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The Arks and Opening Day

By Larry Clinton
As Opening Day on the Bay approaches on Sunday, April 28, it’s noteworthy to recall that this annual celebration originated with the ark community of Belvedere.  The story was told in the Pictorial History of Tiburon A California Railroad Town, published by the Belvedere-Tiburon Landmarks Society:
In the early 1890’s, a jaunty floating population appeared in Belvedere Cove: a flotilla of arks, or houseboats, which were moored in the cove from April until October, then towed into the shelter of the lagoon for the winter. In 1894, a reporter from the Sausalito News counted twelve of these unlikely vessels swaying from their anchors; by the turn of the century, the number had risen to thirty or forty.
They were of every conceivable description, from little more than Tom Sawyer rafts to elegant wood-paneled retreats., with elaborate upholstery. One, owned by a man named Wellington who had chosen this way of being prepared for the second flood, which he felt was imminent, was 62 feet long and had a glassed-in garden, presumably for raising food during those long forty days at sea.
More typically, an ark had four rooms and a kitchen, with hogsheads of water for drinking and washing. White railings circled the deck, and there were bunks everywhere for friends, who could be numerous, for many boats were owned jointly by several families.
One of the most original of these floating residences, the Nautilus, came into existence when James McNeil brought four abandoned horse-drawn San Francisco streetcars over on a barge towed by the ferry and nailed them to a raft. In 1895 the Examiner described McNeil’s progress: “Down on the beach is a varied assortment of sash boards, doors, windows, some superfluous roofing and an assortment of wheels that were not found necessary for the comfort of ark life.” One of the chief delights of the Nautilus must have been the number of windows.
An English newswoman, writing an account of Arktown for her magazine, The Strand, in 1899, found much to admire:
“There is an indescribable charm about the life; one has the pleasures of boating combined with the comforts of home; sea baths are at one’s very threshold; fish are caught and cooked while you wait.... The monotony of the scenery is varied by the swinging of the ark as it turns with the tide. There are neighbors, thirty or forty families of them, within easy reaching distance if one can pull a stroke, for there is always a following of rowboats lazily resting upon the water in the wake of each ark. The butcher, the baker, and others ... who supply the needs of daily life each has his little boat which he sends around every morning for his customary order, and the joint for dinner and the ice cream for dessert are delivered as promptly to the ark-dwellers as they are to those who are still in the city.”
The highlight of the summer season was the “Night in Venice,” which featured concerts, fireworks, a torchlight procession of boats, open house on the arks, prizes for best decorations, and other festivities put on by the “Descendants of Noah,” or “Venetians of the West,” as the ark owners enjoyed calling themselves. One ark dweller, Lillian Saltonstall, recalled such a soiree in 1905;
“I remember particularly well one ‘Night in Venice.’ Belles and beaux were enjoying the scene and making love on the side. Finally, the moon began to wane, the music died away, and the lights went out. The ‘night’ was over and the owners all went back to their own houseboats. We felt relaxed and happy. It had been an evening filled with gay social contacts, delicate dishes, and easy kisses.”
The opening of the drawbridge each April to allow the arks to be towed out of Belvedere Cove is generally considered to be the original Opening Day on the Bay.
When the drawbridge became a fixed span and the arks could no longer shelter in the lagoon during the winter, this era began to come to end. Many of the remaining houseboats were put up on stilts and became cozy residences or rental cottages. Some were towed away to new locations in Sausalito or Larkspur.  Today, rows of beached Arks can be seen off Bridgeway near Bar Bocce in Sausalito and where Main Street turns uphill in Tiburon.

Opening Day, 1903.
Photo courtesy of Belvedere-Tiburon Landmarks History Collections

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