“The Finest Hours” on a “Serial Sinker”

By Larry Clinton

The new movie, “The Finest Hours,” is based on a real-life rescue that took place in February 1952, when two oil tankers broke apart during a nor’easter off the coast of Cape Cod. The ships were T 2 tankers, like those hastily built at Marinship here in Sausalito during WWII.

Marinship was best known for turning out transport vessels called Liberty ships, at a record pace (one each week, at peak). But in 1943, Marinship President Ken Bechtel announced: “We have set a high record at Marinship on Liberty ships. That's why the Maritime Commission has asked us for 22 tankers. Frankly, this is not an easy goal. But I am convinced we can do it if we all work together.”

T 2 tanker underway during WWII.
Photo courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

The Marin-er, an in-house magazine published by the Marinship Employee Relations Division, boasted: “If our tankers are built on time, and sent into the war service on a critical front, they can swing the tide of battle in favor of the United Nations. If our tankers fail to show up ... if they are late . . . our gallant troops are helpless without fuel.” As a rallying cry for Marinship workers, the publication’s editors added this exhortation: “Day by day, week by week, month by month throughout 1943 we must work so that, by the end of the year, we will have delivered at least 22 tankers into Uncle Sam's service, to join the Victory Fleet. Our nation is counting on us!”

Many T2 tankers served well, but others became known as “serial sinkers” for their tendency to snap in half during cold weather.  In the book from which the movie takes its title, authors Michael J. Tougias, and Casey Sherman state that trouble with this class of ship dated back to January, 1943, “when the Schenectady split in halt while still at the dock! The ship had just completed its sea trials and had returned to port at Swan Island, Oregon, when suddenly she cracked just aft of the bridge superstructure.”

The 503-foot ship featured in the movie, the Pendelton, had been built quickly for the war effort, like the Schenectady. Its “strong outward appearance concealed the subpar welding methods used in its construction,” claim the authors, who also point out: “As in many T 2 tankers built during that era, the hull of the Pendleton was most likely put together with ‘dirty steel or ‘tired iron,’ in other words steel weakened by excess sulfur content.  In fact, the Pendleton had sustained a three-way fracture in the bulkhead between number 4 starboard and center tanks just one year before the tragedy depicted in the movie. The three-way fracture had never been repaired.  Amazingly, the Pendleton passed its last Coast Guard inspection on January 9, 1952 in Jacksonville, Florida with flying colors.”

The movie retells the story of the sea rescue that took place in conditions at least as fierce as the one immortalized in “The Perfect Storm.” New York Times critic Charles McGrathjan offered this description of the maritime disaster:  “One of the broken ships, the Pendleton, drifted perilously close to the shoals off Chatham, Mass. The captain and seven others in the bow section were lost, but the 33 sailors trapped aft maintained electric power for a while and were even able to navigate after a fashion until the hull began flooding and drifted so close to shore that people could glimpse it from the beach.

“All the available cutters were busy trying to rescue the other tanker, so as darkness fell the Coast Guard sent a 36-foot wooden motor lifeboat operated by just four young crewmen. That the little boat made it out to the Pendleton, let alone back with all but one of the 33 stranded sailors, is still a source of wonder to naval historians, who consider this the greatest small-boat rescue ever.”

It’s important to point out that the ill-fated T 2 Pendleton was not a Marinship-built tanker.  She was constructed in Oregon by the Kaiser Company in 1944.

Bill Price: Maintaining Richardson Bay

by Steefenie Wicks

In his book, “Sausalito: Moments In Time” Jack Tracy wrote that:

        “Sausalito with its mix of cultures and people has never  been a melting pot. It has never been a smooth broth, either bbut rather a lumpy chowder with gritty bits in it.”

Today Bill Price might find that Tracy’s quote aptly describes his constituents on  Richardson’s Bay.

