By Jack Tracy
In his book Moments in Time, Jack Tracy calls the El Monte Hotel “One of the oldest and most widely known hotels in Sausalito” in the 19th century.
According to Tracy, the El Monte began its hotel life as the Bon Ton around 1878, although parts of the structure may have been built prior to 1869. It was like many grand hotels of the era, catering to the wealthy class with accommodations for servants in adjoining small rooms. The suites were designed to encourage lengthy stays, and the management frowned on overnight guests. But like many "wooden palaces" of that time, the Bon Ton struggled financially while keeping up a facade of gracious standards for the likes of Claus Spreckels, the Crockers, and Robert Dollar. Under different managements over the years, the hotel was called the Clifton House, the El Monte, the Terrace, and the Geneva Hotel, and became a boarding house shortly before it was demolished in 1904.
It was under the ownership of Australian Col. John E. Slinkey that the hotel, then known as the El Monte, acquired its greatest fame. Slinkey may not have lived up to his name literally, but he was crafty and energetic. He had a hand in almost everything that happened in Sausalito in the 1880s, and his El Monte was a gathering place for political and social groups. The guest list read like a Who's Who of San Francisco, and Slinkey catered to the guests’ every whim. He even installed a bowling alley exclusively for the use of ladies. Many British and other visitors stayed at the El Monte as the first step to becoming permanent Sausalito residents.
These British merchant-class homeowners in Sausalito and their wives set the social style of Sausalito. The British Benevolent Society (the first of many such ethnic organizations), open to all those born under the Union Jack, was formed in San Francisco in 1865, and by the early 1870s Sausalito was well represented in the society.
Rebecca Dixon Chambers, a long-time Sausalito resident, recalled the town's earlier days. Although her recollections were of the turn of the century, they applied in many respects to the 1870s. "When the Dixons moved to Sausalito, it was still an unspoiled British colony. There were more British people on the hill than Americans. The English crowd worked together, and the American crowd had their set. They mingled in a friendly way, but the English set the tone and quality of general life, informal and natural; but when there was a formal party, it was properly conducted."
In a 1976 MarinScope article, Tracy described the most dramatic incident involving this historic landmark:
In 1893, the majestic El Monte Hotel above Water Street (now Bridgeway) planned its annual display of fireworks. Colonel J.D. Slinkey, proprietor of this fashionable 1890s resort, purchased fireworks with several hundred dollars which had been raised by local residents. The selection promised to be spectacular: parachute rockets, willow tree rockets, twelve star Roman candles, Saxon wheels, Chinese musical candles, Japanese night shells, large surprise boxes, and some 15 union bombshells.
Perhaps it was the package labeled “surprise boxes” that started things. At any rate, the residents of Sausalito were in for quite a surprise that night.
No one was ever sure what happened, but around 9:30 p.m. on July 4th an inferno broke out. George Ginn’s saloon, the Hunter’s Resort, located directly below the grounds of the El Monte Hotel (where the former City Hall building now housing Gene Hiller’s menswear stands today) was engulfed, flames bursting out of doors and windows throughout its upper story.
There was not much wind at the time, but the flames spread northward roughly from Excelsior Lane to the building which today houses the Casa Madrona hotel. Ten buildings were destroyed and the fire damage totaled $30,000 – quite a sum of money then. Fortunately, no lives were lost.
According to reports of the time, everybody pitched in to save the town. Mayor J.W. Sperry was on hand and Counselor Reade stood by his post of duty, even if he did soil his trousers. Commodore C.C. Bruce lost an axe belonging to his yacht, the Rover. To save the El Monte Hotel, Sausalito’s willing hands pulled down A. Brendeau’s one-story shanty, and another serious loss was averted.
Nearly 1000 people witnessed the fire. A headline in the Sausalito News of July 7 declared: “MOST OF BUSINESS PORTION OF TOWN CONSUMED BY DESTRUCTIVE ELEMENT.” The San Francisco Examiner blamed the El Monte Hotel fireworks display. But nobody knew for sure. Whatever the cause, it was a 4th of July not easily forgotten.