The Lost Autobiographical Works of Once Famous Sausalito Author Frederick O'Brien

By Charles Willcox

The following is excerpted from a 1993 article in the Historical Society’s newsletter:

Portrait of Federick O’Brien from Sausalito News

By any definition, Frederick O'Brien was a vagabond. O'Brien travelled more in any given year than most travel in a lifetime.

O'Brien, who lived the latter part of his life in Sausalito, has also largely been forgotten, yet the visions he shared in his three books, White Shadows in the South Seas, Mystic Isles of the South Seas, and Atolls of the Sun, created lasting and haunting images of places and people, now long gone, who once dwelled on the many lone­ly islands strewn throughout the South Pacific.

At 18 years of age, in 1887, he dropped out of college and signed aboard an American Clipper ship bound for South America. He found, however, that life aboard didn't afford the freedom he sought, and so when the chance came to jump ship in Brazil, he took it, and began the life of a nomad, tramping through the then little known interiors of Brazil and Venezuela.

Eventually, with his fill of South America, and still essentially a hobo, he ventured out onto the Caribbean before finally returning to the States.

Settling down, as best he could, O'Brien began a respectable career as an accomplished, though itinerant, journalist. Over the next 25 years, he managed to write his way around the globe from Paris to the Yangtze Kiang delta. Of all his writings, however, his most endearing stamp was left on his descriptions of the fading people and cultures inhabiting the islands of French Polynesia.

Although his life during sojourns in the South Seas was well chronicled in his three books, the rest of his life, equally filled with adventure, remained for the most part undocumented. It wasn't until later years that Frederick O'Brien, urged by friends, started his autobiography, titled On Paper Wings. Unfortunately, O'Brien never completed this work before his death in 1932.

There are many questions. Why didn't anyone write O'Brien's biography, given that one was fully expected? Did O'Brien's personal secretary, Margaret Watson, ever publish her "memoirs" and include the contents of it? If not, did she at least keep her copy and pass it on to someone else? Although married once, O'Brien had long been separated from his wife at the time of his death, and he never had children. Nor did he have any close relatives that lived in the area.

In all probability, most of the possessions of O'Brien's went to close friends who were with him at the time of his death. It is known that among his closest friends were Dr. Leo Stanley (the famous San Quentin physician and Sausalito resident), as well as William M. Simmons, a well-known attorney, and Dean of Hasting's School of Law. Simmons was also the executor of O'Brien's estate.

This raises the question, why is there no will or probate on record in Marin County? Did any of the three key people close to O'Brien at his death —Stanley, Simmons or Watson — ever receive any of his estate belongings, such as his unfinished manuscript, photographs, or any of the countless rare objects and curios O'Brien had collected.... like the smoked head of a Solomon man O'Brien used to keep in his closet?

At the end of his essay Willcox asked the aid of local residents “who may remember something about O'Brien himself, or information that will help in the recovery of the lost.” He concluded: “The lack of trails may be symptomatic of the fact that although O'Brien had many friends from around the world, he was at heart, a loner. He once wrote that he was ‘always a lover of sunsets on far shores, of books, of men, of women and animals, of speculations upon life and morals, customs and reactions, of merry song and brave deed, and also of being alone.’ When death claimed Frederick O'Brien, it was in the sunset of the day as he had always wished. It could be that nothing remains of On Paper Wings, or his personal belongings, and given his quiet and reticent nature, maybe he wanted it that way.”

The Historical Society has been able to unearth only a few reports of O’Brien’s time here. In a 1932 Sausalito News tribute after his death, Edmond Terence Casey (who described himself as O’Brien’s  friend and familiar”) recalled the author’s “great full-length windows with matchless view of San Francisco, Angel Island, Tiburon and the beautiful scape of bay,” adding: “Frederick O’Brien passed his more serene and Olympian years, sybaritic, happy, poetic, greatly honored; Sausalito's most illustrious and acclaimed citizen and one of America’s most distinguished literary men.”

In the 1962Sausalito Pictorial Quarterly, nationally known writer Edward H. Dillon, a native of Sausalito, called O’Brien “One of the first ‘discoverers’ of Polynesia,” pointing out that “His forward to Mystic Ideas is datelined, “Kahoa, Sausalito, California.”

