Sterling Hayden and Marin Railroads
By ROBERT L. HARRISON · DECEMBER 14, 2018
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Sterling Hayden (1916 – 1986) is best known as a Hollywood actor and was active from the 1940s to the early 1970s. Though he appeared in over 50 films and starred in about 30, he was far more than just an actor. Hayden was a war hero in World War II serving in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). He was also the successful author of an autobiography titled Wanderer and the novel Voyage: A Novel of 1896. However his true passion was the sea; he was an experienced sea captain with a master’s license.
Hayden was a complex individual, unable to settle down or find true satisfaction with his life. He was restless, always on the move, living in over thirty locales throughout his 70-year life. It was clear, however, that more than any other location, he found Marin County to his liking. He lived in both Sausalito and Belvedere at various points in time for a total of about 25 years.
On Christmas Day, 1955 Hayden bought the 96’ schooner Gracie S, named for Grace Spreckels, and renamed it Wanderer. In 1959 he sailed the Wanderer, with his four children on board, from San Francisco Bay to Tahiti. This move was in violation of a court order obtained by his ex-wife Betty Ann de Noon, the children’s mother. Hayden was given a suspended sentence for this move. He provided evidence of Betty’s infidelity during their marriage and was granted continuing custody of their children.
In 1960 Hayden married his third wife, Catherine Devine McConnell, and moved his new family into the former clubhouse of the Belvedere Country Club. While there, in his first contact with a Marin railroad, he rented an office in the Tiburon depot of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NWP). Fred Codoni, who worked for the NWP in Tiburon, met Hayden several times at the depot. Fred recalls “One Saturday he asked me to come along with him and several others on a sail to somewhere outside the Golden Gate. However, the tide was incoming and we never made it past the Golden Gate Bridge.”
Hayden used the office in Tiburon to begin writing his autobiography but soon realized he needed editorial help. June Osterberg, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, worked with him at the depot to produce a first draft of the Wanderer.
Following an abortive move to Nantucket, in 1962, Hayden and his family returned to Belvedere, and engaged again with railroading. He was in search of a caboose where he could have a private office to complete his autobiography. He did not find his caboose but instead rented one of the pilot houses on the ferryboat Berkeley. For about a year Hayden would row daily from his home in Belvedere to his office on the Berkeley. In 1962 the Berkeley, out of service since 1958, was docked at Sausalito and converted into a gift shop called the “Trade Fair.” Currently, the Berkeley serves as the main building of the Maritime Museum in San Diego.
Hayden had yet another connection with railroading in Marin. In 1965 while traveling cross country on the legendary California Zephyr, he met in Chicago with officials of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (CB & Q). Hayden expressed his ongoing interest in acquiring a caboose. They advised that no caboose was available but they did have a Pullman car for sale. The car, CB & Q No. 93, was a Pullman business car built in 1890. The quality of the interior furnishings were regarded as the finest of the day featuring brass beds, mahogany interior, silver sinks and faucets and an antique wood stove.
Hayden acquired the car, had it attached to a freight train and rode in it from Galesburg, Illinois back to Oakland. He moved No. 93 to a siding in Sausalito where he used the car for his office until 1968. His daughter Gretchen and her friend Peter Laufer used the car in Sausalito for three years. In 1971 they moved No. 93 to the Morgan Railcar Company in Greenbrae for refurbishment.
Morgan began efforts to refurbish it, including replacing the sashes and painting where needed, but in the midst of the work the car was seized by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) because Hayden had not paid his 1968 taxes. CB & Q No. 93 was scheduled for auction at the Morgan yard in June 1972. The auction was postponed when Hayden’s daughter Gretchen filed suit against the IRS alleging she, not her father, was the owner. The suit claimed it was in fact her mother who bought the car in 1965 and in turn gave it to Gretchen in 1971. The IRS rescinded the seizure after concluding the car’s value was not worth the cost of pursuing a court order.
The car remained with the Hayden family on the Greenbrae siding through the 1970s. The car’s existence since those years is not clear. Currently it is thought to be located in West Redding, California.
Hayden died in Sausalito on May 23, 1986. As reported by his close friend columnist Herb Caen, “We knew for months that Sterling was dying, but, to borrow the excruciating last words of another great friend, Bill Saroyan, we thought an exception would be made in his case. Sterling had cancer, but he was bigger than life and would beat it, somehow, some way.”
That CB & Q No. 93 had great meaning for Hayden as became evident in 1984, less than two years before his death. He wrote in his diary, “Oh the magic of that car! A schooner of the rails.” The quote is from the 2018 biography Sterling Hayden’s Wars by Lee Mandel.