The “Forgotten Man” of the Vallejo

By Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society

We’ve all heard colorful stories about Jean Varda and Alan Watts aboard the ferryboat Vallejo. But before Watts, an artist named Gordon Onslow Ford was Varda’s partner in buying and restoring the ferryboat.

“While visiting Henry Miller in 1947, at Big Sur, Varda met British-born artist Gordon Onslow Ford,” writes Historical Society member Betsy Stroman in her book The Art and Life of Jean Varda. The book continues: “Born in 1912, Onslow Ford, who had moved to Paris to pursue a career in art, become an official member of the surrealist group of painters. In 1941 he accepted an invitation from the New School for Social Research, in New York City, to present a series of lectures on surrealism. While there he met and married Jacqueline Johnson, and moved to Mexico, for seven years”

PHOTO FROM WEINSTEIN GALLERY CATALOG  Gordon Onslow Ford (left) and Chilean artist Roberto Matta (right) on the Vallejo in 1956.


Gordon Onslow Ford (left) and Chilean artist Roberto Matta (right) on the Vallejo in 1956.

After the war, deciding that they wanted to move to the San Francisco Bay Area, to be closer to Jacqueline’s family, the couple began driving north, stopping off to visit with Henry Miller. Onslow Ford (as he came to be known in the art world) had known Miller when Miller was living in Paris as an expatriate before the war. It was at Miller’s home in Big Sur that the Onslow Fords met Varda. 

Later the Onslow Fords rented an apartment in San Francisco, but he was looking for studio space outside of the city. Both Onslow Ford, who had served in the British Navy, and Varda wanted to be closer to the water, so the two began talking about finding a place together. 

San Francisco’s Weinstein Gallery presented an exhibition of Onslow Ford’s paintings in 2007. The catalog for that exhibit tells the story of how they found their Sausalito home:

“In 1949 Gordon Onslow Ford and poet-painter Jean Varda rescued the SS Vallejo, a decommissioned ferryboat about to be disassembled and sold for scrap. They docked her at Gate 5 in the abandoned shipyards north of San Francisco in Sausalito. Onslow Ford and Varda proceeded to renovate the boat and build their studios there. Forrest Wright, an architect and recent graduate of the famed Black Mountain College, would also move his studio to the boat. They could not have imagined that the Vallejo would become a flash point for the artistic renaissance that would take place in the Bay Area in the 1950s.

The combination of Onslow Ford's and Varda's history, interests, and personalities proved to be an immediate draw

“Many years later, Onslow Ford described the transaction that led to its purchase: ‘We hurried over to the Gardiner Steel Mills office in Oakland, arrived rather disheveled and said we wanted to acquire the ferry. He asked how much money we had. Forrest had none. Varda had none. I had $500. So he took that as a down payment and we agreed to pay $60 a month’.” Gardiner Steel Mills had acquired the ferry for scrap and had

towed it to Arques Shipyard in Sausalito to be broken up.

According to an article in Preservation Magazine in 2005: “The avant-garde writer Anais Nin, a frequent visitor to Sausalito, watched the Vallejo's transformation into a dock-side artists' colony. ‘The motors and wheels had been extracted leaving a pool like center to look into,’ Nin wrote in her diary. ‘[Varda] was beginning to make windows for the deck. With time the ferryboat grew in beauty’.”

Onslow Ford moved onto land in 1953, and Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts moved aboard. Soon the Vallejo became the epicenter for the “Bargeoise,” as author Herb Gold referred to the Sausalito’s Bohemian waterfront culture.

Onslow Ford and he wife eventually moved to Inverness, where he died peacefully in his home in 2003, at age 90. To see some of his paintings, go to artists/gordon-onslow-ford.

Play it Again, Woody

By Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society

Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam, with its famous scene in the Trident, was originally supposed to be filmed in New York.

The 1972 film is based on Allen’s 1969 Broadway play, which was set in Manhattan. But a film workers’ strike in New York when shooting was scheduled to begin brought it to San Francisco.  Allen's home became North Beach instead of Greenwich Village.

Woody plays a recently divorced film critic, Allan Felix, who is urged to begin dating again by his best friend and his best friend's wife. Allan identifies with the movie Casablanca and the character Rick Blaine as played by Humphrey Bogart. The film include clips from Casablanca and ghost-like appearances of Bogart (Jerry Lacy) giving advice on how to treat women. It was directed by Herbert Ross, which is unusual for Allen, who usually directs his own written work. It was also the first film to pair Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.

At one point, Allan’s friend, played by Tony Roberts, takes him to the Trident, trying to fix him up with a girl. Together, the actors stroll through the restaurant and out onto the deck. As the camera follows them, you can see the original Trident decor in its entirety. Roberts is best known for his collaborations with Woody Allen, including both the Broadway and film versions of Play It Again, Sam, Annie Hall, Radio Days, Stardust Memories, Hannah and Her Sisters, and A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy.

The waterfront location used in Play it Again, Sam was known as the Yacht Dock when it was purchased by Frank Werber, manager of the Kingston Trio, in 1960.  But according to, in 1966, “the Beat Generation had given way to the ‘60s hippie movement, and the club underwent major groovification and a name change to The Trident – a musical entertainment venue, natural foods restaurant and the place to hang out.