Dilllon told of how O’Brien was followed here by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall “who also did much of their writing of the Bounty trilogy in Sausalito. What drew them?  Perhaps something of John Webster’s 1851 description remained in ferryboat days: ‘Saucelito is a safe anchorage, inside the harbor. . . The village of the same name, surrounded by an amphitheater of hills, contains but a few cottages in the modern style of architecture…It enjoys advantage of San Francisco in the salubrity of the air, in the possession of good water, and in the absence of dust’.”

Early Sausalito Immigrants

By Helen Kerr

Sausalito can trace its history in the waves of immigrants who settled here.  In her soft-cover book “Sausalito Since the Days of the Dons,” copyrighted in 1967, Helen Kerr described some of these early immigrants.  Here are a few annotated excerpts:

On Christmas Day, 1840, when Captain Leonard Story arrived at the site of what was to be Saucelito’s Old Town he found there only a saw-mill building and a shanty where the workers lived.  He nonetheless deemed it an agreeable place to live and invested a thousand dollars in a house-frame that had been brought around the Horn. Others took up residence in the next few years, among them Robert Parker, who built a hotel, Fountain House, and a government store.  But this first spurt of growth was short-lived, for when the town of Sacramento was badly damaged by fire in 1852, many of Saucelito’s buildings were dismantled and the lumber sold up river to rebuild Sacramento.

Between 1853 and 1868 Saucelito could hardly have been called a town, but 1868 saw the formation of the Saucelito Land and Ferry Company, a partnership of twenty “San Francisco gentlemen” who purchased some three miles of waterfront property, amounting to over a thousand acres, and proceeded to divide it up into “town lots and country seats.” They also laid out avenues and streets and established a regular ferry service to San Francisco. [Saucelito was an alternative spelling of our town’s name until the U.S. Post Office mandated Sausalito as the official name in 1888.]

Business was anything but brisk in the first days of the ferry run – often the passengers numbered only five or six – and it was the custom of the captain of the steamer Princess to call the roll of commuters before casting off the hawser.  “I can’t afford to leave one behind,” he explained to strangers.

By 1880 the dairy industry had developed steadily, with San Francisco as a convenient and ready market.  With the dairy industry grew Saucelito’s New Town, for beginning in the 1870’s the dairying attracted a host of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. Sober-minded, hard-working men, they brought their families with them or married into the Marin clan, encouraging their relatives back on the islands to join them.

A memberof the original colony, Mrs. Mary Ann (Josie) Rosa, bright-eyed and clear-minded at the age of 93,  described her childhood in Sausalito of the late nineteenth century.  Her father, Joseph Silva, had come to Sausalito aboard a whaler, settled at the end of town and married a girl from Sao Jorge who had been brought over to keep house for her brothers.  Josie and the other children walked several miles back and forth to school each day.  As the youngsters passed the scattered homes along the way to school on Hannon’s Hill, their classmates fell in with them, and the walk constituted their social life for the day.

Their route took them past Shanghai Valley, now a part of Marinship, where a number of Chinese railroad workers lived.  There were no women and children in Shanghai Valley and the men, certainly homesick for their families, made friends with the children and offered them sweets on holidays.  The Chinese lived quietly in Sausalito until the North Pacific Coast Railway was completed, [early in the 20th Century] when they disappeared.

Some of the Portuguese worked for the railroad too, and others were fishermen who hired out to the large companies that fished the waters from Alaska to Baja California. 

The men from the Azores also participated in Sausalito’s boat building industry, and the Nunes Brothers Boat Works made an impressive showing in the field of yacht design.

The Portuguese played as hard they worked. Weddings and christenings were traditionally celebrated for three days and three nights, but the big event of the year for the Portuguese was, and still is, the Pentecost Festival of Feast of the Holy Ghost.  The “Chamarita,” as the festival is sometimes called, after the traditional dance of that name, is still observed in Sausalito each year on the seventh Sunday after Easter.

