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.

Houseboat Wars

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.

Midnight TRO

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.

21 Responses to Sausalito Houseboat War, 1971

  1. Steven Gill Reply

    August 23, 2013 at 10:27 am

    Wow, I remember this…..grew up not far from where the pic was taken – used to bicycle down to the houseboats and hang out….it was a really interesting scene….

  2. Russell Grisham Reply

    June 8, 2014 at 3:38 pm

    Yea, I remember that day too. I’m the guy wagging the knife at the police as they aimed their guns at me. I did not want to give up my home that easy…just because they thought they could bambuzzel me with their guns and claims of being the ‘authority’ I was a very peaceful member of the community until they decided to try to destroy my home and other houseboats so they could make way for the 4 piers. This pier approach required the use of millions of gallons of precious purified water during the Marin County drought. The piers would hold the sewer lines which would pump our waste to the Sausalito treatment facility where they would add chlorine and then pump it into the bay where it would wash out with the tides under the Golden Gate Bridge and end up and the pollute the beaches at Stenson and Bolinas. There were much more creative solutions for managing the area sewage, but they would not listen to them. They just wanted us all out by hook or crook and that’s when it became something of a war. The area was attractive to artist, musicians, poets, philosophers, actors, run away boys and girls, and even a few regular folks who just liked living a free (but not very easy) lifestyle. This is an amazing story that still needs to be told. I’ve collected over 2500 pictures taken on the waterfront during the 70’s and am hopeful to some day make them into a photo documentary so that anyone interested in knowing how it really was living that lifestyle can see.
    Thanks, Russell Grisham (808) 256-7004 (Hawaii)

    • debrakeipp Reply

      January 9, 2015 at 1:53 pm

      Didn’t happen to know Sterling Hayden or family while living and/or visiting the docks there did you?

  3. Jason gordon Reply

    August 23, 2014 at 12:00 am

    I have been told stories about this incident all my life my father was a big part of all this war. You might have seen my fathers hard work his sweat and brow built the only one of a kind and ever popular tipi on a barge that’s right my father earned the name tipi tom and I’ve seen pictures that attest to my fathers involvement I can remember when I was a young child visiting my father at thus pier his proud work still is on display the only 2 story tipi houseboat of its kind my father resurrected a sunken barge with hard work I can only strive to one day evolve to .he got it afloat and built piece by piece out of his imagination and pride of indifference built the still standing houseboat tipi I have to admit I was apprehensive as a child to its wonder however it’s creative uniqueness had won me over . I don’t know what other vessels still exist from those years ago or what barges house such history but I know this real life story bids well to the history that once thrived in that area .

  4. Steve Reply

    September 5, 2014 at 4:10 pm

    Great article Jeff

    I have only been around for the last twenty five years, I first lived in the pilot houses on the Son of San Rafael, then The Palace Hotel, then to a small cement barge houseboat, then to the AO Hatton and for the past twelve years I am aboard The Tipi.

    There is now a video archive about the history of the waterfront at http://www.thetipi.net included is Jeff Costellos The Redlegs Story, Double Thanks Jeff.

    Jeff if your ever in the neighborhood it would be good to meet you.

  5. Weldon Travis Reply

    November 13, 2014 at 6:39 am

    “Ah-h-h, yes, my friend, I thought they’d never end.”

    I was on the other end (one might say “both ends”) and wrote one of the “Battle Plans” for abatement, complete with a squad of ‘Mud Hens” deployed in the excrement-infused low-tide flats.

    I was also very good friends with an attorney for the disenfranchised community and, together, we “walked the planks” to serve you.

    Do any of you recall the minister who chained the propellor of the contracted tug boat? How many saw the crane come crashing down, almost killing me and the guy who was dismantling it?

    I wrote a book, Resident Deputy Sheriff, and pulled no punches. Mario Puzo (“Godfather”) was interested in doing my story.

    Weldon Travis, Rough and Ready, California (530) 432-8866

  6. Paul Jacobsen Reply

    December 8, 2014 at 10:08 pm

    So nice to finally read something about this whole scene that shows some insight. Hey the whole thing was complicated.I like your mention of king of hearts.. that’s how it felt to me. I remember the day they towed TJ’s pile driver in, I made some “artificial seaweed” — 8-10′ coils of unraveled polypro with a rusty bolt tied to the end.I think they sorta worked. At least the one I tossed in front of the tug did. Later on in some court case they used it as evidence labeled “conspiracy.” I get a warm fuzzy feeling from it all. Also nightmares.

