The Ferry Vallejo had a choppy history until recently. Originally a passenger ferry in Portland, Oregon in the late 19th century, the old paddle-wheeler was no longer needed after the construction of a bridge there in 1888 (sound familiar?). Following years of idleness, she was transported to San Francisco Bay, renamed the Vallejo, and eventually put into service transporting shipyard workers and visitors between the city of Vallejo and Mare Island.
In 1947, the ship was sold for scrap and scavenged for her brass and other metals. Sausalito’s waterfront don, Donlon Arques, acquired the hulk and beached her off Gate 5 Road to be broken up, like so many other abandoned ferries. But the Vallejo escaped that fate in 1949, when she was purchased by artists Gordon Onslow Ford and Jean Varda (for $500 down and payments of $60 a month, as the story goes). They remodeled the Vallejo using materials left over from Marinship. In 1961, Onslow Ford moved on, leasing his share of the boat to Alan Watts, a Zen Buddhist and founder of the “Society for Contemplative Philosophy.”
The cerebral Watts and the sybaritic Varda may have seemed like the original Odd Couple, but they became fast friends, and their parties aboard the Vallejo were legendary. The old ferry found new life as the epicenter of Sausalito’s bohemian waterfront scene until Varda’s death in 1970. Watts moved to Druid Heights on Mt. Tam, where he died three years later.
Abandoned, the old ferry deteriorated badly as it was passed from owner to owner, but eventually it was restored. Today, the current owners have resurrected the Varda legacy by creating an unconventional artists’ residency in his name. This project is described on the website artsy.net .
To learn more about Jean Varda, try the book Varda, by local author Betsy Stroman. It can be ordered through the Sausalito Foundation, or picked up in person at the Ice House Museum and Visitor Center, 780 Bridgeway.
For additional media coverage of our community, check out The Life Aquatic in C Magazine, with excerpts from the book Floating in Sausalito by Lars Åberg and Lars Strandberg. There’s an article about a Liberty Dock home at www.7×7, and another about the $3,000,000 home on A Dock in Dwell Magazine.