In early days the holiday began with a cattle drive, which started from Bolinas, on the ocean side of the coastal range, and wound its way along the trails and roads to Sausalito. Ranchers along the way donated calves for auction, and Portuguese cowboys, dressed in their finest riding clothes, picked up cattle and drivers as they moved toward Sausalito.  On the trail they decorated the animals with ribbons, bells and flowers for the gala entry into town. This custom lasted until 1925 when the automobile began its interference with tradition.

Helen Kerr was a Marin journalist who once edited the Sausalito News.  She was also on the Board of the Sausalito Arts Festival as early as 1956.  Her beautifully calligraphed book is in the collection of the Historical Society, and in select Marin County libraries.

Memoirs of an Old Sausalitan, Part III

This is the final installment from recollections of an unknown early Sausalitan, apparently written in the early 1960s. As in the two previous excerpts, what follows is a knowledgeable, often gossipy, sometimes inaccurate account, of people, places and events in Sausalito before and after the turn of the century.

The original San Francisco Yacht Club faced Belvedere on the coast of Hurricane Gulch. The club had to be abandoned when the Golden Gate Ferry came in because the wash from the boats made anchoring impossible and launching hazardous.

About 1884 or 1886 the Sausalito Bay Land Company, O.C. Miller, undertook a [land] boom to open up the gulch with a picnic. The wind came up, as it can on a summer afternoon, and blew the tablecloths off the tables and the cutlery and everything around. That is when the Gulch got its name — “Hurricane Gulch.” The eucalyptus grove was planted as a windbreak. The boom didn't go well.

Pen-and-ink illustration of Excelsior Lane by Leonard Sutton Wood, who died in Sausalito in 1970. Courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

Pen-and-ink illustration of Excelsior Lane by Leonard Sutton Wood, who died in Sausalito in 1970.
Courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

Excelsior Lane used to be called “Limejuice Alley” because the Englishmen all came up and down the lane, a main thoroughfare before automobiles took over. They were known as Limeys, Limejuicers, because English Law required vessels to carry lime juice to prevent scurvy among sailors. The lower part of Excelsior Lane had wooden steps, but from there up to the top, until the 90's was only steep, red clay with triangular rocks sticking up.

El Monte Lane was called “Pig Alley” because at the foot was a pig sty.

There was always a Bachelor's House. One on Pine and Girard and the “Old Hutch” on Bulkley Avenue, now apartments. The bachelors always married and a new lot took their place.

When the streets were paved and gas was put in — I said to my husband “This is the end of Sausalito as we know it.” How right I was!

Telephones came to Sausalito in the early 1900's. You ground out the number you wanted on a wall phone. If you were on the same line you didn't need the operator – Central,  she was called then. You ground the ball to get her and said: “Get me Fiedler's”, the grocery store; “Mecchi's”, the Italian fruit and grocery store and Oh, such good, good things did they have to eat, or Mrs. Mason or Mrs. Corson. Central knew everybody, without their numbers, and probably listened in.

Fred Russell, tall, handsome, with big dark eyes and puffy fingertips was Cashier of what [became] is now the Canadian Bank of Commerce for many, many years. He had four wives. The last one surviving him, a charming French woman, Miss Melville. John McNamara, who worked in people's garden, said when Mr. Russell married for the fourth time, “I should think the women would be scared of him — He's got the Red Liver.” I later found out that the Red Liver [Gout?] was authentic Elizabethan. I think it was Wully Corson who said, “Fred Russell is the kind of man who should have a wife in the drawing room and a ...wench in the woodshed.” Mr. Russell was the only man in Sausalito who still paid dinner calls forty years ago. He was always punctilious, well bred, courteous. His children were by his first wife who was a sister of Mrs. Mason's. Florry Philpotts wrathfully followed him and the girl he was wooing about the streets of San Rafael. But in spite of that he outlived three wives.

Gossip about Sausalito, as we first knew it, would not have been complete without mention of the Corsons. A delightful couple. He, a black-eyed Edinburgh man with a lovely accent, and she a New Zealander with the most complete knowledge of everybody else's business that she passed on discreetly without venom. The Ideal Gossip. If there was anything to know about...Mrs. Corson Knew It. They were hospitable, kind, and their house, “Red Gables,” [is] still in 1962 standing and occupied, with tennis courts, an aviary, was the Headquarters for much British Sociability. The Billiard Room on the ground floor was used for dancing. Somebody had to play piano. No records, no radio in those days. We had the Steam Cars and the Telegraph and the Ferry-boats and didn't miss what we didn't have.

