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The Last of the Lassen

By Annie Sutter

This story is from the MarinScope of 12-20-83 - a time when the old Sausalito waterfront was rapidly changing.

Two pieces – literally pieces – remnants of Sausalito's old waterfront were hauled out of the water’s edge where they resided and placed back on shore in the little stone enclave at the foot of Johnson St. that houses the remains of the old lumber schooner Lassen. In this case, it wasn’t a wrecker or a developer that took away yet another of our historic old ships; the storm and high tides of Dec. 3 tore the stern apart, floated the decking away and flung the pieces into the mud at the bay's edge. Volunteers with tow trucks winched the remains of the bow up on shore at high tide and they will be imbedded in concrete to prevent their being carried away again.


Built in 1917 at Hoquiam, Washington, the 180' Lassen was the second built of a new type lumber ship, one with an oil-driven engine which revolutionized the steam driven engine of the standard wooden coastwise lumber schooner. For years, the Lassen carried lumber up and down the coast for her owners, quietly and uneventfully going about her business. In 1932, in Oakland, there was a fire in engine room, serious enough to end the lumber schooner’s working career, and she was towed to the Arques Shipyard at Johnson Street, to the place where the remains lie today.


 Then began the Lassen's nearly three decades as waterfront home and headquarters for an art community born when Ed and Loyola Fourtane, who were to become renowned for their exquisite jewelry, chartered the Lassen in 1936. "Chartered," for then she was still considered a sea-going vessel, one of many old ships in the Bay area destined to be dismantled, scrapped, burned or sunk. But then in the 1930s, historic vessels had been beached all over Sausalito. The bay went further inland than it does today, and Sid Foster's yellow harbormaster's office stood like a tiny train station across from today's Flynn's Landing restaurant, and you could cross a plank to a long shed and walk out through the boatyard to a motley and wonderful assemblage of houseboats and aging vessels; a happy community with geraniums, snoozing cats; sculpture and driftwood and a comfortable assortment of dockside debris, flotsam and marine junk.


The Fourtanes set up shop to make and show hand-made jewelry. They used the pilot house on the old ship for a showroom, with their workroom below. It took no time for discerning buyers to find them, and the rickety wharf and salty surroundings only added to the glamour. Since there were lots of spaces on board the ship, they soon had other artists working aboard. The Lassen became like an early day art commune... lots of space, delightful sea surroundings and friendly camaraderie. One of the artists who lived on board described the lifestyle, “I lived in the focs’l  - at high tide I could drop a line through a hatch and catch a fish – there were so many perch their backs were sticking out of the water," he said. "The Lassen became a gathering place for artists and waterfront people …very impromptu parties, everyone brought a jug. Living was cheap, and artists stayed as long as it remained so. There were a great many painters, but no one seemed to be making much of a living. When tourists come here today they ask 'where are all the artists?' They suppose that artists will be lined up at their easels wearing berets. It was never like that.”  


In 1959 the City began condemnation proceedings, but the sea was taking its toll from Lassen. By the late 50s, storms had broken her back and the stern had begun to droop. Still, life on board went on. A rickety plank gangway occasionally dropped a tenant into the mud; holes in the hull became large enough to fish through; furniture slid sideways as the sagging increased and the forepeak filled with water at high tide. But in spite of   condemnation efforts, the Lassen remained right there and the tenants continued to move on and off until the mid 1960s when she became uninhabitable. In 1968 another fire finished most of what remained.

In the late 60s the muddy place that had been a shipyard was filled in, and today it’s a parking lot with pleasant landscaping. Old pieces of the Lassen lie sprawled at the water’s edge, thanks to the volunteers who thought it was a piece of our past worth saving. And so we still have those historic old pieces to look at; the last remnants of a working lumber schooner of 50 years ago, and a reminder of our own past when artists (who didn’t wear berets) created, partied, drank jug wine and lived an easy lifestyle that was too soon to pass.



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