Since 1995, Bill Price has been in charge of maintaining our local Bay.  He removes sunken boats, dead trees, and garbage that tends to take refuge off our shores.  He has also been dedicated to making sure that all the local beach areas are cleaned of debris.  When he started this job, he remembers that there were 15 to 20 sizeable sunken boats sitting on the bottom.  Each had to me sectioned off to be removed; seldom did they come out of the water in just one piece. Even today, he tends to go out at a minus tide so that he can see if there are any new sunken structures or vessels.  Then there are the days when the wind comes up, some boat on the anchorage will break loose, and he will be called to make sure that it does no damage while it’s out free sailing with no one onboard.

Raised in Napa Valley, Price learned to sail at an early age in Cape Cod, aboard a little gaff-rigged sloop.  His family was a sailing family, and his brother maintains a sailboat in one of the local harbors that they take out on a regular basis. He once lived on an old hay scow docked on South 40 Pier called the Stripper. For years he and his wife did charter work aboard vessels in both the Caribbean and Europe. One of the things he talks about during those years was being anchored out.  He speaks of the freedom you experience when you live this way but also how that way of life is becoming rare. 

To his knowledge, Sausalito is still one of the only places that offers a free anchorage.  But with a free anchorage comes the problem of how to deal with the day to day reality that you are allowing a community to grow, but it has nowhere to go. Price notes, “Historically, the Sausalito and Tiburon areas had these floating Arks. In the early 1900s, people would rent them; they would then be taken out and anchored in selected areas.  People would live on them for weekends or summer retreats, so there have always been people with vessels anchored in the Bay. These moveable Arks where brought in, tied to docks when not in use; they were not anchored in the Bay all of the time, which is the difference.  There is still one of these floating Arks maintained in Tiburon -- it’s used as a historic museum.”

Price is the first to tell you that he is not the police.  He does not police the Bay but he does maintain it. Sometimes in order to do this he must use his skills as a diplomat to ensure that individuals anchor their vessels so their neighbor is not in their scope; sometimes this takes quite a bit of diplomatic skill.

Price loves the fact that historically Sausalito has been able to maintain its free anchorage.  He would like to see that continue but with the reality of the current live-aboard boom, he wonders if it can be maintained.  Currently, he is wrecking 70 derelict or abandoned boats a year, up from 30 boats for the past several years. He also feels it’s not slowing down.  People started anchoring out in Richardson’s Bay during the Gold Rush area but Price feels that it intensified in the 1960s when people started living on their boats. At one time the area called Gate 6 was home to over 110 small floating structures that were either tied to a dock or anchored in the Bay.

Currently, all that remains in this area off the existing floating homes community are a few “houseboats” that have been anchored in this section of the Bay since the 1970s.  Price feels that he has seen a real change, a kind of explosion of people now living on boats anchored here.  There was a time when he would go out to maintain the Bay by counting the number of boats that were being abandoned in the anchorage; now he counts those that are inhabited.  Price feels that if Sausalito is going to maintain its historically free anchorage, some changes will have to be made.

Price loves the freedom of the Sausalito anchorage but the way it is evolving now seems to be bringing about problems.  He says in the end, he would hate to see a State agency get involved, perhaps saying we’re going to have to shut this down; that would be a shame.

The Bars and Saloons of Early Sausalito

by Annie Sutter

This story is taken from the Sausalito Historical Society’s Fall 1980 newsletter. It has been edited and shortened.

Do you think poolrooms are places where you play billiards? Not in the Sausalito of the 1890s; they were places where people went to gamble by “pooling” bets on horse races. Do you think you get soda pop at a soda pop parlor? Not in Prohibition-era Sausalito where “soda pop and cigar” stores sprang up to cover what everyone knew were speakeasies. Sausalito was a town where San Franciscans went to gamble, where local elections were swung by votes from the barrooms; a town that in its first beginnings sported a hotel and bowling alley before a church, a school or a post office.

The Arbordale expanded to “the finest eating house on the bay” in 1902. Photo courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

The Arbordale expanded to “the finest eating house on the bay” in 1902.
Photo courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

The first establishment believed to have been a bar in Sausalito was the Fountain House. Little is known of the Fountain House, and we can only presume that they sold liquor, for we have no ads, menus or firsthand accounts. The Fountain House was built in 1850 by a Mr. McCormack and was sold the next year to Capt. Dickenson and E.T. Whittlesey who operated it in conjunction with a bowling alley. In 1852 a hotel of unknown name was put up by “Bill the Cook” and it is never mentioned again. In 1854 Capt. George Snow built the Saucelito Hotel in Old Town; it burned in 1873.

