Sausalito History

For over 3,000 years, before white settlers arrived, Native Americans known as the Coast Miwok occupied the stretch of shoreline and hills that is now Sausalito. They were peaceful hunter-gatherers whose shell mounds, artifacts and burial “middens” still reside under the surface of our modern-day town. However, in 1775 the Miwoks’ tranquil way of life was forever changed when the Spanish ship San Carlos arrived carrying the first European explorers to enter by sea what is now called San Francisco Bay. From the small willow trees growing along the stream banks of this area, they called it Saucito (little willow), a name that later evolved into “Saucelito,” and ultimately “Sausalito.”

19th century Sausalito, Richardson’s Bay and Angel Island - SHS Col

19th century Sausalito, Richardson’s Bay and Angel Island - SHS Col

In 1838, William Richardson, an English seaman married to the daughter of the Commandante of El Presidio (the Mexican military garrison in San Francisco) was given a 19,571 acre land grant in what is now southern and western Marin County. He built his hacienda in the vicinity of Sausalito’s present-day Caledonia Street and prospered from several successful business ventures.

William Richardson

William Richardson

In his honor as Sausalito’s founder, the body of water fronting Southern Marin County is today called Richardson’s Bay. Richardson ultimately lost his vast holdings, and the bulk of Rancho del Sausalito was sold in 1868 to the Sausalito Land and Ferry Company. They laid out streets and subdivided the central waterfront and hills into spectacular view lots, then purchased a small streamer, the Princess,  to bring in prospective buyers from San Francisco.


 Ferries led to railroads and Sausalito became a bustling transportation hub. Wealthy San Franciscans in gracious summer homes, and upper-class British expatriates ensconced in ornate Victorian mansions, occupied the central hills. But Sausalito was diverse even then.

A vibrant working class and mercantile culture developed along Water Street (later to become Bridgeway), including Portuguese boatbuilders, Chinese shopkeepers, dairy ranchers, fishermen, Italian and German merchants, boarding house operators and railroad workers.

 During Prohibition, Sausalito became a base of operation for bootleggers (among them “Baby Face” Nelson) and a conduit through which rumrunners moved their goods. Basement speakeasies and backyard stills were not uncommon, and tarpaulin-draped trucks laden with contraband regularly rumbled through town to meet the midnight ferry to San Francisco.

 With the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937, Sausalito’s train and ferry services were discontinued. The last southbound passenger train arrived in town in 1941. Sausalito seemed destined to become a sleepy backwater. But with the onset of World War II, a major shipyard was hastily constructed on the northern waterfront, suddenly swelling Sausalito’s tiny population to 30,000.

The Marinship yard operated 24/7 until September of 1945, producing 93 Liberty Ships and tankers for the war effort.

Sally Stanford

Sally Stanford

 As abruptly as it began, the war effort ended. What took its place defined Sausalito for the next several decades. Attracted by Sausalito’s striking beauty and cheap rents, artists, writers, musicians, actors, hippies and even a former bordello owner took refuge here, bringing their culture and free-thinking to Sausaltio. Some of the most notable were Sterling Hayden, Alan Watts, Shel Silverstein, Otis Redding, Jean Varda and, of course, Sally Stanford.

Those who came created a bohemian aura that persists to this day, giving the town its reputation as an art colony and literary enclave. For many during that time, life was also a party in Sausalito, and famous haunts such as Zack’s, Juanita’s, No Name Bar and the Trident made for great entertainment.

 With the return of passenger ferries in 1970, Sausalito became a popular destination for more mainstream visitors to the Bay Area. Today, its harbors and marinas host a dazzling array of pleasure craft from every corner of the globe. Our love of the counter-culture and art is now shared with software, multi-media and financial enterprises.

Regardless of the many changes our town has experienced, our diversity and vigor remain unchanged. Sausalito will forever be a place with a future - a place with an interesting past.