PHOTO FROM MOVIE-TOURIST.BLOGSPOT  Woody Allen and Tony Roberts visit the Trident


Woody Allen and Tony Roberts visit the Trident

“In those free-thinking times, the new hippie subculture valued living in harmony with nature, artistic experimentation – particularly in music and the visual arts – and the expansion of the mind through various means. The Trident quickly became a gathering place for like-minded locals and celebrities from around the world, and was known for its its laid-back vibe, healthy, organic cuisine, creative cocktails, comely waitresses, artistic decor, stellar views and its many famous patrons. Janis Joplin (a regular with her own table), Jerry Garcia, Joan Baez, Clint Eastwood, Bill Cosby and the Smothers Brothers were often on the scene, and Bill Graham was a frequent patron – most notably hosting parties at the restaurant for the Rolling Stones during their two Bay Area concerts in the 1970s.”

Current owner Bob Freeman changed the name of the place to Horizons for several years, but eventually restored some of the original décor – including a psychedelic ceiling mural ─ and brought back the Trident name.

Annie Sutter: History of Issaquah Dock

Story By: Steefenie Wicks

Anne Sutter Photo by Steefenie Wicks

Anne Sutter Photo by Steefenie Wicks

Annie Sutter was born in Wisconsin and ended up traveling to San Francisco but in 1974 she would find her way to Sausalito working as a travel agent for Sunventure Travel.  Then in 1976 she began writing for the Marin Scope in what she refers to as ‘the waterfront gossip column’, called ‘On the Water’.  She has published one jewel of a book called ‘The Old Ferry Boats of Sausalito’ in the 1980’s and recently she published what she calls a booklet that describes the history of the Issaquah Dock.

She begins her research by describing where the Issaquah Dock lies today was once a quite place od tidal flats and saltwater marches.  This stretch of land was inhabited by wildlife and shore birds.

World War II would change this so that in 1942 as the War escalated, much of the life on the waterfront would change abruptly when two hundred acres of Sausalito were selected by the US Government to build ships for the war effort.  When the War ended in 1945, the Marinship closed down almost as abruptly as it had begun.

By 1950 the area known as Gate 3 to Waldo Point Harbor had already established it’s self as a waterfront community of artist, craftsmen, boat workers along with families seeking a new life.

The ferryboat ISSAQUAH was affectionately known as “Squash”, she was built in Houghton, Washington, then launched with great fanfare on Lake Washington in March of 1914. By May of 1914 she was serving ports on Lake Washington, she had scheduled runs but was also used as a floating dance hall party cruising vessel.  The little ferry was retired from service in 1948.  There are different accounts as to how the ISSAQUAH ended up in Sausalito.  One famous story has it being brought by artist Jean Varda for one of his girl friends but she did not like the vessel therefore refusing the gift.

Annie goes on to say that it was Donlon Arques who ended up with the ferryboat and settled her into a space at the side of Gate 6 Road in the heart of all the new activity. Once settled in, the ISSAQUAH quickly became a home to many, from families to wandering visitors just passing through.  Usually one person would rent the entire vessel from Arques for a monthly rate, then rent or sublease to tenants.

Smaller boats gathered around the ISSAGUAH, side tied and connected by planks or rickety walkways.

But by the mid 1980’s it had become clear that the end was near.  The Marin County Board of Supervisors declared the old ferries that had become mothball living facilities a safety hazard; they were all scheduled to be destroyed.

Annie brings up the question of, Why?

This is a question with no reasonable answer.  She feels that with a little effort these ferries that had become the last remaining representatives of our maritime history could have been saved.  There had been talk of using the ISSAQUAH for offices or a possible maritime museum, then several businesses came forward wanting to take over the entire vessel but the destruction of the ferries proceeded.

Protest were loud, sometimes violent from the locals while the powers that be brought in bulldozers, along with debris barges that broke up the ferries, hauled away the last remaining bit’s.  When it came time to destroy the ISSAQUAH, she still had residents on board who clung to their home.  This did not work either but the residents were able to save the pilothouses by promising to have the off within a week and they did. 

The destruction of the ferries in 1983 came well after work had stared on ISSAQUAH Dock.   In 1977 Arques had had enough of the politics of starting a marina on his land so he leased a substantial portion of it o the newly formed Waldo Point Harbor.

T.J. Nelson and Ted Eitelbuss who were both Arques employees found this to be difficult task as they tried to create order out of chaos.  This project was not easy for many reasons some having to do with the entrenched locals protesting, blocking equipment, setting fires, throwing rocks and shooting guns.   

But if you walk down ISSAQUAH Dock today you’re in a bright world of color, creativity along with quite beauty. There ‘s a sense of freedom of community and family.  It’s a place where free spirits and risk takers are content to live where they can float on the water.

Annie Sutter is a true Sausalito waterfront historian.  Having lived in this area long enough to see change and growth.  Her stories are full of truth and history that concern this area.

In her closing she states:

And so ends this ferry tale that began in 1914 in Washington with the birth of a ferryboat, and all the subsequent adventures, mishaps and wonders until her end in 1983.  The memories thereafter kept alive by loyal, dedicated members of the Dock along with the Galilee Harbor Community who is now the caretakers of the ISSUAGUAG Pilot Houses.

Thank You Annie.