The Buffalo Hotel was built sometime in the 1880s on the waterfront near what is now Scoma’s. Little is known of the Buffalo’s early days, but we can be sure this one served liquor for it sported a sign saying, “Pabst Beer, 5 cents.”

It was probably built by J. Lowder, who sold it in 1893 to build the Walhalla. In the 1890s, political manipulation centered on the Buffalo. In those days poolrooms were centers for gambling and drinking, and San Franciscans flocked to Sausalito on the ferries to bet on horse races. The City Councils of 1893 and 1894 prohibited poolrooms, the ordinances of 1896 licensed them, and in 1897 the licenses were revoked. Of course, the attitude depended on who had been elected. The Buffalo Hotel played a big part in the elections. Anyone who had been a Sausalito resident for two weeks could vote. Politicians went to San Francisco and gathered bums and barflies and put them up for two weeks at the Buffalo, paying for all food and drinks, in exchange for votes.

By the time a large fire in 1893 wiped out many of the downtown bars, Sausalito had become a gambling center and a rowdy place where “a decent woman didn’t like to pass through Water Street to get to the ferry. The whole town smelled of stale beer.” Sausalito was a town where 25 saloons clustered around the ferry docks and the railroad tracks. We can name some of them from a newspaper report about a fire which began on July 4, 1893. “Guests at the El Monte Hotel were setting off fireworks, and fire started on a roof below. The following saloons were destroyed: George Ginn’s, M. Beiro’s Saloon, the Ferry Cafe, the Lisbon House and the Tamalpais Hotel.”

Three downtown establishments that were not destroyed in the fire were across the street. At that time the bay waters came right up to [what is now] Bridgeway, and the bars stood on stilts. There was the Arbordale, a beer garden, where the owner, Mama Kirstenmacher, sang opera for the patrons and across the water on stilts was Claudino’s Yacht House. It disappears from the records after placing an ad in the year book in 1900. The Walhalla was out toward Ft. Baker, and it was a loud and rowdy place with sawdust on the floor. The management served seafood and staged clambakes, and during Prohibition it was a bootlegging center. The No Name Bar, which had been called the Lisbon House, was rebuilt after the fire of 1894. It was variously called the Oak Grill, the Pine Lodge, and Herb’s Club Cafe.

Today people still flock to Sausalito on the ferries, and there are still many watering holes for those so inclined. Perhaps it is not as exciting as when you had to peek through a hole in the door and say, “Joe sent me,” but perhaps not. In Sausalito the fun has always been where you make it.

For more information on our colorful history, check out: sausalitohistoricalsociety.org.

Ice House Plaza Project Progresses

By Dana Whitson, Vice President, SHS
SWA’s renderings of the proposed plaza looking south

SWA’s renderings of the proposed plaza looking south

Sausalito citizens can learn more about plans to vreat a new plaza adjacent to the downtown Ice House at a public open house on Sunday January 31 from 12 to 3 PM. The Open House will be held on the proposed plaza site adjacent to the Ice House at 780 Bridgeway.  Sausalito Historical Society docents will display the proposed Ice House Plaza plans and will be available to answer questions.

Visitors to the new plaza will be able to explore and linger on wooden benches and decks, and concrete seating walls designed to complement the adjoining historic Ice House Historic Museum and Visitor Center.

SWA’s renderings of the proposed plaza looking south.

SWA’s renderings of the proposed plaza looking south.

Five mature Canary Island Pines will be preserved on the site, but the design proposes to prune them to create more light and to open up views of the harbor and bay.  A “learning landscape” with native plants will create an opportunity for the 3rd graders to study plants used by the Miwoks and also for home gardeners to find out more about attractive, drought-tolerant plants suitable for Sausalito.

