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History Beneath Your Feet

By Annie Sutter

When you drive to the Spinnaker Restaurant, or walk along the southern edge of the Sausalito Yacht Harbor, you’re treading atop a treasure trove of nautical history. Enroute to the Spinnaker, you’re walking over an accumulation of Bay mud, shells, rocks and dredging spoils gathered over many years as fill for the street and parking lot. If you park at the yacht brokerage or the store next to the harbor, you’re walking over old ships, some with their engines still there.


Three vessels lie in a roughly east-west line beneath the parking lot at Bay and Humboldt. They were the steam schooners Mazama, Wellesley, and Santa Barbara, brought in by Herb Madden Sr. in the early 1940s to create the south bulkhead of the Sausalito Yacht Harbor. The area, says one resident old-timer, was just mudflats and a muddy basin where the Bay shallowed just east of Bridgeway. “My father bought three ships,” says Herb Madden Jr., “the Mazama, the steam schooners Wellesley, and Santa Barbara, vessels like the Wapama. These ships were all over the place then, and available because the building of the bridges made coastal steam schooners outdated.” The Mazama, a World War I wooden steam vessel, was much older than the others, and had been anchored offshore for years. Its engines and probably most of its gear had been removed, but the Wellesley and Santa Barbara, smaller lumber schooners, still had “engines, furnishings, everything,” said Madden. The three ships were towed in, filled with sand and then burned. Jack Tracy, in his historic book on Sausalito, Moments In Time, tells of an unexpected turn of events: “On the night of November 17, 1944, the old schooners were burned near the Madden and Lewis Yacht Harbor to clear the sand spit of hulks. Hundreds watched as the Mayor ignited an oil soaked rope leading to the ships. To everyone’s surprise, one of the vessels contained thousands of gallons of fuel oil, which burned fiercely throughout the night. Cities around the Bay watched in horror as they assumed Marinship or all of Sausalito was being consumed by flames. The next day as the fire continued, Sausalito was criticized in the San Francisco press for neglecting to inform others of the bonfire.”

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