Dialed in to Sausalito’s Past. . . and Present

By Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society

Tera Ancona checks out the payphone recordings outside Cibo.                       Photo by Larry Clinton

Tera Ancona checks out the payphone recordings outside Cibo. Photo by Larry Clinton

When Alfredo and Tera Ancona opened their second Sausalito restaurant, Cibo, at 1201 Bridgeway, they noticed a decommissioned phone booth out front by the sidewalk. Tera decided to repurpose the old payphone to “present our great community in a unique way.”  Her dream was to offer a quarterly audio magazine with short talks by or about Sausalito locals, which people could hear over the phone.

For help, she turned to friends Philip and Tonya Wood at San Francisco-based Sound Made Public, a creative agency focusing on audio experiences, large and small, that change the way we hear the world.  They arranged to have a receiver installed in the old phone, so it could play back recorded messages.

Today, passersby can step up to the booth, check out a menu of current messages, and select one or more using the touchtone keypad. Carie Meier and Kourosh Ghadishah of the Caledonia St. firm LondonMeier created the visuals behind the payphone.

The selection of recordings is eclectic, ranging from an old timer recalling Sausalito during the Summer of Love to a poem by Naiomi Shihab Nye performed by voice over professional Joe Paulino.  A fellow named Jeremey describes living aboard a 26-foot sailboat for 18 years.  A segment called “Salty & Soundpresents a one-minute immersive audio postcard of Sausalito sounds. There’s a 4-minute biography of Sally Stanford, the ex-Madam who became mayor of Sausalito. The group El Cajon performs the song “Captain” from their album “Meteor.”  Various locals share what they like most about Sausalito.  And there’s a search and find game with various riddles which must be solved to uncover a surprise.

Tera even gets into the act herself, offering her recipe for the perfect pie shell.

The plan is to change the menu quarterly, so repeat visits are recommended.  And the best part? There’s never a busy signal.

Find out more about the Bridgeway Phonebook Project at

Joseph James: Entertainer

By Dana Whitson and Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society



Joseph James performing at Marinship.

We’ve written before about Joseph James, the black Marinship welder who played a brief but important role in Sausalito and Marin City’s history by successfully challenging discriminatory union practices in the shipyards in a case that went all the way to the State Supreme Court. 

But there was a whole different side to James – as  a singer featured in numerous Broadway and Hollywood productions. Here’s a profile of this fascinating figure that Dana Whitson wrote for the Historical Society newsletter in 2017:

Joseph Henry James was born in 1910 in Philadelphia to poor black parents.  Left fatherless at age 3, he and his mother moved in with his uncle, Henry Hamming.  The entire family was musically gifted:  Uncle Henry had a rich bass voice, his mother was an alto and a much older sister sang with the great Philadelphia contralto, Marion Anderson.

“Life wasn’t soft for Negro kids with nothing but the streets to play in,” Joe told a reporter in 1945. “My mother could see that from a little innocent window breaking I’d soon enough be hitting the big time, so a year after she died, I was packed off to Princess Ann Academy, a Negro boarding school in Maryland.”

Music became Joseph James’ ticket to a college education and extensive travels in the US and abroad.  Princess Ann Academy enlisted James in a prestigious black quartet that toured to raise funds for the school singing “Negro Spirituals” to live and radio audiences. 

After graduation, the quartet shopped for another black college willing to fund their studies, landing at Claflin College in South Carolina.  Traveling for the first time to the Deep South was an eye opener.  In Norfolk the group had to transfer to the “rattletrap” Jim Crow rail car.  Unable to access the whites-only dining car, James recounted being shooed away at the front door of a restaurant at one stop and “directed to a little window in the back of the restaurant, something like the door of a dog house, where they’d throw food at you.  It kind of took my appetite away---and that’s some kind of trick for an 18 year old kid still growing.”

Two years of traveling for Claflin and a tour stop in Boston led James to conclude “there was more to this music game than I’d ever learn in South Carolina.   So, I stayed in Boston and sang on the radio. Later, I decided to find out how music was put together and learn about the guys who did it.”

James broadened his musical education at Boston University College of Music until the Depression brought home the realization that he could either “eat or play music.”  So, he joined an amateur theater production that enjoyed a brief run on Broadway.  Just as that opportunity ended, the famed black choir director and composer Eva Jessye, invited him to join her choir’s national tour. 

Touring with the celebrated choir was anything but luxurious.  “Almost 20 of us jammed into two seven passenger sedans covered with suitcases and trunks,” James recalled. “We covered 6,000 of the most agonizing miles I have ever traveled---breaking down all the way.”

Returning to New York he was cast by choral director Eva Jessye in the premiere of Porgy and Bess.  After Porgy, James joined the Hall Johnson choir in the chorus of the film The Green Pastures. James stayed briefly in Hollywood, playing bit roles in films, “mostly running around like a savage in a G-string… feeling pretty silly.”

Joseph James’ big break came with the Federal Theater Project Negro Unit (FPT). The FPT was a branch of the Works Progress Administration that employed (literally) starving artists to perform for the masses.  His first title role was as Brother Moses in Hall Johnson’s critically acclaimed LA, San Diego and San Francisco productions of Run Little Chillun’.   James later starred in the FPT production of the Swing Mikado, a modernized version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera presented at the 1939 Treasure Island Exposition.

