises. They, in turn, happily co-exist with older maritime industries, a large houseboat community, and the many artists, artisans and craftspeople who still work and live there.
In the meantime, the residential hills and their inhabitants continue to be the vital core of this unique urban village. Sausalito remains a place of narrow, winding streets, turn-of-the-century homes, sweeping views and interesting people. A place of uncommon diversity and vigor. A place with a future–a place with a past.