Sausalito Historical Society: Swede’s dark side

December 1, 2015

By Larry Clinton

Federal Prohibition officers, know as “prohis,” dogged young Swede Pedersen and other Sausalito bootleggers. Courtesy of the Sausalito Historical Society

Hometown boy Swede Pedersen was a Sausalito fireman who saved so many lives in and around town that one survivor dubbed him a “blond angel.” But there was another side to Swede, born out of the hardscrabble Depression years, when he and a gang of kids who dubbed themselves “Jackals of the Fog” tried to weasel in on Sausalito’s rum-running scene. This first-person account is excerpted from the book “One Eye Closed, the Other Red: The California Bootlegging Years” by Clifford James Walker.

At the beginning when bootlegging wended its way into the area, everyone seemed to have gotten into the game. The natural coastal approaches, the multitude of fishing and pleasure crafts, the Depression era and the lack of law enforcers to cover such a wide and isolated area, everyone had a try at bootlegging.

Across the Walhalla tavern was Nunes Bros. Boatyard. We would gain entrance to a boat and use it as an outpost. We would not take anything and were careful to leave the boat as it was when we left it.

At approximately 4 o’clock one foggy morning, with numerous foghorns moaning in the background, our lookout heard noises.

A large rowboat barely visible in the low fog was working toward the Walhalla beach. At this early hour and with such dense fog, there were no problems being observed. We heard the keel of the rowboat beaching on the sand so we watched the unloading, which was quick and professional.

After watching the boat pull out and making sure no one else was around we crawled along the beach and under the boathouse to the beach side of the Walhalla.

The Walhalla porch area was on pilings with the basement closed, with planking down into the beach sand. The old driftwood door was padlocked as usual. We dug down into the sand along the plank about four feet deep. We made sure we wouldn’t have a cave-in, then all but one of us slid into the entrance and inside the basement.

With matches we located the booze cache. This wasn’t local homemade product. Here were cases of first-grade liquor wrapped in straw. Rum, scotch, bourbon, cognac and gin. We could tell rumrunners brought this load through the Golden Gate off the mother ship from Canada or South America.

We were smart enough not to touch this load. We dug under and extracted a dozen bottles from broken cartons of a previous load.

After wrapping the bottles in our jackets to avoid any clinking noises, we passed them up through the entrance hole. We smoothed and covered our tracks in the sand and got the hell out of the area.

We laid low for a few days getting the feel of things. No one was aware of our two-bit hijacking job!

Not knowing how to properly cash in on our possession we traded bottles to the movie operator at the Princess Theatre for free passes (in the back door) and for watermelons and other fruit from the produce man.

By playing it cool and not trying to flood the market we didn’t run into much trouble. Although we were just drops in a bucket full of water, we felt big!

It didn’t take long before the syndicate entered the game. This was where we got off. The syndicate played rough and for keeps.

My buddy and I overheard that a cache of booze (not imported) was under a garage foundation next to the Princess Theatre. We checked out the area and saw two gunnysacks below the garage floorboards.

This was a quick drop so we crawled under the narrow foundation opening. We finally pulled the booze out into the open but we were looking up at a couple of mean, mad individuals at the same time.

We had no excuse; we were way off base. We knew better. They bruised us up plenty where it didn’t show.

Other times we would fill our lunch packs with several bottles and wait for the hay trucks heading through Fort Baker, Fort Barry, and Point Bonita to get to Sam Silva’s ranch and Jolly’s ranch by the ocean. We would hop the hay truck on the last steep grade out of Sausalito. As we stopped at various points, the soldiers, Coast Guard and ranch hands would claim their goodies. When pickings were scarce we would walk along the beaches gathering whiskey bottles floating in from passing ships and with the tides from San Francisco. Whiskey bottles being at a premium, we were paid from two cents for a half-pint to 25 cents for a gallon jug.

While visiting up in New Town I was taken down into the basement of a home and shown a full working still by my school friend. While looking and sampling we heard cars stopping alongside the house.

As footsteps were pounding in our direction my friend pulled me by the belt and we both crawled into and behind a false-built wall near the retaining wall.

You guessed it: It was a raid! I was sweating behind that wall copying my friend giving Hail Marys and anyone else’s name who needed hailing as long as we wouldn’t be discovered.

The still was smashed, the equipment knocked over. After what seemed forever, the prohis [federal agents] left and we crawled out, not lingering long enough to inhale the potent fumes.

I found I wasn’t built to get involved with the hard-core crowd.

Bootlegging became a serious game. Floating dead in the bay or a ditch, or wasting away in a jail cell, these were the top choices. We all settled down to safer and better things, like avoiding getting hit by a speeding car.

“One Eye Closed, the Other Red” is part of the Sausalito Historical Society collection.