Vanderbilt Cruises into Town

By Larry Clinton

The accompanying photo was provided to the Historical Society by Sausalito native Fritz Perry. Here’s how he described it: “This snapshot was taken in the early 50’s next to the fire station.  That’s my brother Matts on the left.  Next to him is Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the wealthiest men in the country then.  Next to him are three of the firemen, ‘Whistle’ Terris, a fellow named Expangnolle and Swede Pedersen.  Vanderbilt kept his yacht in Sausalito and liked to come over to the fire station and play cards with the guys.  Real easy going fellow.”

Cornelius Vanderbilt IV with the Sausalito Fire Department.
Photo from Sausalito Historical Society

Vanderbilt IV, often incorrectly referred to as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., was a descendent and namesake of the American business magnate and philanthropist who built his wealth in railroads and shipping in the 19th century, becoming one of the richest Americans in history.  According to historian H. Roger Grant, contemporaries often hated or feared Vanderbilt “or at least considered him an unmannered brute. While Vanderbilt could be a rascal, combative and cunning, he was much more a builder than a wrecker.... being honorable, shrewd, and hard-working."

When the California gold rush began, Vanderbilt switched from regional steamboat lines to ocean-going steamships, transporting many migrants to California, and almost all of the gold returning to the East Coast.  And also establishing his family’s relationship with the Golden State.

Cornelius Vanderbilt IV (April 30, 1898 – July 7, 1974) was a newspaper publisher, journalist, author and military officer. During the early 1920s, Vanderbilt IV launched several newspapers and tabloids, including the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News and the San Francisco Illustrated Daily Herald.  But his budding publishing empire lasted only two and a half years, and he went back to writing for other publications.

In March 1946, the Sausalito News reported: “The very last word in deluxe trailers rolled up to the Sausalito fire station last Friday night, on the half-way point of a ‘shakedown’ trip from Van Nuys, Calif., piloted by newsman Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr.” The all-aluminum trailer, an early recreation vehicle, “weighs only 1800 pounds, 90 per cent of the materials used in its construction being noncritical,” according to the newspaper, which added: “The trip north to Sausalito is the preliminary to a five-year ’round the world cruise to be made shortly by the newsman, whose articles are syndicated by the New York Post.” After a trip around the US, and then to Alaska over the Alcan highway, Vanderbilt planned to take the trailer to South America, Europe, South Africa, Asia, and Australia.

The vagabond tour was something new in the way of reporting assignments. “When I was told by my editors what my assignment would be, it was indeed a surprise,” Vanderbilt told the paper. “I am going to go to many out-of-the-way towns —for big cities on the beaten track are tabu. The idea is to report on these places largely because so many boys have gotten the wanderlust in the last few war years that the idea of adventure is still news,” he added.

Back on the home front, Fritz Perry and his brother Matts were the sons of Sausalito grocer Fred Perry, Sr., who built the Perry Building at the corner of Caledonia and Pine streets. The building housed the Perry & Son grocery store and still stands today with the Sausalito Market on the first floor and apartments on the second. Matts served as Sausalito’s Fire Chief for over 20 years.  When Fritz passed away in 1996 at age 92, MarinScope described him as “the oldest living Sausalito native.”

Sausalito Historical Society Member Mike Moyle will give an illustrated talk on the history of Caledonia St. 7:00 PM Friday evening, April 1, at the Sausalito Library.  Following his talk, there will be a complimentary reception in the Society’s Exhibition Room, kicking off a new show covering the history of Caledonia Street and some “Then and Now" comparisons. The following day, between 11:00AM and 1:00PM, members of the Sausalito Historical Society will be stationed along the entire length of Caledonia Street and available to answer questions about Caledonia Street history. Printed walking guides will be available in the SHS exhibit room (with parking at City Hall) and from docents on Caledonia Street identified by distinctive sashes. The new Caledonia Street exhibit will also be open during that period. Everyone is encouraged to walk the street, stop in at the stores and restaurants, visit the Society, and learn more about the history of this important part of Sausalito.