The new plaza design acknowledges the site’s historic roots with the addition of an allegorical rail line outlined in tile on the plaza, crossed by wooden benches symbolizing railroad ties.

The multi-use space is planned to be used as an outdoor classroom for the Historical Society’s acclaimed local history curricula for Sausalito Marin City School District third grade students. Replicas of historic Sausalito artifacts will be imbedded into the plaza to encourage exploration by the students. 

Ice House History

The land where the municipal parking lots are now located used to be the terminus of a passenger railroad that terminated at the Ferry Landing.  Those trains operated until 1941.

The Ice House also originated as a piece of railroad rolling stock, having been built as a cold storage hold for the trains in the 1880’s.  It was moved to Caledonia Street in the early 1900’s as an outlet where Sausalitans could restock their iceboxes.  Following the advent of electric refrigerators, the building was once again moved to Caledonia and Litho Streets, this time as an office.  Architect Michael Rex was the last commercial tenant of the building.

When the underlying land was to be sold in 1998, Mr. Rex offered the building to the City for $1.  After a public discussion on alternate uses for the building, the City Council voted to move the Ice House to its final home, a City-owned site at the corner of Bay Street and Bridgeway in downtown Sausalito, to replace a temporary SHS History Exhibit and Visitor Center opened during the City’s 1993 centennial at the former Village Faire (now the Casa Madrona Hotel and Poggio Restaurant.) 

Under the leadership of former Sausalito Historical Society President Phil Frank, the Historical Society raised funds for the relocation and conversion of the building into the Museum and Visitor Center in 1999, and has continuously operated it for the City since that time. 

Phil Frank was tireless champion of Sausalito history and a beloved community member.  He was also well known as the celebrated creator of the Farley comic strip in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The City and Historical Society always intended to improve the site around the Ice House once funds became available.  The plan for the plaza began to take shape following Phil Frank’s death, as his friends and fellow citizens sought to use funds donated in his memory to build a project that Phil would have loved.  In 2010, the Sausalito Foundation raised over $32,000 to build the Plaza.  The Sausalito Art Festival Foundation contributed an additional $30,000 to cast a life-size bronze statue of Phil to be installed in the plaza.

The project lagged when the Sausalito Foundation founder Bea Seidler became ill and passed away.  Like Phil, Bea was someone who made enormous contributions to Sausalito.  She was a pioneer in the advertising industry, creating the “Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco Treat” campaign in her capacity as a copy writer for a San Francisco PR firm.   Bea was also one of the founding Ice House docents.

Bringing the Ice House Plaza to Completion

In late 2014, the remaining Foundation board enlisted the Sausalito Historical Society to help finish the Plaza.  In the last year, this partnership enlisted a pro-bono panel of Sausalito architects, landscape architects, landscape designers, exhibit designers and planners to update the concept plan. 

Internationally recognized Sausalito landscape architecture firm SWA was brought on board at a deeply discounted fee to translate the concept plans into a design review submittal by the Sausalito Planning Commission.  Those plans are tentatively slated to be heard by the Planning Commission at its February 3 meeting.

The City and Historical Society have ramped up the fundraising by applying for a museum grant from the State of California to provide matching funds for constructing the plaza project. The City expects to learn about the State funding prospects in February. If approved, the grant funds will help pay for outdoor exhibits in the Plaza that highlight Sausalito’s rich history.

With funding prospects now in focus, the Historical Society and Foundation hope to begin construction on the Plaza in Fall 2016.

For further information about the Ice House Plaza project or the January 31 open house, please contact the Sausalito Historical Society at 415-289-4117 or info@sausalitohistoricalsociety.org .


Hail, Ale

Ale Ekstrom, known as the grandfather of Sausalito’s anchor-outs, died of pneumonia July 22, 2015 at the age of 78.

Among the many fond remembrances of Ale, here’s an excerpt from a book in the Historical Society collection: SAUSALITO WATERFRONT STORIES © Derek Van Loan 1992:

Ale with his concertina on the Bay he loved. Photo by Noam Eshel

Ale with his concertina on the Bay he loved.