In a “tragic-comic” twist, Joseph James was rehearsing the song “Good News” for the movie Tails of Manhattan when he learned of the Pearl Harbor attack.  His singing engagements suddenly evaporated, so he returned to San Francisco looking for work.  Being interested in mechanics, he took a welding course at Samuel Gompers Trade School.  In August 1942, he began as a welder at Marinship.

Although only in his early 30’s, Joseph James’ early experiences had prepared him well for the many roles he played during WWII: expert welder sent to trouble spots in the shipyard; lead organizer for the struggle against discriminatory union practices; popular leader among the diverse family of shipyard workers; NAACP Chapter President in San Francisco; and outspoken patriot in the battle to defeat the fascist Nazi and Axis powers; and, yes, part-time singer.

Ironically, the California Supreme Court Marinship decision came after the war had ended and the shipyard was closed.  But it did not end Joseph James’ activism. Before departing the west coast in 1946 to resume his musical career, he joined Noah Griffin, Sr. in founding Marin County’s first NAACP chapter.

Joseph James performed in 15 more Broadway shows before touring internationally with Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Cab Calloway and Maya Angelou in Porgy and Bess. Later in life he became a union organizer for the SEIU in the Bronx.

Joseph James died in 2002 at the age of 91

“One thing the Depression taught the American people is that when they came together around common problems, they could accomplish something. Now it seems that working people have forgotten that.”  ~ Joseph James, 1992

Dorothy E. Gibson: Her Path

By Steefenie Wicks, Sausalito Historical Society

Recently, Dorothy Gibson, a true part of Sausalito’s renaissance community, passed away. Dorothy was able to document the pathways, stairs and city-maintained street ends that are in the public domain.  Her desire was to protect these areas from private encroachments so future generations could continue to enjoy these pedestrian byways as much as she did.

Photo from Sausalito Currents taken in 2016

Photo from Sausalito Currents taken in 2016

She was born February 9, 1923 in Columbus, Ohio the third of 5 children.  Her family lived on a farm for a while but trying to raise kids during the great depression proved to be a challenge. Soon the family sold off all their belongings and moved back to the Columbus.  She would return to school in the city, which she enjoyed.   Her mother had at one time been a teacher in Cambridge Ohio, which might account for Dorothy’s love of school. She attended Ohio State, and then entered the Graduate department of UC Berkeley in the psychology department.  She found this to be more related to research when what she wanted to do was more clinical.  She applied to different schools, ending up at Smith College where she was accepted in their speedup program and studied Freudian psychotherapy.

Dorothy Gibson, pathfinder Photo by Betsy Stroman

Dorothy Gibson, pathfinder
Photo by Betsy Stroman

After that, she moved to San Francisco to become the assistant director of Campfire Girls, a group she had been involved with most of her life.  It was during this time that she started visiting Sausalito.  She would spend time walking the paths in the hills where she would eventually find a little cottage to rent.

Dorothy started going to City Council meetings, wanting to get involved in the town’s politics.  She soon found herself on the Steering Committee for the 1995 General Plan; her assignment was the environment which lead to her writing her first book titled Exploring Sausalito’s Paths and Walkways.  In that book she reveals a hidden Sausalito that is full of surprises, wonderful views and tiny niches perfect for solitude and reflection.  In her next two publications she continued to explore this theme.  Her book titled Marin Headlands, opens with a strong introductory statement about how the history of the headlands is the history of the Earth during the Jurassic period of the Mesozoic era some 200 million years ago.  Strong words for a woman who would take on both Sally Stanford and Buddy DeBruyn running for City Council in Sausalito; she remembered these two as her chief adversaries.  She would lose the election by 30 votes. 

Her good friend Billie Anderson of the Marin Scope told her that she needed to take a trip.  This was the beginning of her becoming an avid world traveler, which led her to more than 50 countries on 4 continents, camping in more than 80 national parks.  She would send Billy post cards from her locations.  Billy in turn kept them and started a column in called Travels with Dorothy.

It was during one of these trips that she was injured.

She had been on a climbing exhibition to Mt. Olympus and decided to attend a festival in Thessalonica; went running across the freeway in Greece and was hit by two young men riding a motorcycle.

Dorothy;s Book Exploring Sausalito’s Paths and Walkways. Photo

Dorothy;s Book Exploring Sausalito’s Paths and Walkways. Photo

She ended up in the hospital with broken ribs, snapped pelvis and head trauma.  She had to buy three seats on a Pan Am flight back to the USA because she could not sit up but could only lie flat.     Her good friend Mignone Conner was very active in the Episcopal Church so they raised money to help care for her.  The year was 1980; Carol Peltz was mayor of Sausalito at this time.  The community, under the direction of Beth and John Hutman, took her address book and raised enough money to pay all of her medical bills. She said that she felt like she had died and been resurrected.

Dorothy Gibson was known for getting involved with an issue.  She would not let go until she had thoroughly researched it; the last issue was the Patriot Act of 2001. She had gotten hold of material from the ACLU encouraging members to rally around and kill the Patriot Act.  She became very concerned because she had lived through the McCarthy era and had her job threatened because she’d been confused with another Dorothy Gibson.  She had friends who had been called before the HUAC; she saw this all coming back again. 

