Yvetot and Bay Ferries: The Leale and Johnstone Families
by Dewey Livingston
There are two historic homes in Inverness that share the same name and family origins. William and Lillie Leale built a house in First Valley in 1898 and their young daughter Elsie named it Yvetot-inspired by the tale about the King of Yvetot in France. Later, Elsie Leale Johnstone and her husband Bruce built a fine new house up the hill on Perth Way, in 1933, and took the name with them. Both the Leales and Johnstones are an interesting subject, making their mark not only on Inverness but also the greater Bay Area.
The Leale story is greatly enhanced by the donation of Jeff Craemer, of a 44-page Yvetot photo album made early in the twentieth century. The 182 captivating photos portray a happy and active way of life in the summer town of Inverness, as the extended Leale family gathered for their traditional three-month vacation season to enjoy swimming, boating, hiking, bicycling, and all the other popular pursuits reflecting summer life in West Marin. While not identified, it appears that the album was made and kept by one of Capt. and Mrs. Leale’s nieces, a daughter of Capt. Leale’s brother John.
Capt. William G. Leale was a noted figure on San Francisco Bay from the 1880s to the time of his death in 1917. He owned and operated ferries, most famously the paddle-wheel steamer Caroline, which served San Quentin Prison and also offered hundreds of memorable excursions around the bay for schoolchildren, city clubs, picnickers, and even the poor and imprisoned.
William Leale, born in Guernsey off the English coast, went to sea at a young age. He came to San Francisco Bay in 1865 where he sailed the China run on windjammers. Leale eventually settled down in the Bay as a pilot, boat owner, and excursionist. His brother Capt. John Leale was also a noted bay skipper in the South Bay, where he piloted the ferry Relief and the Southern Pacific ferry steamer Newark.
Capt. Leale’s steamer Caroline became a ubiquitous presence on San Francisco Bay. Caroline carried passengers and freight between various ports, but her captain’s love was taking groups of up to 150, of all ages, on excursions. For instance, in 1893 Leale took 100 members of the California Camera Club of the city on a memorable journey, as reported in the San Francisco Call. The first subjects for the “Kodak fiends” was Sausalito’s Richardson Bay, where “the gay yachts and sloops with their opening-day buntings and trimmings suffered tremendously,” according to the reporter who used terms of battle for shutter clicks. “As the Caroline passed the Pacific Yacht Club a salute was fired from the hilltop. This was the signal for the firing of the cameras. Every one of them was loaded for big game and every button was pressed or rubber ball squeezed at the moment the gun sounded. Then the Caroline steamed in among and around about all the holiday-attired crafts in Richardson’s Bay, and the plates and films were exhausted rapidly.” Mrs. Leale provided “an ample luncheon” for the throng of photographers as the boat steamed back to San Francisco. The Camera Club continued these excursions with Capt. Leale for decades.
W. G. Leale was known as “an inimitable storyteller” who was “letter perfect in dialects,” according to an article in the Oakland Tribune. “It was a delight to his many friends when he would consent to take part at club or other functions.” Rare among men of that era, Capt. Leale did not drink alcohol. “He never assumed that his abstinence was a virtue, or even mentioned it, and never criticized the habit in others. He was never heard to express an ill-opinion of anybody.”
Leale and his soon-to-be wife Lillie Banks started a summer camp on the Tiburon Peninsula around 1885, which became known as Camp Leale. As the San Francisco Examiner reported, “a few families united and formed a camping colony and pitched their tents in the immediate vicinity of California City, about three miles from Hilarita Station.” The group named its “charming and romantic retreat” Camp Leale in honor of the Captain, “who was chiefly instrumental in forming the humorous group.” Family members made lasting friendships, and many of the younger people formed the Hilarita Club, meeting every month in San Francisco off season.
Capt. Leale’s most important mission was providing transportation to the institution and prisoners at San Quentin for three decades. His steamer, Caroline, served the prison by bringing supplies and shipping products produced there by convicts. But he also took an interest in rehabilitation. The Examiner reported that “many a man discharged from that penitentiary was given a lift back to livelihood by the mariner [Leale].” Capt. Leale took many of his excursions and special event voyages to anchor off the prison. He hosted the children of the San Quentin District School on annual May Day boat excursions. Occasionally the San Quentin Band would board Caroline and play for the guests.
Capt. Leale helped in the mounting of a San Francisco play, “Alias Jimmy Valentine” at San Quentin in 1911, transporting chairs, sets and actors free of charge. “It was the first time in the history of American prisons that a bona fide theatrical company had taken its scenery into a prison and presented a real play,” wrote Donald Lowrie in My Life Out Of Prison. “The steamer Caroline transported the actors both ways, thus enabling them to get back to San Francisco in time for the regular evening performance.”
