Sausalito Houseboat War, 1971
by Jeff Costello, August 21, 2013
All that valuable real estate was going to waste — Lame Deer, Lakota medicine man on the development of the Black Hills in South Dakota.
A lot of valuable real estate was going to waste. That is the crux of the matter. Imagine if you can, a mile of waterfront property in the tourist mecca of Sausalito, Marin County, occupied by pirates, artists, fishermen, counterculture and other social ne'er-do-wells, living on all manner of floating objects with the permission and approval of the property owner.
How did it come to pass that one man owned so much “derelict” waterfront property in the wealthiest county (at the time) in the U.S.? World War II. During the war it was a busy shipyard supplying the US military. Marin City was built to house the workers. After the war, the owner, Donlon Arques, did basically nothing with the property and let nature take its course.
People drifted in. The curious, the disenfranchised, bohemians... The shipyard was a treasure trove of junk, boats and barges in all possible conditions, a still-functioning marine ways. In the eyes of the square, “normal” Americans, it was a mess. To the creative, i.e., “abnormal” brain, it was a wonderland of seemingly unlimited potential.
Arques, a wealthy inland cattle rancher who preferred hanging out in the junkyard, sat in his little office overlooking it all and watched what happened. No one probably remembers the first person to cobble something together, get it floating and move in, but whoever it was inadvertently began what can be called perhaps a great social experiment, the closest thing to a functioning utopian anarchy the country has ever seen. I do not exaggerate here. It was a real anarchy in that it was never planned or scripted, and was overseen by no form of authority. For a while.
Old wooden ferryboats, past their commercial usefulness, were dragged to the high tide line. These were soon occupied, by people who just moved in because no one told them they couldn't.
There's a movie, King of Hearts, set in a small French town in WWII. British and German troops were approaching from opposite directions and the battle was going be in the town. So everyone fled. Except the patients in the insane asylum, who no one bothered to tell. But when the hospital staff fled, they left a door open and all the lunatics drifted out and down into the village. Given free rein and with no authority figures, they all fell effortlessly into their natural roles. One found the barber shop and started cutting hair, and so on. Given freedom to be themselves, they became perfectly functional. This is the best metaphor for the Sausalito waterfront into the early 70's I can think of.
By that time, powerful elements in business/politics had seen the enormous profit potential of such prime waterfront property, and had begun their moves. And by extension, the growing waterfront population had been noticed by the powers-that-be, and determined to be a threat to all that was normal, safe, and bland. These people would have to be dealt with, but how?
The first gambit was building codes. The county building inspector, Mr. Larsen, was dispatched to the Arques property with “abatement” notices. Land-based building codes were now being applied to boats, an utterly nonsensical concept that could only have been conceived by someone with zero knowledge of, or experience with, boats. Nonetheless, Mr. Larsen, an innocuous little man with a beer belly who looked like someone’s kindly grandfather, began stapling the notices on both houseboats and functional marine craft: “Notice to remove or destroy.” A barge with a house on it, a sailboat, a tugboat, it didn't matter. No one really paid Mr. Larsen much attention or took the abatement notices seriously until the day when the County Sheriffs came to tow away the first houseboat. It was called “Joe's Camel.” A “camel” was a solid mass of wood held together by huge iron bolts, at least six feet deep and with enough surface area to construct a tidy one-room dwelling. These had been used as fenders, to keep big ships from crashing into each other in harbor. They were a nightmare to tow, assuming they weren't sitting on the bottom at low tide, in which case towing was impossible.
As the sheriffs and the towboat approached the camel, they were confronted by a small navy of waterfront residents (denizens, as I recall the I-J putting it) in skiffs. sailboats, powerboats, etc. Cops were put onto the narrow decks of the houseboat, and were way out of their element. With all the metal they carried, they must have been terrified of falling into the water. A waterborne police riot ensued. The police, ignorant of basic seamanship and the logistics of towing, eventually retreated without their prize.
But it was only the beginning.
* * *
The second gambit was sewage. As if the freeform anarchy of the waterfront weren’t enough, we had no proper flush toilets. Bob Kalloch, who lived at Gate 3 near Arques’ office, put it this way, referring to Sausalito’s sewage treatment plant, which dumped the effluent into the bay at the south end of town: “It all winds up in the same place, they just want ours to go through official channels.”
Another reason to get rid of the houseboaters was “the view.” Our scene was spoiling the vista of Richardson Bay for people in the Sausalito hills. Our counter-argument that their houses spoiled our view of the hills went nowhere.
The real, always unspoken reasons were the anarchy factor and more to the point, money. Millions of dollars awaited those who would develop the property and start collecting rent and selling wildly expensive “floating homes” built on concrete barges and tied up to nice, neat, orderly docks. When Nikola Tesla demonstrated that electric power could be broadcast like radio signals and used by anyone, George Westinghouse said, “But where will we send the bill?” That was the end of free electricity for all. Freedom in America really means freedom to conduct business, and we at the waterfront stood in the way of huge profits.
Meanwhile, as anti-waterfront sentiment was fueled in MarinScope and the Independent-Journal, the sheriffs did manage to “abate” i.e. tow a houseboat to the heliport to be destroyed. The boat’s owner, Russell Grisham, tried to cut the line attached to the tow truck and the cops, seeing the knife, drew their guns. The photograph, which appeared on the front page of the Chronicle, became the primary symbol of the first houseboat war.