Dorothy as Grand Marshall of 4th of July Parade. Photo Sausalito Historical Society

Dorothy as Grand Marshall of 4th of July Parade. Photo Sausalito Historical Society

She took action by gathering people like resident Vicki Nichols to help her get communities to rise up against the Patriot Act.  She also called members of the City Council to get them interested. Eventually she and Vicki were able to put together forums on this issue while working with the ACLU and the peace group of Marin.

Dorothy E. Gibson had her own path.  That path led her to not only find the paths in Sausalito but also the path to a strong political career.  Her small figure we have all become accustomed to seeing has now joined the spirits of the paths.  So next time you climb one of Sausalito’s hidden stairways or find yourself walking up a path on the hillside, take time to look around and say hello to Dorothy because her spirit is watching you, saying: “Keep to the path.”

Carol Channing and Channing Way

By Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society

Broadway and Hollywood legend Carol Channing, who died recently at age 97, got her start right here in Sausalito.  Here’s the story, as told in this space back in 2014:

Before she debuted on Broadway in 1949 as bombshell Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Carol Channing, a Bay Area native, spent some time here as an artist’s model.         .

In a 1959 interview with the Marin News, Channing recalled how she had spent two weeks modeling for the Friday Night Art Group in Sausalito.

“They would only let you model for two weeks,” she explained, “then they got tired of you. When my two weeks were up, I told them I was having such a good time I wanted to stay.

“Norman Todhunter, who was also a member then, told me I could join, if I took up painting. So, I bought a brush and some paint. Funny thing, though; all I could paint was people.

“Everyone else painted things—you know, moun­tains and trees—but I painted everyone in the group. When I’d run out of members, I started all over again.”

While Carol shrugged off her efforts with brush and paint, Mrs. Francis Todhunter of Mill Valley, mother of the well-known illustrator and artist, called her work “downright amazing.”

“When we knew her, she’d never studied art at all,” Mrs. Todhunter said, “and suddenly she was painting as if she’d had years of training. Her work had a wonderful vitality; she had a way of projecting things on paper.”

As Sausalito News writer John Raymond described her, “Miss Channing’s stock in trade is a pair of large brown eyes framed with the world’s biggest eyelashes which protrude like the ragged fringes on a beach umbrella.

“With one blink of her incandescent orbs she can exhibit the naiveté of an innocent young maid bewildered by the exigencies of a cruel world, or suddenly assume all the worldliness of an olive bathing in a martini.

“Her voice is pitched somewhere in between a foghorn and piccolo, with an elasticity that runs the gamut from a resounding bass to a glass-tinkling soprano. Her audience loves her, and she appears to enjoy them thoroughly.”

PHOTO COURTESY OF SAUSALITO HISTORICAL SOCIETY  George Elkington Sr., Carol Channing and Mayor Jan Dylt officiate at dedication of Channing Way.


George Elkington Sr., Carol Channing and Mayor Jan Dylt officiate at dedication of Channing Way.

Carol Channing returned to Sausalito in 1965 to attend the dedication of Channing Way in honor of her father. Shirley Elkington told the Historical Society that her father, George, had built the Channing home on Curry Lane in 1953.  “When the Elkingtons developed a parcel of land off Prospect,” she recalled, “it was only fitting that the street be named in memory of the man Dad long respected and thought of so highly, George Channing. “

Miss Channing traveled out from New York for the ceremony, but insisted there be no publicity, as she considered the dedication a family affair. The accompanying photograph was shot by Ed Long, a long-time secretary of the Rotary Club and the Sausalito-Marin City Sanitary District.

Marinship on the Fast Track

By Eric Torney and Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society    

Historian and filmmaker Eric Torney has produced a book for the Arcadia Images of America series that tells the Marinship story using images and captions along with an overall Introduction and four Chapter Introductions. Here’s an excerpt describing how quickly the shipyard was conceived and constructed:

PHOTO COURTESY OF SAUSALITO HISTORICAL SOCIETY  This photograph, donated to the Historical Society by Steve Bechtel, shows the shipyard in full production. Bechtel proudly displayed the image in his office for many years.


This photograph, donated to the Historical Society by Steve Bechtel, shows the shipyard in full production. Bechtel proudly displayed the image in his office for many years.

The Marinship shipyard existed in Sausalito during World War II with a specific purpose to build badly needed cargo ships to support the war defense effort. It was an Emergency shipyard, built very quickly during the opening days of United States involvement in the War to build ships to replace those then being very efficiently sunk by German and Japanese submarines. The shipyard began operation in 1942 and was closed down after Japanese surrender in September, 1945.

Shipyard construction was begun promptly after a telegram from the United States Maritime Commission was received by the W. A. Bechtel Company. The telegram was received on 2 March, 1942, the Sausalito site selected on 3 March, and a proposal to build the shipyard presented in Washington DC was made on 9 March. Ten minutes into the presentation U. S. Maritime Commission administrators told the W.A. Bechtel Company to build the shipyard. Physical construction began on 28 March. Construction start was delayed two weeks to allow the 42 families living on Pine Point, which was scheduled to be demolished to build the shipyard, to move.

Three months after construction began the keel for the first Marinship vessel, the Liberty Ship William A. Richardson, was laid on an unfinished shipway. Three months after laying the keel the William A. Richardson was launched. AMAZING! A shipyard is urgently requested by the U.S. Maritime Commission in early March and a ship is launched in September from the shipyard built on what had been tidewater and mudflats only several months before.

