Sausalito Before the Bridge
Long before the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937, Sausalito was a major transit hub, bustling with ferries and trains.
According to a History of Marin County originally published in 1880, the first ferry was a small boat operated by Sausalito’s earliest Anglo settler, John Read, beginning in 1832 – 6 years before William Richardson received his land grant here.
When Richardson eventually lost his 19,000-acre land grant in the mid-1850s, his property was parceled out, and a consortium of developers called the Sausalito Land and Ferry Company took control of what became the township of Sausalito. To lure new residents to the area, they initiated regular ferry service in 1868. A side-wheeler named Princess made her inaugural voyage on the Bay in May, 1868. From the landing at the foot of Princess Street, which was named for the vessel, she made two trips a day to Miegg’ s Wharf in San Francisco.
Just 6 years later, the North Pacific Coast Railroad line began running narrow gauge steam powered trains from Sausalito to San Rafael. Locomotive Number One was called Saucelito, the town’s accepted spelling at the time.
The NPCR also took over the ferry service. The Princess was retired and a new ferry landing and railroad wharf was built near the current ferry terminal. Customers could step off the ferry and go directly to waiting rail cars.
As Jack Tracy wrote in his book Moments in Time, “Railroads were the key to growth all over the country, and California was no exception.”
Tragedy struck in November 1901, as the ferry San Rafael was working its way past Alcatraz in a dense black tule fog. It was suddenly rammed by the steel prow of another ferry, the Sausalito. The Sausalito survived the crash but the San Rafael sank on the spot, taking the lives of three passengers and a baggage truck horse named Dick. That incident inspired the opening of Jack London’s novel The Sea-Wolf.
By the turn of the 20th Century, the area adjacent to the rail and ferry terminal had become a stagnant backwater known locally as the “Pond.” In 1902, Mayor Jacques Thomas convinced the railroad to convert the Pond to a landscaped plaza in front of its new terminal building. The new plaza was named Depot Park, but grateful citizens called it Thomas’s Park for many years. In 1960, the park was renamed Vina del Mar Plaza, in honor of Sausalito’s new sister City in Chile.
At the dawn of 20th Century, Sausalito became a hi-tech center with the introduction of interurban electric trains -- pioneering technology when they were introduced here in 1902. The standard gauge electric railway provided commuter service from Sausalito to Mill Valley, San Anselmo, and San Rafael.
In 1907 several local rail companies merged to become the Sausalito Northwestern Pacific Railroad. With the introduction of the mass-produced Model T Ford, auto travel became so popular that ferries began carrying cars in the early 1900s. On one summer weekend in 1915, over 700 autos were ferried between Sausalito and San Francisco, creating the type of traffic congestion we still encounter today.
Auto travel really boomed after the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway 101 in 1937, and train travel fell off drastically. By 1941, the Northwestern Pacific eliminated all Sausalito passenger rail service, although freight rail service continued until 1971. Ferry service was also terminated for three decades. With the return of passenger ferries in 1970, Sausalito blossomed as a popular destination for visitors from all over the world.
Enjoy the Historical Society’s new self-guided downtown walking tour, “Sausalito Before the Bridge.”
Our free tour features trains and ferries that transported people around the San Francisco Bay from 1884-1938. Start at the Ice House where you’ll find a panel describing the 0.6 mile route that stretches east along the Bay and Gabrielson Park, then south along our waterfront.
The display was created by Historical Society Board Member Bill Kirsch, with copy by Steefenie Wicks and graphics by Barbara Geisler.
The Historical Society and Sausalito Lions joined forces to install a plaque at the Bay Model Marinship Exhibit honoring Sausalitans who served in the Armed Forces in WWII. The plaque, recreating an Honor Roll created in 1943, was unveiled and installed during a ceremony in May, 2016.
Caledonia Street Rediscovered
In April, Historical Society member Mike Moyle presented an illustrated history of Caledonia Street at the Sausalito Library. Mike’s presentation was followed by a reception to introduce an exhibit of historic photos of the street in the Society’s Exhibition Room upstairs. The exhibit is still open to the public Wednesdays and Saturdays, 10 AM to 1 PM.
The following Saturday, the Society hosted a docent assisted, self-guided walking tour of Caledonia, which brought many of the images from Mike’s presentation and the photo exhibit to life.
Torney Joins SHS Board
Eric Torney, Marin County native and documentarian, has joined the Board of the Sausalito Historical Society. Eric has produced the video “Sausalito Before the Bridge,” which premiered in the Sausalito Public Library’s first Documentary film series. DVDs of the film are available for purchase at the Ice House. He plans to be involved with next year’s 75th Marinship anniversary activities, and is looking forward to combing the Society archives for future projects, as well.
At the SHS Annual Meeting in April, outgoing directors Bob Woodrum and Jim Muldoon were recognized for their many contributions to Society activities. Bob, a director since 2009, was instrumental in the Society’s Schools program, and served as Webmaster for several years. Jim headed up Special Events and Volunteers. Also at the Annual Meeting, current directors Susan Frank, Mary Ann Griller, Sharon Seymour, Jerry Taylor and Steefenie Wicks were re-elected for additional two-year terms.
Letter From the President
A THEORY OF RELATIVITY
Growing up in Sausalito in the 1950’s, I lived on Third Street (still do). This area was referred to as “Old Town”. It’s also called Whaler’s Cove, Shelter Cove, Hurricane Gulch, but I digress. North of us was Downtown, further north was called “New Town”.
But one early evening last summer, as I was driving north on Bridgeway between Napa and Spring Streets, I found myself staring into the sun! How can this be—I’m going north! I consulted a map (if you’re under 30, ask an old-timer). Lo and behold, Bridgeway bends several times, it’s not always north on a map.
The Northwestern Pacific Railroad was controlled by Southern Pacific whose predecessor was the Central Pacific, the western part of the first Transcontinental Railroad. If you were headed toward Utah, you were going east; to Sacramento, later Oakland and San Francisco, you were going west. This was common sense, but it also operated as a safety protocol, determining train order priorities. The SP continued this protocol as it expanded from the original route. SP built south toward Los Angeles but…the protocol remained. All trains going away from SF were eastbound, trains heading to SF were westbound.
So what has that got to do with us in Sausalito? I’m glad you asked. The Northwestern Pacific operated under the same protocols. So, if you were heading to Sausalito, from Eureka, or Cazadero, or San Rafael or Mill Valley, according to the NWP, you were westbound. But last summer, driving in Sausalito toward Mill Valley, I couldn’t determine whether I was northbound, or maybe westbound. Hence: Sausalito Relativity.
Enjoy our new photo displays of Sausalito Before the Bridges. Support the Ice House Plaza — anyone who donates $2,000 or more to the Plaza project will receive a lifetime membership to the Historical Society
See you soon,
And did you know. . .
The Northwestern Pacific, established in 1907, was the final name of the railroads which operated from Sausalito. Prominent in the family tree were the North Pacific Coast and the North Shore. The NWP was jointly owned by the SP and the Santa Fe, until SP bought out its partner. The SP numbered their westbound passenger trains with odd numbers, even numbered trains were headed east. Train #1 traveled from Chicago to San Francisco, #2 was its partner. The famed morning Daylight express from SF to LA was #98, the simultaneous LA to SF was #99. Milepost zero was the San Francisco Ferry Building. The Sausalito Ferry Terminal, located just where it is today, was milepost 6.5.