In mid-1975, in the Marin Scope, local historian Jack Tracy published two of a planned three-part series on the history of Sausalito’s public schools. But a careful search of the paper through the rest of the year failed to locate a third installment. Apparently Tracy’s survey remained confined to the town’s early schools, where Sausalito’s children of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were educated.
Although it’s hard to visualize Sausalito in the 1860s as having anything so institutional as a school house, the fact is that it did. The first school here was located on West and Main streets near the creek and had a view of Shelter Cove. An annual report on the “common schools” of Marin County in 1867 listed it as the official public school of Saucelito (the area we call Old Town today carried that spelling in those years). Its student body totaled 28 boys and 34 girls.
The school year lasted for about eight months, give or take a month, depending on the whim of the teacher. The school library was valued at $30. No known picture of the school has been found, but it’s very possible that the building now standing in that location is part of the original structure. The last recorded entry of the Saucelito School was made in 1884.
In 1870, two years after the Sausalito Land and Ferry Company purchased New Town from the estate of Captain William A. Richardson, another school house, called Richardson School, sprang up on “Hannon’s Hill,” roughly between what is now Bridgeway and Filbert, off Napa Street. (That structure still stands today and is being restored by its present owner.) Children came from as far away as Fort Cronkhite to attend classes, most of them by mule or horseback. Testimony that they were a hardy bunch appears in a geography book recently acquired by the Sausalito Historical Society that once belonged to Maggie Hannon. In it she boldly wrote: “Don’t steal this book for fear of life, for the owner owns a big jack knife.”
From the late 1870s, increasing numbers of railroad and ferry men brought their families to live in Sausalito. And as more families came, more children needed to be educated, and more school facilities were required in north Sausalito, where the bulk of the new population was centered. The original Richardson School closed its doors around 1888, and a larger school building (bearing the same name) was constructed in New Town.
The new Richardson School, largely financed with an $8,000 bond issue, was built where the Sausalito Civic Center stands today. The building was a classic Victorian of that period: two stories, three classrooms on each floor. A second bond issue was passed in 1889, raising the $2,500 needed for completion of its upper story. This school, later called the Central School, taught most of the children of Sausalito from 1888 to 1926.
In 1926, it was moved on wooden rollers down the hill to lower Litho Street; then, following one more year as a school, it became a commercial building. (With considerable alterations, it exists today, housing Waterstreet Hardware on its Caledonia Street side and, until recently, Town & Country Billiards on its Bridgeway side.) In the meantime, with the passage of another bond issue, a new Central School rose on the old one’s original site, in the block between Litho, Bonita, Bee and Caledonia. That building, with its neo-Spanish design, stucco walls and tiled roof — serving today as our City Hall — passed into city ownership in 1975.
Old Town had the same growing problems as North Sausalito, but they came along a little later. In 1904, a school bond made possible the South School, built on North Street between Third and Fourth streets on the site of what is now a playground and tennis courts. Dedicated in 1905 with elaborate orations by the citizenry, it boasted an imposing design: classic window treatment, a columned porch, and a prominent cupola. Ultimately condemned as a school building, it ended its days as a USO Club during World War II and later as a Boys Club. In 1959, the Army Corps of Engineers blew it to pieces in a practice maneuver.
From all appearances, Jack Tracy never completed his history of Sausalito public schools for the Marin Scope, hence the omission here of material on the Richardson Bay School (later Martin Luther King School) and Bayside School, both of which emerged in the mid-20th century at the far north end of town.