During three years of launching ships, ending with the launch of the Tanker SS Mission San Francisco on 18 September, 1945 Marinship sent a ship down the shipways approximately every eleven days. A total of 93 ships were launched, including 15 Liberty Ships and 78 Tankers.

Marinship proved itself to be among the most efficient shipyards during the early days of its construction and operation. This was noted by the U.S. Maritime Commission and several days before the William A. Richardson was launched Marinship was directed to cease production of Liberty Ships and to convert all production to Tankers. The conversion was painful. The shipyard had learned to efficiently build Liberty Ships and had to change to building the far more complex and larger Tankers. The first Tanker took 139 days on the shipway and 66 days at the Outfitting Docks, a total of 205 days. The first Liberty Ship took 126 days and the last Liberty Ship took 60 days. Marinship holds the still standing record for shortest time to build and deliver a Tanker, 33 Days for the Huntington Hills. Comparable Tanker building records are 60 days for Swan Island, 79 days for Alabama, and 90 days for Sun Ship.

A typical day at Marinship during peak of operations had about 20,000 workers on three shifts. Skilled shipyard workers were in drastically short supply due to the Draft taking men to be soldiers and sailors. Local resources, including women and minorities, were inadequate. A recruitment effort brought labor from the Midwest and the Deep South. The recruited workers needed to be trained to be shipyard workers, many of the recruits never even dreaming that they would one day be building a ship. Marinship developed a training program to teach the recruits how to build ships assembly line style. Each worker was trained in a specialty task by a master shipyard worker. Women were noted as being most efficient welders, their welds being more precise and smoother than a man's weld.

Marin City was built by the Federal Government to provide desperately needed housing for shipyard workers. Operated by local administrators Marin City was available to any Marinship worker regardless of race or gender. But, when it was first opened to renters mostly white, skilled workers were here to take residence. After the War ended skilled workers went home. Minorities, having no place they wanted to return to, who had lived elsewhere during the war, particularly in the Fillmore district which had vacancies created by Japanese Internment, moved into vacant and affordable Marin City housing.

Labor problems were a result of the integrated workforce developed at Marinship. But, skilled and fair management successfully overcame these problems. Marinship became known as the most effectively integrated and efficient workforce among all WWII Emergency Shipyards. The integrated workforce we have today, men and women and minorities efficiently working together in relative harmony, can find first precedent in the workforce developed at Marinship.

Marinship' success can be traced to the efficiency and skill of the W. A. Bechtel Company. Ken Bechtel, originally a W. A. Bechtel Vice President became President of Marinship Corporation. It was Ken Bechtel whose administrative skills allowed Marinship to become the most efficient shipyard of all those Emergency Shipyards built and operated during WWII. Ken Bechtel was a family man, a philanthropist, and Commissioner of Boy Scouts in Marin County. Without Ken it is doubtful that Marinship would have been able to distinguish itself as admirably as it did.

Eric’s book is available at Costco, Mollie Stone’s, Book Passage by the Bay, the Ice House, Driver’s Market and Water Street Hardware.


Freeway Wars

By Jack Tracy and Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society

“At the close of World War II (1946), our city came close to losing its most prized asset ─ one that had been taken for granted: our view of Richardson’s Bay.” So wrote Jack Tracy, founder of the Historical Society, in this paper back in August, 1982.

In an article based on research by Neil Shaver, a former Time-Life correspondent, Tracy recounted that after the Golden Gate Bridge had become the transportation link between Northern California and the south, ferryboats and trains disappeared for all practical purposes except for a brief period when ferry service was continued to Marinship Yard during World War II carrying workers to and from San Francisco and strategic war materials to the yard.

By the end of the war it had become evident that an expanded route to the Golden Gate was necessary as traffic which had formerly gone through Sausalito had been diverted to the Waldo Bridge Approach.

To solve this problem of ever-increasing automobile and truck commerce, the Highway Division of the State of California was working on a number of alternate traffic patterns that would go through Sausalito. Seven plans were drawn for the Gold Gate Bridge directors: four proposed low-level waterfront routes, two plans would bisect the hills of Sausalito and the last detailed the widening of the existing Waldo approach. Plans had been prepared by the Division of Highways as early as April of 1946 for the State of California Department of Public Works.

But the plan that “topped the cake and blew the frosting off,” in Tracy’s words, called for a two-thousand-foot viaduct which would be constructed east of Alexander Avenue, across the cove in South Sausalito to the water at the foot of North Street and along a causeway to the foot of El Portal. From there it would splice through the central yacht harbor and onward through North Sausalito to Waldo Point. Such a plan would block completely the view of Richardson's Bay from Bridgeway.

ILLUSTRATION COURTESY OF THE SAUSALITO HISTORICAL SOCIETY  This artist’s rendition of the proposed viaduct passing in front of Old Town is part of the current SHS exhibition.


This artist’s rendition of the proposed viaduct passing in front of Old Town is part of the current SHS exhibition.

On 17 November 1946, the first report of these various plans had been given at a joint meeting of the Sausalito Council and Planning Commission by the city-appointed Lateral subcommittee.

