Issaquah: From Ferry to Dock

By Annie Sutter and Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society

Long-time Issaquah Dock resident and waterfront historian Annie Sutter has published “The History of Issaquah Dock.”

In her introduction Annie says: “Issaquah Dock is just one of many little groupings of docks and piers and homes that make up today's houseboat––or floating home––community at the north end of Sausalito, California. This is the story of the unique circumstances that led to the emergence of the present day waterborne community; how the once tranquil and peaceful group of small vessels gathered along the shore in the 1930s grew into a random, helter-skelter, quirky and undisciplined sprawl of derelict vessels, mud, and loosely cobbled together homes.”

We’ve written before about the heyday of the ferry Issaquah, one of several ferries acquired by Don Arques after the closure of Marinship.  But that era came to an end four decades ago. Here’s how Annie tells the story, in these lightly edited excerpts from her new book:

By the mid-1980s it had become clear that the end was near for both of Arques' remaining ferries at Gate 6. The Marin County Board of Supervisors declared them a safety hazard and ordered their destruction. Waldo Point Harbor was happy to comply. Why?? That is a question with no reasonable answer. With effort both of these remaining representatives of our maritime history could have been saved. There was talk of using Issaquah for an office for the harbor, for a maritime museum, and several businesses wanted to take over the entire vessel for offices. Many plans were proposed for the Charles Van Damme; a hostel, a restaurant, a community center, a night club. But the destruction of the ferries proceeded.

Protests were loud and violent from the locals while the powers that be brought in bulldozers and debris barges and broke up the ferries and hauled away the last remains. The Charles Van Damme was destroyed first in 1983. Standoffs between police and demonstrators were reminiscent of earlier combat in the harbor with protesters standing in front of bulldozers, sitting on pilings and on the decks, using techniques they had learned over the years. It didn't work anymore. Eleven were arrested. Next went Issaquah. She still had residents living on board who clung to their home, confronting the drivers of the massive equipment. That didn't work either. At least they managed to save the pilot houses by promising to have them off within a week, and they did succeed in that. The pilot houses were hauled off to Galilee Harbor where they remain on display today.

The destruction of the ferries in 1983 came well after work had started on Issaquah Dock. In 1977 Arques had had enough of the politics of starting a marina on his land and leased a substantial portion of it to the newly formed Waldo Point Harbor. They started the work of clearing and building a proper marina. TJ Nelson had been harbormaster for Arques previously and was again harbormaster for the new company. With the help of Ted Eitelbuss, they set out to create order out of chaos. They drove permanent piles and rebuilt Issaquah Dock from the existing makeshift plank walkways to one secured with pilings, and installed gas, water, electrical, sewage lines, telephone and television cables beneath. They faced a monumental task, the cleanup of old planks laid in the mud, half sinking, tacked together homes and years of debris. They started with A Dock, then moved to Issaquah, which was then called B Dock.

It was not an easy task for many reasons, one because the entrenched locals made it clear that they were not eager to see the destruction of their easy-going way of life. They protested with violence and sabotage, blocking equipment, setting fires, throwing rocks, shooting guns and surrounding the pile driver, blocking its use.

 "It was a lawless community," said Eitelbuss. The first boat to be berthed was Eitelbuss's, which had been anchored out and was moved onto the dock for security before the walkways even reached the shore. The first boats to occupy the new berths were a mixture of the old tacked together and brand new, architect designed, expensive, custom built residences. The old tipsy packing crate and recycled military vessel homes were built upon and improved.

Ferro-cement barges were available from builders Forbes Kiddoo and Aqua Maison, and soon became widely used as much more stable bases than previously. That was when the houseboats really became a solid and sensible investment. Many old boats were transferred to these new hulls or new floating homes were built upon them. Small boat-builders created new designs and turned out small affordable residences.

Getting a lease on a new berth was a wise move as they increased in value immediately. Soon there was bargaining in leased berths, and the harbor gave precedence to current residents. A lease in a new one was often more valuable than the boat put in it, and entrepreneurs and locals alike invested both in berths and in new and old boats. It turned out that this possibly unwise move was a solid investment indeed. Some of these boats are now worth over a million dollars on the current market.

In an addendum titled “Trivia,” Annie points out:

Issaquah Dock isn't a dock at all. In correct nautical usage, a dock is "the waterspace between piers, or a place in the water where a boat resides between finger piers or tied to pilings; also, a device by which a vessel can be taken out of the water." A pier is "a structure extending into a harbor from the shore, alongside which vessels can lie." So, Issaquah Dock is technically a pier.

Annie’s  book ($20) is available at the Ice House, 780 Bridgeway, or by contacting Annie directly at 415-464-1578 or email: annieos1012@gmail.com.

ILLUSTRATION COURTESY OF ANNIE SUTTER  Cartoonist Phil Frank lampooned the architecture of some of the new marina-designed floating homes.

ILLUSTRATION COURTESY OF ANNIE SUTTER

Cartoonist Phil Frank lampooned the architecture of some of the new marina-designed floating homes.