  7. Kurt Foster Reply

    January 6, 2015 at 12:27 pm

    My Father and Step Mother were friends with Sausalito houseboat dwellers who lived on a recovered Navy craft dubbed “The Crash Boat’.

    I recall spending time there in my teens with Mary Winn and Ale Ekstrom, playing music and drinking “Green Death”. One day Ramblin’ Jack Elliot dropped in and jammed with us.

    Mary had some cool hand carved puppets and she would do puppet shows. They also were the first people I knew who did the Renascence Faire thing.

    I remember when the dry docks caught on fire.

    Those days and times have long past and I am sad to think Gate 6 is now a different place but nothing lasts forever.

    Thanks to Mary Winn and Ale Ekstrom for some memorable times on the Crash Boat.

    • debrakeipp Reply

      January 9, 2015 at 1:49 pm

      didn’t happen to know any of the family of or perhaps, Sterling Hayden, himself, did you, while living in the water there?

      • Jeff Costello Reply

        January 9, 2015 at 2:02 pm

        No, I did visit the Wanderbird once, but Hayden no longer was involved with it.

  8. bob Reply

    February 3, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    This was a great place to live.

  9. bob Reply

    February 3, 2015 at 1:37 pm

    Great place to live back in the day.

  10. Lawrence White Reply

    February 5, 2015 at 3:07 am

    Thanks for mentioning Rocky Graham. His murderer used the “junk food diet” defense and was given only given a 5 year sentence due to “diminished capacity.”

    Years later Dan White used the same defense after murdering Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk in SF City Hall. He was also given a 5 year sentence. Same attorney by the way.

    It should be noted that the developers were never successful in moving my 22′ boat. In fact, I was charged with contempt of court and tried in Judge Richard Breiner’s court where I (and my cocker spaniel dog) were found guilty of obstructing the development for an expended period.

    Only after the trial did I learn Judge Breiner owned and was developing a large part of Gate 5 road. Of course this was a huge conflict of interest that he was duty bound to disclose. Note: This case was never resolved.

    Judge Breiner’s bold conflict of interest proved beyond any shadow of doubt the depth of the conspiracy to destroy our community and develop a billion dollar, underwater-street, straight, rigid, environmentally disastrous, corral style dock plan.

  11. George Reply

    August 27, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    I heard about this way back in the day, but never knew the full story. It is much changed since that time. I considered moving there, but have not decided.

  12. Tugboat Franny Reply

    August 28, 2015 at 6:40 am

    Apolitical as we were, little did we understand back then that we were a symbolic microcosm of what goes on in that big world we were all so happy ‘not to be living in.’

  13. alan Reply

    May 26, 2016 at 11:46 am

    “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.

  14. Christina Huggins Reply

    August 6, 2016 at 3:32 pm

    I grew up in Sausalito and remember this battle well. I remember Sterling Hayden riding his bicycle around the gates; also visiting the artists houseboats when I was in my teens during the 60’s. It was a fun, creative, bohemian, artistic community. Moby Grape and other bands played on “The Arc”- the old Ferry Boat at Gate 6. Before it became a music venue it was a restaurant owned by Juanita (Juanita’s Galley).
    My recollection was that the people who complained about the view “marred by the houseboats” were the owners of newly built condos on the hill across from Gate 6, which we found ironic as we found the condos really ugly.

  15. Andrea Granahan Reply

    August 15, 2016 at 3:52 pm

    Does anyone remember the name of the rusty freighter where a lot of people lived? It had a long row of colorful mailboxes out front. I think maybe it was The Charlie White?

  16. Jeff Costello Reply

    August 15, 2016 at 4:03 pm

    The row of mailboxes was in front of an old ferry called the Charles Van Damme. A wooden boat.

  17. Mike Reply

    September 8, 2016 at 2:21 pm

    I was on the jury (1992?). The3 main question on our questionnaire was:
    Who was there first? Gates Co-Op or BCDC. Management?). If we answered Gates, we didn’t have to answer the other questions and Gates would have won. The consensus of that was that, although there were some houseboats there first, the Gates Co-Op had not been created and, in fact, had been created after formation of the BCDC. The other questions had to be answered and the result was basically a stalemate and Gates was given more time to ‘come up to code’.
    This is the best article I have found on the web so far. http://harborequity.org/SitePages/History.aspx
    After the trial each of us jurors were given a copy of the questionnaire. I have since lost mine.

  18. Judy McAlpin Reply

    September 26, 2016 at 12:39 pm

    Does anyone remember an artist named Helen Spacek from around the late 60’s to early 70’s?

    Judy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *