Several major features in the Sausalito-Marin City area of Marin County are named for Captain William Waldo. The most historic of these is Waldo Point, located at today’s Waldo Point Harbor. The Point was an arm of the land that extended out from the original natural shoreline into Richardson Bay. The locale near the Point became known as Waldo. As an 1869 map of the Sausalito Land and Ferry Company shows, there used to be a “paper” Waldo Street at the Point. And later, in 1884, the North Pacific Coast Railroad established the station named Waldo on its relocated mainline.
The name Waldo is also associated with several local highway features including the Waldo Grade, a 3.4 mile segment of Highway 101 that runs from Waldo Point to the Golden Gate Bridge. For many years the tunnel on the Waldo Grade was known as the Waldo Tunnel but it has recently been renamed the Robin Williams Tunnel, in honor of the local actor & comedian. In nearby Marin City, there is a Waldo Court.
This article describes William Waldo’s brief but significant contributions to early California. In 1849 Captain William Waldo (1812-1881) travelled to California from Missouri in command of a large well-equipped wagon train. Previously, he had been a merchant, river engineer and steamboat captain. On his journey to California he was presented with many forms of human suffering including the death of his eldest brother and a nephew. He became sympathetic to all those who chose this very difficult route and method of transport. Soon after his arrival he began to work with the Committee for the Relief of the Overland Emigrants. His role in this work was not only to organize and fund rescue parties, but when needed, to lead them to California through the Nevada desert and over the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Waldo was fully committed to his task. At the time of starting on his relief expedition in 1850 he was a wealthy and influential citizen of California. He was warned that the newly organized State of California would never fully repay him for his time nor his actual dollar outlay. He was reported as saying, “If the State refuses to indemnify me, let it go; I am willing and able to undertake the affair on my own responsibility.”
In reality, the California Assembly did offer a resolution for the relief of Capt. Waldo. The joint resolution was approved in January 1851 and bonds in the amount of $27,000 were eventually authorized to support Waldo’s relief expeditions. Bills were also introduced in the Missouri and Illinois legislatures as well as in Congress to recognize his unstinted personal effort to provide relief for the hundreds crossing the continent by wagon train.
His heroics were legendary. For example, at the Humboldt River in eastern Nevada, some 400 miles east of Sacramento, Waldo offered vital supplies and directions enabling settlers to complete their journey to California. On October 20, 1850, having understood that the last emigrant had passed, Waldo crossed the summit of the Sierra Nevada on his way back to Sacramento. He was overtaken by some Canadian packers who informed him that a number of emigrants were still trailing in the rear. In fact, the families had been out of provisions for weeks and were forced to eat any sort of nutrition including frogs and insects and as well as the family dog.
The mountains were covered with snow, and recalling the fate the Donner Party, Waldo was well aware of the perils of crossing the Sierra in late fall. He did not hesitate for a moment to cross the summit yet again where he met one of the families who had reached the Truckee River. The woman had nothing but a blanket and no provisions. Three days earlier she had given birth to a child. Both the husband and the wife were so desperately sick and hungry that they had laid down to die. Waldo had arrived with provisions in time and the party survived. The family was reported to have made it to Nevada County and later named their child “Truckee” in recognition of her birthplace at the River.
Waldo assisted many hundreds in completing their journey to California. Not surprisingly, knowledge of “his noble exertions in behalf of suffering humanity” grew rapidly in the newly formed State. A letter illustrates the respect he was shown. The letter included a donation from a woman known only as Madeline: “When I read the appeal of Capt. Waldo, my very soul was fired to assist the suffering, and having heard of the California gentleman placing so high an estimate on female society, I thought they surely would aid in assisting starving mothers with little children.”
As was reported in 1851, “There was at that period no name upon the Pacific slope around which the heart of the public gratitude and affection so clustered as that of William Waldo.”
Waldo’s wide spread fame and iconic reputation lead to his 1853 nomination for Governor of California. He ran on the Whig Party ticket where he faced the incumbent Democrat, John Bigler. His supporters were euphoric in their praise of their candidate. “For integrity and honesty beyond the power of money to purchase, Capt. William Waldo stands second – in the estimation of those who have known him longest and best – to no man in the State. The people of the State know and appreciate the noble qualities of the man and called him from the private walks of life to make him Governor of the State of California.”
An astonishing 82.5% of the statewide population turned out for the September 7, 1853 election, compared to a 30.9% turnout for the 2014 California Governor’s race. Waldo lost to Bigler 38,940 to 37,454 or 51% to 49%. San Francisco at the time was a Whig Party stronghold. Waldo was expected to gain a significant majority but the City’s results gave him only a 5 vote advantage. Waldo succeeded in Marin County 321 to 218 and in the nine county Bay Area 9,200 to 8,089. He also won in Sacramento and San Diego but lost in the rest of the State. A later investigation found he probably did receive the majority of votes statewide.
On November 15, 1853 Waldo left California by steamer to return to the mid-west where he turned his attention to business ventures and, later, the Civil War. In November 1881 he was killed by Indians at Sutherland Springs, Texas.
To honor him, a distinctive shoreline point in Marin County was named Waldo, perhaps by William A. Richardson, the owner from 1838 until 1856 of the Rancho Saucelito land grant which included Waldo Point. Richardson’s hacienda was about one mile south of the Point.
Hence, today Captain William Waldo is the namesake of not only Waldo Point but also Waldo Grade, the former Waldo Tunnel, and Waldo Court in Marin City.