Capt. Leale also paid special attention to the poor and sick. “Although the Caroline was a busy boat Captain Leale never allowed business to stand in the way of turning his steamer over to poor children at frequent intervals during the summer,” reported the San Francisco Call in 1907. “The little wards of orphan asylums, free kindergartens and kindred institutions have enjoyed many a delightful cruise on the roomy stern wheeler.”
Leale lost the San Quentin run in 1913, being outbid for the contract. The Examiner reported the news thusly: “The whistle of the bay steamer Caroline, which has increased the heartbeats of the inmates of San Quentin Prison three times a week for the last thirty years, is to be quieted-at least as far as San Quentin is concerned.” The writer noted that Leale “knows by name every ripple on the bay between the San Quentin and San Francisco shores.” He served as the head of the U. S. Shipping Board in San Francisco. Leale retired in 1916 and a year later, Caroline burned off Sausalito.
As for Camp Leale on the Tiburon Peninsula, the landowners reportedly evicted the club, leading the Leales to look for another place of peace and beauty. Mrs. Leale tried Carmel but found the ocean “too cold for swimming,” according to her daughter’s husband. Then, she found Inverness. The Leales bought three adjacent lots from Julia Shafter Hamilton in 1898 and 1899. Here, in the central part of First Valley, the couple built a shingled summer house and bestowed upon it the name Yvetot.
Mrs. Leale’s brother, San Francisco architect William O. Banks, designed the simple house, and the Leales chose a local contractor, Frank Giubbini, to build it. Basically a cabin, it had an open porch the length of the house, with a rustic railing fashioned of branches collected in the local woods. A fireplace warmed the family and their guests on foggy nights. Leale liked berries and planted “rows and rows” of blackberries in his yard, according to grandson Alan Johnstone in an oral history. Capt. Leale enjoyed sailing on Tomales Bay in his sloop that he called Scout.
In 1905 Elsie Leale married prominent Chicago attorney F. Bruce Johnstone, who had met her when he visited Inverness two years before. The couple settled in Chicago but returned to Inverness every summer. Three generations of the family spent summers at Yvetot, bringing with them supplies for the summer-long stay. “My mother would buy cases of groceries and have them shipped up by freight to take care of us for groceries for the summer,” recalled Johnstone. “Probably for a week after we arrived, we were surrounded by cartons and would have to unload those and put them in the pantry.”
The early summer afternoon of arrival in the 1920s was momentous, with travel on the ferry to Sausalito, train to Point Reyes Station, and auto stage to Inverness. “We were in Inverness, so tired but happy,” Johnstone recalled. “We would run down to the store to get some bacon or some milk or something and have a snack, and pile into bed. And the next morning, life in Inverness began.”
While life in Inverness involved a lot of swimming, boating, and play, there was also a lot of work to get the houses ready after nine months of virtual abandonment. “The first thing we had to do was dig out the lawn furniture, probably from the open back porch, get the fixed windows out and get the screens in, of course make up all the beds, clean up all the mice nests and get the bats out. And, last but more important than that, you had to dig the garbage pit, because all our garbage went into the ground.”
“Moving in was a full time job. You had to arrange to get the milkman to deliver the milk, which came from McConnell’s ranch. You had to meet with the vegetable man who came with his horse and wagon twice a week. They had beautiful home grown vegetables, and we would stock up with those. We had to make arrangements with Hom to have the laundry picked up, and he came around in a horse and wagon, too. We had to get wood for the stove, to cook on, and kerosene for the lamps.”
“One of the most important things, and it was the last thing, we had to go down to Brock’s boathouse and be sure that the boat and the outboard were ready to go to the beach.”
Lillie Leale died in 1915; her obituary stated that her “greatest delight was to chaperon the kiddies” on her husband’s excursions. Capt. Leale died in July of 1918 at 72, after more than 50 years in command of San Francisco bay ships, boats and ferries. Lillie and the Captain’s family continued to enjoy their Inverness retreat, spending summers there for decades before his daughter Elsie settled in the small town for good. Elsie and her husband, Bruce Johnstone, built a new house-shingled like the family place-in 1933 and called it Yvetot. After Bruce retired in 1941, they moved in full time, selling the original Yvetot to their son, Alan.
Bruce Johnstone jumped into Marin civic duty in the 1940s. A lifelong conservationist-he counted among his friends Stephen Mather, Horace Albright, and Gilbert H. Grosvenor-he, in conjunction with the Marin Conservation League, was a main mover in the creation of Tomales Bay State Park in the late 1940s, saving that beautiful area from development. Johnstone served on the Marin County Planning Commission and was active in Inverness issues; he took credit for establishing Greyhound Bus service to West Marin and many other good deeds. Elsie was active in her dear Inverness as well.
The photo album, however, covers an earlier era: one before automobiles, electricity, and indoor plumbing. The wonderful images in the album will be digitized and posted on the Anne T. Kent California Room website in the future, but until that task is completed, enjoy these few pictures from circa 1898–1910.
Originally published at https://annetkent.kontribune.com.