Initially, Sausalito wanted to be identified with State Highway 101. However, over the course of just 50 years, it gradually distanced itself from that identity.
In the 19th century, Sausalito, along with San Rafael and Tomales, was one of the three most important towns in Marin County. It was an era when some considered the potential for a port at Sausalito north of the Golden Gate equal to San Francisco’s location to the south.
Sausalito’s importance was also recognized in 1909 when the first state highway system included the town in its route. State Route 1 was described as running from San Francisco, via ferry, to Sausalito and from there to Crescent City. Route 1, extending 371.2 miles, was the second longest route in the first state highway system.
The section of Route 1 from San Rafael through San Anselmo, down the Ross Valley and on to Sausalito was laid out as the State Highway on May 27, 1914. By September 1916, construction was completed on an 18-foot wide segment of the highway beginning at Larkspur, going over the Corte Madera Grade and ending at Sausalito’s northern limits.
Various improvements to this alignment of Route 1 were made over the next decade. Construction of the Redwood Highway over the current Highway 101 alignment from San Rafael to Sausalito was the next significant upgrade to Route 1. A section of the new alignment from San Rafael to Alto was opened in August 1930. The stretch from Alto to Manzanita over the Redwood Bridge opened in November 1931. The state highway -to a point about a quarter mile north of the Sausalito ferry terminals- was finished in 1934. A dispute among the Town Council, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NWP) and Caltrans over the right-of-way for this last 1/4 mile long “bottleneck” delayed completion until 1937, the year the Golden Gate Bridge opened.
Today, the gentle curves and grades of the divided four-lane state highway through Sausalito -named Bridgeway Boulevard in 1936- still exists from the north city limits to Napa Street. A narrower four-lane segment from Napa to San Carlos Streets was squeezed between the Northwest Pacific (NWP) right-of-way and Caledonia Street. The quarter mile from San Carlos Street to the ferry terminals remains as we see it today, just 45 to 60 feet wide with two running lanes, two parking lanes and sidewalks.
With the completion of the state highway from Sausalito north, the promise made in the original 1909 statewide highway plan to run Route 1 from San Francisco, through Sausalito, to northern California was fulfilled. Yet, just as Sausalito celebrated the completion of the state highway into town, a new state highway was under construction that would pass through the hills above the town.
Sausalito had pushed hard to get the state highway connection to the ferry terminal. However, in an ironic turn, the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge completely altered the town’s position in the state transportation system. Now the town’s main concern was that the state highway would bypass Sausalito.
As reported in June 1934: “Sausalito is making a concerted drive to be included in the road system connecting the Golden Gate Bridge with the Redwood Highway and not be left out in the cold to become a ‘forgotten city’.…” The Town Council adopted a resolution to support a road through Sausalito from the Bridge to the Redwood Highway at Waldo.
The four-lane state highway 1/4 mile north of the ferry terminals to the Fort Baker gate left a gap in the improved roadway of a little more than a mile. The route over this gap followed bits of five city streets including Water Street (renamed Bridgeway Boulevard in 1936), Richardson Street, Second Street, South Street and Alexander Avenue. It remains today as a series of narrow, curvilinear two-lane streets with right angle turns and steep grades.
A plan for a wide straight “rapid transit highway” through the town, including a viaduct along the shoreline from the Fort Baker Gate to the central area, had been proposed as the main line to the Bridge. The intention was to eliminate the need for the Waldo Grade route through the hills above Sausalito. An alternative to the viaduct was proposed in 1935 as a forty-foot wide roadway with limited curvature to be constructed along existing streets. However, neighbors opposed the proposal to widen the streets -possibly the first of several efforts to resist any project that would attract traffic through town.
In 1938 the Engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District asserted, “Sausalito has been by-passed and bottle-necked.” The Bridge District was an enthusiastic supporter of connecting the four-lane state highway (whose name was shortened to Bridgeway in 1938) with the Sausalito Lateral route to the Bridge. The District assumed that this would increase the traffic volume using the span. The Town Council worked with the District in support of the road through town into the 1940’s but did exclude heavy trucks from using Alexander Avenue.
Others joined in the promotion of a major highway through town as a conduit to the Bridge, stressing that the state highway over the Waldo Grade was too steep for trucks and buses and too dangerous due to fog. Caltrans, the builder of the $2 million plus ($35 million in 2017 dollars) Waldo approach to the Bridge, maintained that the approach was adequate and that no additional Bridge access routes were under consideration.
Sausalito residents grew ever more concerned regarding a route that would bring traffic through the town. By the mid-20th century most in Sausalito agreed they need not worry about the state highway bypassing the town. Of far greater concern was the high volume of traffic from the Bridge via Sausalito lateral and city streets. To reduce traffic entering the south end of town, the City asked that freeway signs for northbound Bridge traffic show the Sausalito exit at the north end of town. Further, the City requested the exit sign directly after the Bridge should be marked “Alexander Avenue” with no reference to Sausalito.
So we have what exists today: A freeway in the hills above town with signs designed to divert at least some traffic from Sausalito’s two-lane streets. The fact that the highway through Sausalito to the Bridge was never completed has resulted in Sausalito keeping its downtown to a human scale, making it the popular destination it is today.