1930s Sausalito

By Jack Tracy and Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society

PHOTO COURTESY OF SAUSALITO HISTORICAL SOCIETY  Sausalito in 1930, looking east from Wolfback Ridge. New Town is on the left, the Hill in the middle, and Old Town on the right. Both ferry systems are in operation.


Sausalito in 1930, looking east from Wolfback Ridge. New Town is on the left, the Hill in the middle, and Old Town on the right. Both ferry systems are in operation.

“If the focus of the 1920s was on homebuilding and road improvements in Sausalito, the 1930s was a time of declining fortunes and rising expectations.” That’s how Jack Tracy put it in his Sausalito history Moments in Time. Here are some lightly edited excerpts from Tracy’s book describing Depression-era Sausalito:

The confident real estate market came to an end after the stock market collapse of 1929. Editorials in the local newspaper, once boasting of the certain boom soon to engulf Sausalito, gave way to cautious optimism and a rallying call to "Buy in Sausalito." Then the long-awaited start of construction on the Golden Gate Bridge boosted spirits as well as provided construction jobs.

By 1932, grand development plans once more emerged in Sausalito. Albert von der Werth, representing the Golden Gate Yacht Harbor, Ltd., proposed converting dormant Shelter Cove into a 300-berth yacht marina that would not only incorporate within its bounds Nunes Brothers' boatyard, but also have facilities for commercial fishing. The project thus qualified for funding by President Roosevelt's Public Works Administration. The proposal dragged on through many months of negotiation with Washington and finally failed for lack of matching funds. On that project and on the proposed "lateral," or second, highway north from the Golden Gate through Sausalito were pinned the hopes of many residents and merchants. If such an enormous project as the Golden Gate Bridge could be undertaken in the depths of the Depression, then perhaps there was hope for Sausalito yet. Perhaps one needed to look beyond the confines of Sausalito... to all of Richardson's Bay.

Richardson's Bay, the broad, shallow body of water that is Sausalito's front yard, has always been a source of inspiration and the object of fantasies for speculators. Its potential for development has spawned countless schemes from the reasonable to the absurd. Sausalito officials particularly liked the idea of filling in the Sausalito shoreline out to the bulkhead line, about 500 yards beyond today's shoreline. This would be an industrial site, where rail and ocean commerce would meet.

The most ambitious plan for Richardson's Bay had been formulated in 1912, when local boosters persuaded the federal government to survey the hills west of Sausalito for a ship canal into the bay from the Pacific Ocean. A four-mile cut was planned through a gap in the rolling hills at the head of Tennessee Cove, up Elk Valley to the bay south of Dolan's Corner in Mill Valley. Engineers were basking in the glory of the Panama Canal achievement and doubtless saw opportunities for construction marvels everywhere. If Panama could have a canal, so could Sausalito.

The ship-canal plan was resurrected in 1936 when Richardson's Bay was being promoted as the logical site for a submarine base for the Navy. A Pacific opening to Richardson's Bay would eliminate the need for dredging and provide for ships a fog-free entrance to San Francisco Bay that would by-pass Potato Patch shoals. If Stockton could have a deep-water port, so could Sausalito.

The idea of making Richardson's Bay into a submarine base first came up in 1933 when the Navy announced it might be looking for a West Coast site. The Sausalito City Council had long been seeking a dredged ship-channel along the Sausalito shoreline to Waldo Point to generate business for waterfront property. If the Navy took over the bay, it was reasoned, Sausalito would have her channel plus a thriving business with the Navy. If Vallejo could have a Navy base, why not Sausalito?

Sausalito's submarine base plan fell on deaf ears in Washington, and in 1937 even the request for dredging the ship channel was rejected by the War Department as being strictly a "local project" without merit for national defense. That same year, however, the War Department saw Richardson's Bay in another light. With the increasing threat of war, Washington proposed reserving the bay for seaplanes, with an anchorage for seaplane tenders, destroyers, and other light vessels. That plan, too, died aborning. And it wasn't until war was declared and Sausalito's shipyard was under construction in 1942 that the long-awaited ship channel was dredged.

Richardson's Bay was touted as the logical site for the 1939 World's Fair. When the fair was over, it was argued an airport could be built on bay fill that would complement the existing railroad terminus and ferryboat system, making Sausalito a major transportation hub. The selected site, however, was Goat Island shoals, which was filled and became Treasure Island.

Much of the motivation for development schemes in the 1930s was an honest effort to create local jobs to ease the burden of the deep economic depression. The stirring sight of two colossal bridges (the Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge) under construction simultaneously stimulated planners and speculators alike. Sausalito was not alone in wanting an end to unemployment and despair. It came ... on December 7, 1941.

Moments in Time is available at the Ice House, 780 Bridgeway.