A front-page editorial in the Sausalito News dated November 21 reported the previous week's news under the heading:

THE LATERAL DESIGN NOBODY WANTS (Not Even the Bridge District) It Costs Too Much

All of the Bridge Facts Have Not Been Told

The editorial presented some of the pros and cons to the public. But on October 28, 1951, the San Francisco Examiner reported that Sausalito was battling the bridge route plan: “The Golden Gate Bridge lands near a very sensitive part of Marin County — the hillside of the city of Sausalito. The Waldo approach takes the bridge traffic humming along the top fringe of the town. Thousands of motorists ride the Waldo and never see the picturesque community below.

Sausalito is doggedly determined to keep it that way, but changes are in the offing. Either the outdated Waldo will be widened or a new freeway from the bridge will be built along Sausalito's waterfront.”

The Examiner also stated that “the feeling of today is that the range of price for a waterfront highway would now be from twelve to twenty million dollars. The original cost of the Waldo Approach had been approximately two million.”

At that time City Councilman Sylvester McAtee, a San Francisco attorney and longtime Sausalito resident, stated that "we are a residential city and will never be anything else. To cut off Sausalito from its waterfront and open it to high speed traffic would destroy it as a city of views and be ruinous."

In September of 1953 work began on the Waldo Approach. The Golden Gate Bridge District and the State of California Division of Highways had agreed that the thing to do was widen the Waldo Approach.

The freeway attempt of the 1940's to destroy our scenic waterfront had been defeated by the howling response of this community.

On January 25, Historical Society researcher Mike Moyle will explore this fascinating facet of our local history with an audio-visual presentation at the Library. Mike’s talk, starting at 7i:00 PM., stems from the current Historical Society exhibition, “The Sausalito That Never Was,” which contains photos and news clippings of the proposed viaduct, and other misguided projects that fortunately never came to pass.  The exhibition will be open to the public following Mike’s presentation.

From Murky Past to Bright Future

By Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society

The following is updated from a Spring 2016 cover story in the Historical Society newsletter, Moments in Time:


The Ice House Visitors Center and Historic Exhibit has been a downtown landmark since 1999, hosting more than 30,000 visitors a year.  But the origins of the structure remain a bit of a mystery.

Spoiler Alert:

For years, we’ve been describing the Ice House as a former Northwestern Pacific Railroad refrigerator car, or “cold storage hold,” but it turns out that no evidence exists to support this theory.  In fact, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Historical Society is unfamiliar with the “cold hold” terminology.  When the Ice House was declared a historic landmark in 1998, David Hodgson, then chair of the Historic Landmarks Board, estimated that the building dates back to the late 1800's, judging by its architectural features such as insulation made of stripped redwood bark. Architect Michael Rex, who owned the building for several years, agrees, based on the use of square nails, which date to the Victorian era. Rex, who remodeled the old ice vending facility from its original shoebox design, also points out that it would have been too wide to ride on the Northwest Pacific’s narrow-gauge tracks. 

Ed Couderc, whose family owned the structure for a quarter of a century, recalls that old photos show an ice storage house or cooler at the foot of Princess Street, in the mid-1920s.  He says the structure “has also been placed on Pine Street below Caledonia in the 1930s.”

Long-term resident Margaret Jewett told the Historical Society that Jack Douglas, who sold coal and wood out of the building that would become the Marin Theatre, also operated the Ice House.  When the theatre was built in 1942, Douglas moved both businesses next door to her family home at 309 Caledonia. Until the Ice House was moved again, to the corner of Caledonia and Litho, Douglas “got his electricity for the refrigeration from our house,” Margaret recalled. “We ran the line through the kitchen window and plugged it in to the wall outlet.” 


The structure was acquired by the Couderc family in 1952.  Even after refrigerators had become ubiquitous in Sausalito homes, the coin-operated facility continued to dispense blocks and cubes of ice, primarily for boaters and fishermen, until the compressor failed in 1976. 

At that time the Coudercs padlocked the building, and it was used for storage for 12 years.

Searching for a home to start his architecture practice, Michael Rex asked Ed what he intended to do with the old building. When he replied, “tear it down,” Michael offered to save him the cost of demolition; he would take it off his hands for a buck, an idea suggested by the Historical Society’s Phil Frank.  A handshake and a Bill of Sale drawn up on a napkin closed the deal.

Rex remodeled the building, enclosing the loading dock for a reception area, installing windows, removing the original flat roof and extending the walls up to the height of the gable shaped roof, which had been installed over the ice box as a rain cover. A monitor was added along the ridge to bring in natural light. The original blue and white color scheme was preserved.

Rex leased the land under the building from the Couderc family, but they eventually sold the property. When the new owner terminated his lease in 1996, Rex offered to give the structure to the City, in return for a tax write-off.  The City accepted the donation in July 1997.

As Historical Society Vice President Dana Whitson wrote in Marin Scope in 2016, “After a public discussion on alternate uses for the building, the City Council voted to move the Ice House to its final home, a City-owned site at the corner of Bay Street and Bridgeway in downtown Sausalito, to replace a temporary SHS History Exhibit and Visitor Center opened during the City’s 1993 centennial at the former Village Faire (now the Casa Madrona Hotel and Poggio Restaurant).

Ice House on the move!

Ice House on the move!

Under the leadership of Phil Frank, the Historical Society raised funds for the relocation and conversion of the building into the Museum and Visitor Center in 1999.  Rex volunteered to prepare the necessary plans for the new site and the Rotary Club of Sausalito provided much of the labor. In the early hours one morning in March 1999, the Ice House rolled down Bridgeway to its new home where the Historical Society has continuously operated the facility for the City ever since.