Telephones were new.

Where Have all the Herring Gone?

by Steefenie Wick

In the 1880’s the felucca was the dominant vessel plying the waters of Richardson’s Bay.  Today things have changed dramatically; the fishing industry in Sausalito is not the dominant force it once was. 

Seabirds flocked to Sausalito waters during last year’s herring run. Photo by Steefenie Wicks

Seabirds flocked to Sausalito waters during last year’s herring run.
Photo by Steefenie Wicks

Captain Heather Richards, who in the past has been the force behind the annual Herring Festival, is even feeling the change.   She has a personal take on the situation, saying: “Historically, Sausalito has been a thriving part of the fishing industry, becoming one of just a few major locations for the annual herring spawn on the Pacific Coast.  Currently, the climate change is affecting the timing and location of their spawn.  This year the fishermen are watching as the herring are spawning at a later time because of the weather change.  The Bay is running warmer than usual, along with the rain producing runoffs that change the salinity of the local water.  Herring need shallow, sheltered rocks, with vegetation like eelgrass to lay their eggs where large wave action will not wash them away before they hatch.  Now, with the rise in the Bay’s temperature, the herring may be forced to travel further north.” Captain Richards’ point is well taken when even local residents notice a lack of herring fishing vessels off of Sausalito, yet the cries of the large seals still hang in the air.  Gone are the days of the flocks of cormorants, along with the brown pelicans that travel with the schools of herring.

And along with the herring the boat builders have also started to fade away.  The herring are leaving because of rising temperatures.  The boat builders leave because of the rising cost for shop space.

Captain Richards feels, “Currently, there are a dozen or so herring boats fishing commercially, a handful of folks throwing casting nests for personal consumption.  Industrialization of fishing along with the low market price has led to most of the fish going to foreign markets.”

This year there will be a change in the annual herring event.  Instead of the festivities of past years, this year’s event will try to enlighten the public on the current dangerous situation that is affecting our Bay waters, along with its inhabitants.

For several years Captain Richards has been the head of the Sausalito Community Boatbuilding Center at Cass Gidley Marina.  Their mission is to preserve a gathering place on Sausalito’s unique waterfront to engage and educate the public about our rich small craft heritage through affordable direct experience.  The community boating center will advocate environmental awareness, seamanship and safety, promote traditional wooden boats and maritime crafts and teach life skills through maritime education.  It will be a place for local maritime groups to hold classes, access the waterfront and build community through outreach.

This is also the same group that has for the past several years produced the Herring Festival event, which has become their fundraiser.   This year, they have decided to put together a smaller version of the Herring Festival, presented at the Bay Model Visitor’s Center. This year the event will spotlight the film “Of The Sea.”

The film deals with the issues that are now present for all Northern California fishermen, including sustainability.  The filmmakers hope to inform the public of what is at stake with the current conditions that plague the herring fishery industry.  Local herring fishermen will be on hand after the film to take questions.  Captain Richards and her group want to share with local residents the importance of the local fishery industry: its history, plus the importance of the Sausalito waterfront, in order for a better understanding of the significance of the current situation. 

Along with the film, local restaurants have agreed to participate once again producing delightful herring treats.  Chef Davey Jones is preparing herring roe dressing on green salad; Alfredo of Angelino’s Restaurant is preparing pickled herring crostini; Joinery, a new restaurant on the waterfront, will be serving Portuguese fisherman’s herring stew.

It’s interesting to note that at one time the herring were staple foods of Sausalito during the winter months. Now, with the exception of a few local restaurants, nearly all of the fish caught in local waters is shipped elsewhere for processing and consumption.

For more information about the event:  SCBC Sausalito Herring Celebration, Sunday January 29, 2017, Bay Model Visitors Center from 10:30 am to 4pm: you can check out the website .

Memoirs of an Old Sausalitan, Part II

These recollections of early Sausalito are excerpted from the unpublished work of an unknown author, who appears to have written them sometime in the early 1960s. As in last week’s excerpt, what follows is a knowledgeable, often gossipy, sometimes inaccurate account, of people, places and events in Sausalito before and after the turn of the century.

Julia Morgan, who designed Hearst Castle at San Simeon, also worked with Willie Hearst on his plans for a Sausalito castle. Courtesy Photograph.

Julia Morgan, who designed Hearst Castle at San Simeon, also worked with Willie Hearst on his plans for a Sausalito castle.

Courtesy Photograph.

Sausalito used to be a happy family. The County Road, beautiful among its woods and unspoiled roadsides, wound along the base of the hills. It was beautiful Marin in those days. There were of course no pavements, no gas, no electricity. In the winter; rubbers were a necessity and you were lucky if you didn't leave them in a hole.

These were the happy days before the Pool Rooms came. The Hill and the Waterfront got along together. Then San Francisco closed its pool rooms, (i.e., places that existed for betting on the races) and they moved in mass to Sausalito. The waterfront changed. There were 25 saloons, almost as many pool rooms, to a community of 1000 people.

On the days of the races the Ferry Boats were crowded to standing room only with an undesirable crowd. On race days a decent woman didn't like to pass through Water Street, now Bridgeway, to get to the Ferry. The whole downtown smelled of stale beer. There was a large mud hole between the Ferry and the other side of the street with a bouncy plank on it. Long skirts, high collars, long sleeves, hats pinned on with long hat-pins — It was something to navigate.

The Hill was inhabited by people of the Bank President, successful Lawyer class, who lived here because they like quiet and the country, and who had big houses in the midst of big pieces of ground — and isn't it a pity that the Zoning Commission didn't get the idea of large building lots before these lovely estates were cut up and built upon! Imagine their wrath.

In those happy days anybody could vote who had been two weeks in a community. The saloon or waterfront element imported stew bums and barflies, fed them, gave them all they wanted to drink and voted them.

There was no fire department in those days. The first one who could make Christ Church rang the bell. Anna Sperry was the champion. Then all the women went to the fire and carried out possessions and guarded them from souvenir hunters. Wullie Corson, black eyes flashing, in his beautiful Edinburgh accent, said, "If ever my house catches fire I'll stand in the front door and shoot everybody that tries to come in — I supply no souvenirs."

Everybody had to have a water tank on top of the house as the water was turned off at nine o'clock in the morning and not turned on until five in the afternoon. The uninformed and un-provided got the shock of their lives when they tried to wash cloths on Monday morning. The roof tanks were useful in time of fire. When Mr. Berg's house on Bulkley Avenue, across from

the Tillinghast front yard, burned, about 1903, Willie Harrison and Clay Miller on the roof of Yellow Jacket, close to Mr. Berg's house, saved it by soaking bed comforters in the tank and hanging them over the edge of the house. The north side of the town was supplied from the spring in Wildwood Glen. The Sausalito Bay Land Company serviced the south side, Old Town, with water tunnels, still to be seen along Sausalito Blvd.

The first club, not a woman's club, was in the old H.C. Campbell house, where Mrs. Petherick now lives. It was called the "Lantern Club". If you went out at night you carried a lantern.

The Catholic church was in New Town, as the North side of town was always known.

Christ Church began in the loft of the Shoobert's barn, on the corner of Harrison and Santa Rosa. The rector kept a cow and a horse down below and moos sometimes interrupted the service.

Oh, the wide open spacious days of old, when there were patches of woodland and wild flowers grew everywhere. "Red Gables" and the old stables; later converted into a house, were the only buildings on the property between Spencer, Miller Avenue and San Carlos Avenue. Where there used to be one house there are now at least seven.

The massive masonry on the upper side of Bridgeway, that everybody wants to know about was built by William Randolph Hearst with some grandiose plan for a castle. But after he was invited to leave town by a delegation of the husbands and fathers of the Hill, he stopped building. He continued to buy property until he owned everything from the "Hacienda" across Bulkley Avenue from the "O'Connell Seat" all the way to North Street. Sausalito was on edge, knowing Willie Hearst to be vindictive. Willie Hearst, who always had a special lady, after his gay weekend parties left her in command. He had a launch and could go and come as he liked. The Lady, a striking blond; walked the roads and was seen and passed by the mothers and daughters of the blessed. In those days a respectable woman was not supposed to breathe the same air as a fancy lady. The fathers were indignant. For Old Timers, Willie Hearst was a bad word. He and his millions held no terrors for men themselves well to do and well established. There is a wonderful little book, "Imperial Hearst", by a newspaper man, an ex-employee of the Examiner who knew all and told all but the Sausalito Father's Episode. Too bad he didn't know that too! It is picturesque.

