How the Historical Society Came to Be

By Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society

The Sausalito Historical Society was incorporated on May 2, 1979.  As we approach the 40-year anniversary of that milestone, it seems fitting to re-tell the story of how the Society was founded by Jack Tracy. Following are lightly-edited excerpts from an interview Tracy gave to the San Francisco examiner in 1984:

Most Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays you can find Jack Tracy on the top floor of City Hall here, doing what he loves best: recording the history of Sausalito.

Tracy walked away from being a businessman in 1974 to begin his voluntary career of collecting the memorabilia of Sausalito's past.

PHOTO COURTESY OF SAUSALITO HISTORICAL SOCIETY  Jack Tracy was the Grand Marshall of the 1989 Fourth of July Parade


Jack Tracy was the Grand Marshall of the 1989 Fourth of July Parade

He is now surrounded in his spacious attic headquarters by more than 4,000 historical objects given the city.

"I work at it full time," he says. "And then some," he adds reflectively.

"It's a history of all the town's ups and downs, starting with the earliest land company map of 1857 and continuing on in a recording of events of the most vital and active small town that I know of."

Tracy says he gets new gifts practically every day. Each must be carefully recorded with its known history, cross-indexed and fit into the growing puzzle of his historical gallery.

"I'm not a great one for saying leave me something in your will. I say, 'Give it to me now and enjoy it, too’."

The whole project began somewhat accidentally.

The roots were in a state request in 1974 for a city-wide inventory of what Sausalito officials felt was historically important — mostly buildings.

Tracy, who was then in an electrical-appliance business with his brother, got involved in that.

The following year, when the city moved its offices into the abandoned Central School, Tracy was asked to put together a historical display of whatever he could round up from various groups and individuals.

The whole affair was supposed to be short and routine. About 150 people, some band music and speech-making, and a brief glimpse at Tracy’s overnight collection of the town's past, and the party would be over.

The problem was that the collection was much more complete and significant than anyone had imagined.

"We scrounged everything we could find in Sausalito. People had never seen so much of Sausalito's history at once. Hour after hour, the mayor would ask us to remain another hour.

"The people walked through the historical exhibit and then they went home and started calling other people.

"We'd opened in the morning and didn't close until 6 o'clock that night. The people had never seen such a collection. That started it all."

This was followed a short time later when then-Mayor Evert Heynneman offered Tracy the top floor of City Hall. The businessman, about to retire, decided to form the historical society and started soliciting memberships.

"The first man I saw was Edward Couderc, a moving company man. I asked him if he'd join and he did. He was the first of a membership that has grown to about 500."

 And on that day Tracy also got his first contribution to what eventually would become a rich history of the town.

"A boy, Richard Fray, came up to me and said, 'I think I have something you'd like,' and asked if I wanted it. It was an old rusted fishing spear the boy had found, and it remains on display and is recorded as the museum's first gift." (That fishing spear can be seen at the Ice House, 780 Bridgeway, where Tracy’s Sausalito history book, Moments in Time, may be purchased.)

Tracy wasn't exactly left to rattle around on his own. He was quickly joined by other volunteers as the little museum launched itself.

New items are added in many ways. Some are left in wills, some are bought some are pursued and sometimes people just walk in and say "Hey, you want this?"

"We never know who will come through the door next," he says with one eye towards the shrinking space.

And because of that, the museum limits its collection to items from the town of Sausalito and Rancho Saucelito, the 19,000-acre Mexican land grant that encompasses the southern Marin Peninsula from Stinson Beach to Richardson Bay.

The history is told in everything from railroad spikes and ship models, to furniture and Victorian clothing.

One unusual gift, an inscribed silver rose bowl, came not long ago from an Englishwoman who had never been to the United States.

Veronica Burleigh wrote to the mayor that she was the grandniece of Charles Harrison, a sea captain and skipper of the first steam ferry to operate between San Francisco and Marin.

Her letter noted that her seafaring ancestor had come to California from Liverpool in 1840 to become a founding father of Sausalito.

She went on to say that she had this silver bowl, presented to her ancestor in Sacramento in 1863 by the California Agricultural Society in recognition for his invention of a steam pump.

The letter was given to Tracy and before long Burleigh came to Sausalito to deliver her unique gift, see her great-uncle's old house, find that a street bears his name and enjoy the hospitality of a grateful and gracious community.

As happy as she appeared to be in putting together a small piece of her own family history, no one could have been happier than Tracy when he returned to his attic haunts with another nugget for the lode that has become his museum — and his life.

The Society continues to accept donations directly relevant to Sausalito’s past.  Most recently we were pleased to accession some new paintings by Enid Foster (whose works are on display in our Exhibit Room next door to the Friends of the Library used book sale).