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.