The City and Historical Society always intended to improve the site around the Ice House once funds became available, according to Dana: “The plan for the plaza began to take shape following Phil Frank’s death, as his friends and fellow citizens sought to use funds donated in his memory to build a project that Phil would have loved.  In 2010, the Sausalito Foundation raised over $32,000 to build the Plaza.”

Thanks to the generosity of the Foundation and many other donors and supporters, the SHS will soon begin construction on an attractive new plaza adjacent to the Ice House, where the public can linger and learn more about Sausalito history. Look for an announcement of a groundbreaking ceremony soon.

This project will also be celebrated with a fundraiser at Sausalito's elegant historic mansion, The Pines, on Friday, January 11. Guests can explore the beautifully restored 4 story Queen Anne Victorian house, enjoy wine and hors d'oeuvres and bid on fabulous silent auction prizes and three live auction destination vacations. For more information and to purchase tickets, go to


Ice House Moving Cartoon.JPG

A Local: Working at Smitty’s

By Steefenie Wicks, Sausalito Historical Society

Smitty’s Bar has been known as Smitty’s since 1938. Frank Smith, whose nickname was Smitty, leased an old Caledonia Street saloon and re-opened it as a local tavern that year. When he passed on, it became the property of his sister Suzie. For years it was called Suzie’s; then when it sold the new owners decided to go back to the name Smitty’s.

William ‘Bill” Dorsey MacDonald behind the plank at Smitty’s. Photo by Steefenie Wicks

William ‘Bill” Dorsey MacDonald behind the plank at Smitty’s. Photo by Steefenie Wicks

Smitty’s has become a legend in Sausalito. William Dorsey McDonald III tends to the bar and is known simply as Bill.  He became a working partner in 1991. He remembers the days when the old timers would come in, in the mornings to have coffee and hang out, calling this establishment their second home. Bill is a Sausalito native for the past 70 years, having grown up here, attended school here, met and married his wife here. As fate would have it, they met at Smitty’s.

When Bill was born at Ross General in the late 1940s his family lived in what was known as the “flats” of Marin City for 8 years before moving to Sausalito. His grandfather, uncle and his dad were all volunteers for the Sausalito fire department.   He spent time on the waterfront as a youngster paddling a little 9-foot rowboat that he built with his dad in their garage. It was around this time that he worked for the Purity Market, which led to a job for the Golden Gate Market.  He then got the job of delivering groceries for the Caledonia Market. Bill has worked in local establishments for most of his life, so it seems only logical that he would now be part of Smitty’s, the local friendly neighborhood bar.

He began as the 20-year-old doorman for a local bar called the 4 Winds, which was next door to what was once the 7 Seas restaurant on Bridgeway.  When he turned 21 the owners asked him if he wanted to learn how to tend bar, beginning a lifelong profession.  Later he spent over 11 years working for Gatsby’s (now F3 on Caledonia).

He remembers, “Gatsby’s was first known as the Gold Dust bar; when it sold the name was changed again but it finally ended up becoming Gatsby’s, the Jazz Club.  Many famous jazz artists came and played there.  Then the place changed from jazz to rock and roll, on Sunday afternoons, Santana would come perform. This was something that the local residents did not appreciate.”

He continued, “But then the new owners decided to bring in Chicago deep-dish pizza, which was a big success”.

“I can remember when going to Central School,” he adds,” one of the things we kids would do was crawl up inside the ice house, get a block of ice, break it up and then sit around sucking on its coolness.  This was a favorite thing to do during the summer.”

Another favorite thing to do was chasing down the fire engines when kids heard the fire whistle.  When the whistle blew the local kids would get on their bikes and ride to the area to see if they could catch some of the action.  “I remember when I was a sophomore at Tam High School,” he continues, “there was a big fire at Whiskey Springs.  There was a real distillery there; they made all kinds of alcohol so during the fire all of this alcohol that was stored blew up, it was quite the fire.  Both my father and grandfather fought that fire. Yeah, growing up in Sausalito was the best.”

When asked if Smitty’s has changed much since 1938, he says not that much.

“Smitty’s started out as a local bar, a place where the locals, the old timers could come to hang out while they exchanged bits of local news.  That part has changed some because most of those old timers have either passed on or moved on. For instance, for over 30 years Smitty’s had a yearly Pig Feed. “We would take over the parking spots in front of the bar and Sausalito’s favorite handyman, Jessie Thomas from Marin City, would make his secret Barb-B-Que sauce, then take over the entire food scene.  Now that Jessie has passed on this event is no longer done but we all remember Jessie, a wonderful man.”

Bill feels that Smitty’s hasn’t changed a lot but one of the biggest changes is that Smitty ‘s is now a sports bar.  They have always had television in the bar but now with the interest in football, basketball and baseball they have installed at least 8 TV’s that are tuned into whatever games are being played.

But he still remembers that one of the best things to do, as a kid was to go to the Bait Shop, which used to be the old Yacht Club.  That was where local character Juanita ran her sandwich shop, long before she had her restaurants. Bill could watch her telling off the tourists, then throwing them out of her shop.

Bill closes with,” Sausalito was the best place to grow up in because being a local from Sausalito is really something special.”