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Historic Sausalito - Moments in Time book cover image

Sausalito is like a stage where one production has followed another for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Whatever the theme or plot, Sausalito, with its characteristic flair, has provided a setting to match the action.

For between three and five millennia, the backdrop it provided for a cluster of Native American (Coastal Miwok) villages remained fairly constant. Its tranquil surface varied little over time. But with the successive arrival in Northern California of the Spanish, Mexicans, and Euro-Americans, the stage was set for dramatic change.

Are you looking for a new twist on the traditional Western? Sausalito's story as a Mexican land grant in the early 1800s arguably equals the best Broadway musical, replete with Vaqueros, dons, extravagant fiestas, and, ultimately, the downfall of its colorful leading man. Rancho del Sausalito even had a role in the Bear Flag Rebellion of 1846.

Later with the advent of ferry service to and from San Francisco, Sausalito became the setting for a burgeoning Victorian village--a place of summer houses and hillside estates, populated by wealthy San Franciscans and members of the local British colony. A fleet of British-owned, square-rigged grain ships filled the bay below. But Sausalito, by its very nature, invited diversity.

So what other roles were needed to complete the production? Portuguese boat builders, Italian fishermen, Chinese shopkeepers, rail yard workers, ferry crewmen, and dairy ranchers all took their turn on this stage.

The plot changes with the arrival of the first rail line from the north. Sausalito became a transit hum, the connecting link between most Northern California trains and ferries and San Francisco--and the setting for a rousing waterfront story, with all its attendant sound effects. Thundering locomotives, swathed in steam, shaking the earth on their approach; hulking ferryboats with clamoring bells heralding their arrivals and departures; electric trains with their shrill whistles, calling residents, workers, commuters, and travelers to the bustling scene on the town's doorstep.

You want a play about Prohibition? Sausalito looked the part in the 1920s, and got the role. Out-of-town rumrunners, local police, basement speakeasies, backyard stills, federal Prohibition built it.

Or would you prefer a World War II drama? No problem. Switch costumes and Sausalito is a shipbuilding town, with six shipways operating 24 hours a day. A cast of 20,000 filled this stage, building and launching 93 ships and filling the little town with humanity, excitement, and overcrowded housing.

As abruptly as it began, the war effort ended, and the shipyard flats were cleared for the next production--a1950s art film featuring painters, sculptors, dancers, writers, musicians, mask makers, bohemians, hippies and houseboaters. Great character actors dominated the boards during this run--Sterling Hayden, Sally Stanford, Alan Watts, Shel Silverstein, and countless others.

Today the theater has undergone some remodeling, and the scene behind the proscenium arch has become the backdrop for a modern travelogue. The curtain rises on Victorian homes dotting the lower hillsides, sidling up to modern redwood and glass creations clinging precariously to the ridgelines. The stage reveals a historic downtown: yacht harbors thick with white masts, restaurants and hotels built out over the water, unique shops, original art galleries, and grand promenades with San Francisco views. Projected overhead are images of a world-renowned art festival, jazz concerts by the bay, chili cook-offs in the park, folksy Fourth of July parades along Caledonia Street, elegant garden tours in the Banana Belt. In short, all is ready for Sausalito's latest opening night. So let the play begin.

(Excerpted from the Sausalito Historical Society's book, Sausalito, which is available for purchase at the Ice House Historical Exhibit and Visitor Center at 780 Bridgeway, Sausalito)
Last updated: 11/18/2008 12:11:13 AM