Most everybody on the waterfront was apolitical, at least until the shit hit the fan on our own doorstep. As it turned out, we did have a few people who went to work on the legal end of things. The charge was led by Jane Robinson, who began literally decades of courtroom tedium and managed, through dogged effort and creation of a co-op, to legitimize and salvage a small remnant of the old-style funky waterfront, this time complete with electricity and legal sewage lines. Many of us who were unable or unwilling to submit, get established and begin paying to be there simply left.
A phony development company, fronting for the real powers behind the assault on the waterfront, was set up under the name of Harlan and Cook. “Harlan” was rarely if ever seen, and “Lew Cook” became the designated stooge, the phantom enemy.
The real big shot behind it all, with New Jersey mob ties and whose name cannot be published to this day, was also behind the “redevelopment” of Marin City and arranged for the murder of Rocky Graham, an activist there who “knew too much” and was doing something about it. He was standing outside The Front – the grocery store/hangout – when Claude Phillips, son of Frank Phillips (turncoat and development supporter) walked up to him with a shotgun and shot him in the stomach. The sheriff’s deputies let him bleed to death while they took evidence from the witnesses. Claude was sentenced to five years in prison.
Few people on the waterfront were aware of the connection and they were probably better off not knowing. The “abatement” method was not going well, and things seemed to ease off for a time, even though the Harlan and Cook operation proceeded with development plans, set up an office near Gate 5 and hired uniformed Samoan security guards for protection.
A period of relative calm followed the waterfront’s first violent confrontation with county sheriffs. The cops, acting on behalf of the moneyed interests determined to turn the Arques property into a profit maker, had suffered an ignominious defeat by a “bunch of hippies in rowboats.” But behind it all, the developers remained at work. Plans were being drawn for “Waldo Point Harbor,” which would comprise five new docks for the planned “floating homes” which would gentrify the area and bring it into synch with the generally perceived Marin County aesthetic. Except for those working behind the scenes in Civic Center offices and courtrooms, we went about life pretty much as usual.
By 1977, the developers were ready to start building the new docks, and a piledriver was brought in, escorted by police, to Gate 5 to start the first one. An attempt was made, unsuccessfully, to get a Temporary Restraining Order [TRO] against the start of construction.
But a newcomer to the waterfront called Billy the Kid had just acquired a big barge that was sunk off Kappas’ Marina, a little north of the Arques property. Several people helped Billy get the thing floating with chicken wire and cement to plug the gaping holes below the barge’s waterline. The newly floating barge, with a red structure on its deck fitted out to be a residence, was taken and anchored out. Finding a place to put the huge object on our old docks would be a challenge.
Molly Glenn recalls: “After the failure of the TRO, the day after the cops escorted the pile driver to the shoreline, some waterfronters realized that the Red Barge was the solution. Until then, it was uncertain what would be done with it. It would fit perfectly in the hole the sheriff’s deputies created by towing Larry White’s boat out of the way to make way for the pile driver. So, in the middle of the night during a howling winter storm, the guys attached a tow rope to the Red Barge.”
The barge was maneuvered into place at high tide by Adam Fourman, with his tugboat Herbert. There it was scuttled. “Midnight TRO” was painted across the barge’s superstructure on the side facing the now-trapped piledriver and the office of “Harlan and Cook,” the supposed developer.
MG: “I was standing on the edge of the deck of Norman Carlin’s boat with a couple of others and we helped guide the barge into place in the pouring rain. I remember looking down at the corner of the Norman’s little barge as the Red Barge moved in with barely inches to spare. We were listening to radio chatter between the guards on the pile driver and T.J. [Nelsen, the titular harbormaster]. As the barge moved into place, mere feet from the pile driver, I heard one of the guards say, “A big red house just came in here and I’m leaving.” And that was the last we heard from him. The Red Barge kept the pile driver plugged in its hole for a couple of years, while we partied on it. On the Red Barge, we were truly free.”
“Truly Free.” Well, there it was. People in such a condition could and would not be tolerated when it came to business. The Midnight TRO held on for nearly two years, until once again the powers-that-be engaged the bludgeon of authority in the form of police. Sam Anderson put it like this: “We can’t win, they have all the guns.”
I always wondered if the police had any reservations about their role there, or empathy with the waterfront people. But no. I remembered the lines from the Joseph Conrad story The Secret Agent:
Child: “Mom, what are cops for?”
Mother: “To protect them that has from us that don’t.”
MG: “The confrontation on Dec. 12, 1978 was so violent that we were afraid someone would be killed if it happened again. A month or so later, during a human rights commission hearing, the commissioners told us that the deputies who were sent in that day were the ones with the most reprimands for abusive treatment of suspects and prisoners.
“I was watching from Charlotte’s boat when Jon Bradley was knocked off the bow of the boat he was on and the sheriff’s boat ran over the spot where he went in. I was sure he was a goner. Then he bobbed back up and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. Later, he said he dove for the mud, which saved him from being shredded by the police boat’s propeller.”
The Red Barge was eventually “abated” and the new docks got built. To this day, “improvements” continue at Waldo Point Harbor. Improvements like removal of remaining trees, paving over of more ground, etc.” Nearly all traces of personality and charm have been removed from the area in the gentrification process. Well-off people, the spiritual children of the toots-and-hot-tubs yuppies of the 70’s who “wanted it all now,” their luxurious “floating homes” spoiling each others’ views of the water, likely imagine themselves to be living the kind of groovy bohemian life their presence helped to drive out. Thus, progress.