Photo by Noam Eshel

With his short pigtail, stoked red face, and faded brass-buttoned uniform he could be the ghost of a British sailor who died at Trafalgar. Ale pleasantly haunts the streets and waters of Sausalito, chatting his way around town, frequently taking a sip of grog from the cup that is short chained to his waist.

When he left the U. S. Navy in 1959, he came to Sausalito for a visit. By the time he'd strolled through once, he knew he was home, and Ale has lived aboard anchored vessels on Richardson Bay ever since. His first local command was a Navy whale boat, which he flush decked and named the "Promise." After a few years aboard the little whaleboat, Ale decided he needed more spacious quarters. Disintegrating on a nearby beach was a 60' World War II ex-naval "crash boat," with a gap in the starboard side large enough to drive a pickup truck through. Just perfect, he thought.

He nailed canvas and plywood over the starboard hole, and patched holes for weeks until the leaks could hardly be heard and the "Verdigris" rose with the tide. But every night Ale slept with one foot in the bilge in order to know when it was time to pump. The "manual" bilge alarm was replaced by an aspirin tablet between a brass hook eye and a brass spring. When the tablet was dissolved by rising bilgewater, the spring contacted the eye and a bell circuit was activated by a flashlight battery.

When visitors came aboard, he'd entertain them by playing chanteys on his concertina or by reciting some of his favorite poems.

Life went smoothly for years until Ale hauled the old "Verdigris" for a refit. Disaster struck on Schoonmaker Beach where he'd pulled up, stern first, at high tide. The transom fell out. Everything that Ale owned lay exposed to the rising salt water. Ale became as animated as a courting Grebe. In almost no time at all he'd pulled the massive transom back into place, rigged damage control canvas patches, and installed a gasoline pump. For three days he worked with tar, cement, Spanish windlasses, and with the energy he'd saved over twenty years. And after he'd refloated the old "Verdigris," he took a couple of years off to recuperate.

Some years later Ale moved aboard a smaller, more manageable vessel, the "Toy Chest." The "Toy Chest" is also a vet, having been a U. S. Navy liberty launch, a vessel that used to carry crew from ships to shore. A liberty launch has a shapely hull, and is built to withstand hard knocks.

Again, after almost a decade aboard, Ale decided to interfere with the natural order and haul out. This time he came ashore at Galilee Harbor in the heart of Sausalito. David Coy lay under the portside hammering and chalking the doubtful areas, working solely out of friendship. As the survey progressed, they talked and planned.

Bang bang bang...bang bang bang... “I don't like that area," David says hammering a section of soft wood with his wooden mallet. To David's trained ear the mallet blows speak of fastening problems. "I should just rather work on this 'un one side at a time," Ale chuckled. "Maybe I'll jus have ta do one side every other year." "Nooo," David says before he realizes that Ale is pulling his leg."

 Scrape, scrape, scrape, scrape...David lying on an old sheet of dry plywood works intently near the keel. "I'll reef this seam and both these butts," Ale says, referring to the joints between two plank ends. "And," he continues, "that won't hurt the boat a bit." "I wanta be sure to get some quick-set cement into that corner back there. Jus to keep the tide from gettin' in." "That's a priority item." "Yeah," David replies.

They'd rigged an awning down the entire side of the "Toy Chest," and the jobs were planned in a logical fashion. "When I take off a patch we've gotta be ready to put it back together," says David. "Yeah, we wanta be able to Quick-set it or somethin' jus to keep the water from commin' in," Ale replies. "I've got a tub o' that up here," he says. "This patch here," says David chipping away, "is so ancient, you need a geologist;" both laugh for David is indeed a Cornell University educated geologist. "Yeah the boat will be forty-eight years old in August," says Ale. "And so will I," says David. "How about that!" they both exclaim in unison. "I don't care how old I get, as long as I keep gettin' older," says Ale.


On Friday, Jan. 15, the Sausalito Library and the Historical Society will present the first of four documentary film screenings, with a double bill: “Ale Eckstrom’s Boat House” and “The Anchor-Outs of Richardson’s Bay.” The free program begins at 7 PM inside the library.