Press "Enter" to skip to content

Sausalito Houseboat War, 1971

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.


  1. Steven Gill August 23, 2013

    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 June 8, 2014

    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 January 9, 2015

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

    • Alyssa September 17, 2020

      R.I.P. Russell. I hope one of your kin will pass along the photos.

  3. Jason gordon August 23, 2014

    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 September 5, 2014

    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 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 November 13, 2014

    “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 December 8, 2014

    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 January 6, 2015

    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 January 9, 2015

      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 Post author | January 9, 2015

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

  8. bob February 3, 2015

    This was a great place to live.

  9. bob February 3, 2015

    Great place to live back in the day.

  10. Lawrence White February 5, 2015

    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 August 27, 2015

    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 August 28, 2015

    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 May 26, 2016

    “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 August 6, 2016

    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 August 15, 2016

    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 Post author | August 15, 2016

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

  17. Mike September 8, 2016

    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.
    After the trial each of us jurors were given a copy of the questionnaire. I have since lost mine.

  18. Judy McAlpin September 26, 2016

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


    • Ron Koch June 16, 2017

      I do, married her sister, our home is full of her paintings.

  19. Jim Gibbons December 24, 2016

    Really well written article, Jeff, and though I think I read it before, I liked it better this time, maybe because I’ve been compiling some of my ’70s writings lately. But I have a few questions.
    What month in ’71 did the first confrontation happen with Russell Grisham?
    And do you know who bought the Cowpie from Jeremy Conn?
    Because I saw a Larry White photo of it anchored out, but don’t recall a name on the bow.
    Then Larry White commented that he had a 22 ft steel lifeboat and I wondered if he bought it?

    • Lawrence White June 16, 2017

      My boat was a wood hull 22ft lifeboat tied to a floating dock at Gate 6. The neighbors were Capt. Garbage, Michael and Penny and Oz and Theresa and Rickey Campadonico (sp) who was laster murdered.

      The previous owner of my boat was one of those who vanished with the trimaran on the way to Hawaii.

      The tradition was that I would live and maintain the boat until that particular person “returned.” I passed it on at zero cost with those same conditions as I left for NYC.

      Unfortunately it is my understanding that is where it ended as the next “caretaker” apparently sold the dock rights for cash and the boat was destroyed.

      I surely could have done the same thing but I am glad I did not. No amount of money could buy those incredible experiences. I am happy to recall them vividly to this day.

      • Irv Sutley July 5, 2022

        Was the trimaran which vanished on the way to Hawaii designed and skippered by another Marin denizen, Arthur Piver of the Sausalito firm, Art Piver Design?

        Piver was the American who brought back the ancient Polynesian boats, the Catamarans and the Trimarans in their modern form?
        Lightning fast these can sail circles around the single hullers they compete against.

        • Pat Kittle July 5, 2022

          Anyone know anything about Alan Watts, who (if I remember right) wrote fondly of his life on a Sausalito houseboat.

  20. Katherine Vine September 18, 2017

    The Battle was Dec 77 not Dec 78. It was the day after I came home to Gate 6 with my day old son. I was in, and on, Cloud 9 (built by Jon Bradley I think, and placed on a camel) . People came and went reporting on the battle. It was like a Shakespeare play:”…” Enter Messenger…with the latest incident.,

    I have the copy of HenryV that Piro gave me, with the famous speech ‘Tomorrow is the day of Crispian…he who outlives this day and comes straight home…shall be my brother…We few, we happy few …etc Band of brothers stuff. Hence my son’s name.

    • Jeff Costello Post author | September 18, 2017

      Katherine is referring to the second “houseboat battle.” The piece is mostly about the first one, some six years earlier, when the sheriffs tried to remove two boats and failed. The second time was when the developers were thwarted by Gate Five and Six residents when they moved a big barge into Gate Five and scuttled it to block progress on the development. The “Red Barge” stayed in place for a good while and became a sort of community center where we had parties, dinners and so on.

    • Peter March 31, 2021

      Kathrine vine, What is your son’s name?

  21. D. Sherbina February 7, 2020

    The anchorouts need help, they are mostly good people trying to make a living . There are captains, lawyers librarians , fisherman, divers ,waterfront workers ,cooks, carpenters, waiters, waitresses , families, marine craftmans, mechanics, social workers, cruisers, mothers and fathers, living and maintaining a tradition of living on the hook. This is an attack on the heart of America by a corrupt government agency. Stand up for the historical right to live on the water.

    • D .Sherbina February 7, 2020

      And veterans….

  22. Renee Dufault April 30, 2020

    Looking to connect with old friend Michael Scott who lived on a Sausalito houseboat 1980’s. Anyone know his whereabouts? Thanks!! 808-345-6864

    • Peggy Shaw July 11, 2020

      Sadly, Michael Scott died a couple of years ago. He was a great guy and a good friend.

  23. Alethea Patton May 1, 2020

    Great article. I moved to Gate 5 in 1979 as a 17 year old and lived with and took care Piro Caro on Shel Silverstein’s boat. Piro encouraged me to build a small houseboat on a camel that I anchored out but never truly inhabited. I arrived on the scene just as the last stand between the developers and the houseboaters took place and participated in one of the standoffs where dozens of riot police tried, without success to remove the Red Barge. I have lots of great memories of the parties on the Red Barge and the wonderful community garden / fire pit area at Gate 5 that is now a paved over parking lot. My sister in law Nancy (& her husband Boomer) were involved with the confrontation in 1978 and Nancy was a fugitive from justice after that , having been charged with assault for hitting a cop with an oar. She and Boomer lived in an anchor out called the Planet X. Good times. Forever influenced my anarchist ways and perspective on the importance of community. Thanks for the memories.

    • Norman July 4, 2022

      Please contact me – I bought a Moto Guzzi motorcycle from Boomer while I was managing the Shell station across the street from Gate 5 – He sculled me out to the Planet X periodically when I would make payments on the $350 debt on the bike ;-) that was stored on land under an above ground pool liner. I met your sister-in-law Nancy circa ’78/79 then – she was pregnant if I recall correctly – good people, please let her and Boomer know the bike and I rode 100K plus miles before I shared it with another owner. The Planet X was a nice boat. Norman aka

  24. Gordon Polatnick September 1, 2020

    Great article, Jeff.

    Just saw this notice of Russell Grisham’s passing this July 2020. RIP

    He wrote a response to this article (above) indicating that he had a lot of photos to share. Does anyone know if that ever came to pass?

    My time at the Gates Coop was spent on La Boheme (sold to me by Dova R.) in the early/mid 90’s. I’d love to see those photos if they’re out there.

    My home in Queens, NYC is less moldy, more stable and less interesting.



Leave a Reply to Kurt Foster Cancel reply

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