Memoirs of An Old Sausalitan

These recollections of early Sausalito are excerpted from the unpublished work of an unknown author, who appears to have written them sometime in the early 1960s. The manuscript was on the verge of being destroyed when discovered by a local history buff, who realized its value. What is related below is a knowledgeable, often gossipy, sometimes inaccurate account, of people, places and events in Sausalito before and after the turn of the century. It was a fantastic era, with a style of life that has long since disappeared.

The Gardner House, now Sausalito’s oldest home, as it looked in the 1800s.
Photo courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

Marin County, properly pronounced Mahreen for it is the Spanish spelling of an Indian name, became Marin after the earthquake (1906) when everything changed. Marinaro or Marin was the Indian who sailed the small boat between Sausalito and San Francisco. No Ferryboats then. Tamalpais, the Land of the Tamal [Miwok] Indians who lived in these parts, made the kitchen middens. The shell and ash mounds, such as the one at Pine and Caledonia streets where stone artifacts could be dug up.

Not until 1852 [1869] did the Gardners build the old house which still stands on the corner of Girard and Caledonia [Cazneau] and is still in use. It must have been on part of the site of the Richardson Ranch which was in that general neighborhood.

Richardson's Bay at the turn of the century, when steamers were superseding sailing vessels, was known as the "Boneyard." There were sometimes as many as twenty-five beautiful, big sailing ships anchored there waiting patiently for a cargo — sometimes year after year. The Captains were hospitable. Some had their wives with them and kept home on a delightful scale, in a spit and polish, wood and brass, Captain's Cabin at the stern of the boat. It was something to see them, two or three at a time under sail, crossing the Potato Patch, the reef outside the Golden Gate. The foam makes it white as a potato patch in blossom. Some of the ships remained in the Boneyard for years and were used as residences.

Richardson's Bay was not a preserve, and anybody in a boat or a canoe might hear a shower of live shot around him from some unnoticed blind. The beaches were beautiful.

People used to drive over with a spanking pair of horses and sparkling buggy, on the ferryboats, which carried anything and everything. The Ferryboat "Princess", for which Princess Street is named, made two daily trips to Meiggs Wharf in San Francisco and back again. The Captain would wait if he knew you were going to be late for the boat.

Sausalito used to be a week-end and summer town. Many of the old smaller houses were built as week-end cottages. There were many places for lunch and refreshment.

The first house on the Hill was the long narrow building behind a hedge, backing on San Carlos Avenue a little beyond the little park at the intersection of San Carlos and Spencer, built in 1868 by Commodore Harrison. They say that Commodore Harrison got in his little two-wheeled cart and drove backward and forward on the sides of the hill and wherever he drove he declared a street and named them. Harrison for himself, San Carlos for himself [Charles], and Santa Rosa for his wife — Rose.

In the beginning, there were more English people than Americans on the Hill. It is not true, what has been said, that Saucelito [sic] was populated by remittance men [immigrants who received money from home]. It was populated by younger sons who were thrust out into the cold world without training, knowledge of money, or business, or anything practical. They usually wound up as bank clerks. Some of them married American girls. The English crowd used to meet the men at the San Francisco Yacht Club, now the Ondine, with dinner. The men would change into white ducks, get out the boats, and row across to Belvedere or Strawberry Point, where a fire was built on the beach and certain things heated. Individual pork pies were one woman's specialty.

When the Dixons moved to Sausalito, bag and baggage, on June 2, 1902, 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 to the general life; informal and natural, but when there was a formal party it was properly conducted. Most of the English were upper middle class. Young men who had come to California to ship or mine and wound up as book-keepers on Montgomery Street. Some of them rose above this, but not all.

Next week, we’ll run another excerpt, describing the “happy days before the Pool Rooms [gambling parlors] came.”