Father of the Houseboat Community -- Piro Caro Part I

By Larry Clinton

The Sausalito houseboat community has had a number of patriarchs over the decades, from Donlon Arques to Ale Eckstrom to Larry Moyer, and many others.  But one, Piro Caro, was dubbed the father of the community by the media.

Caro was a gardener and landscape architect who lived at Waldo Point for more than 30 years.  His original home was the hulk of the ferryboat City of San Rafael which had been retired in 1938 and berthed in Richmond after 14 years of service, according to Annie Sutter, author of “The Old Ferryboats of Sausalito.” This vessel is not to be confused with the steam-powered ferry San Rafael, which was rammed and sunk in 1901, inspiring the opening of Jack London’s novel, “The Sea-Wolf.”

Piro Caro aboard the City of San Rafael (© Bruce Forrester)

As Piro told the waterfront journal Garlic Press in 1975, the San Rafael came to him by a route honored by waterfront tradition: nobody else really wanted it. The paper’s founder, Pete Ritardo, editorialized: “Who could be blamed, after all, for hesitating to stake claim to 220 feet of wooden ferryboat, mud-bound and at the mercy of Richardson's Bay's ruthless teredo worms? In fact, if someone could explain rationally why a man of venerable age (74 to date) should spend a great deal of energy and money to defend, against the worms below and the authorities in San Rafael, his right to live in the aging, tilted superstructure of a retired ferryboat, he would probably keep it to himself in the interest of preserving the mysteries of life.”

After the old hulk had been beached in Sausalito in the ’50s, it was bought and sold by salvagers and would-be entrepreneurs. In 1963, when he had been forced to move out of the last houseboat in Belvedere, Piro moved aboard. Then, Piro recalled. "two or three years later, who should show up but [legal owner] Pat Warfield, looking like a tourist with cameras slung on his chest. I said 'I'm living here,' and he says, 'That's fine ... I guess I owe Arques $8000 a year for wharfage -- do you want her?' I said 'Yes,' and that's how I came to own the San Rafael."

Piro Caro became a noteworthy public figure as early as 1972 when the Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram, describing denizens of the Sausalito waterfront, wrote: “People like Piro Caro, a descendant of Rabbi Joseph Caro, one of the greatest Jewish scholars of all times. He left his New York home to make films in California in the 20s, organize labor in Chicago in the 30s, and mine borax in Death Valley in the 40s. He moved into his ferryboat after it was vacated by actor-adventurer Sterling Hayden, who lived on it while writing his book ‘The Wanderer’.”

Years later, the London Independent mentioned that Caro kept some “very antic company,” including counter-culture icons Alan Watts, Jean Varda, and Kenneth Rexroth.

Next week:  Piro Caro’s key role in the Houseboat Wars.

Copies of the Garlic Press, including Piro Caro’s interview and other waterfront news and views from the ’70s, are on file at the Sausalito Historical Society’s Research Room, which is open to the public Wednesdays and Fridays from 10am to 1pm on the top floor of City Hall.