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Mare Island History

Celebrating 154 Years…

General Vallejo

As the first United States Naval installation on the west coast, Mare Island and the now closed Mare Island Naval Shipyard have seen it all. From canvas to coal to oil to nuclear power, from sailing ships to steamers to nuclear-powered submarines, Mare Island has played an important part in American, Naval, and Vallejo history. According to legend, the island once known as Isla Plana got its current name from General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo himself. The story goes that one day some of General Vallejo’s animal stock was being moved across San Pablo Bay on a rickety old raft when a wind squall capsized it in the bay. One of the more prized passengers on board, a nameless old white mare saved herself by swimming ashore. She was discovered later living on the island. General Vallejo removed his horse and gave the island a new name, Isla de la Yegua, or Island of the Mare.

The military history of Mare Island began on January 4, 1853 when the United States purchased the island for $83,491. In September of 1854, Commander David Glasgow Farragut and his family arrived on the island. Farragut had been sent west to personally oversee the building of a navy yard in support of the Pacific Squadron. Farragut later became a naval hero and our nation’s first Admiral for his victories at New Orleans, Vicksburg, and finally his capture of Mobile Bay during the Civil War. Although Farragut dreamed of building the first naval vessel to be constructed in the west, authorization for the ship was not received until after he left Mare Island in 1856. The USS Saginaw, a four-gun, wooden-hulled, steam-driven, side-paddle-wheel gunboat was launched March 3, 1859. The Saginaw was only the first of over 500 ships built at Mare Island Naval Shipyard during its 142-year history. The shipyard was also home to many other "firsts" in U.S. Navy and west coast history. Dry dock #1 was the first permanently constructed dry dock in the west. The dry dock, built with granite blocks, took 19 years to construct and was finished in 1891.

In late 1910, Mare Island was given the challenge of building a wooden landing platform on the cruiser Pennsylvania and thus created the Navy’s first aircraft landing deck. From this small "first" the mighty carriers of WWII evolved.

The collier Jupiter was launched at Mare Island in 1912 and was the first electrically driven ship in the U.S. Navy. After WWI, she was later converted into the aircraft carrier, the USS Langley. The Mare Island Naval Shipyard also converted the first ship in the Navy to operate on oil instead of coal, the USS Wyoming. Other notable Mare Island ships include the battleship California, the heavy cruisers San Francisco and Chicago, and the destroyer Ward. Mare Island’s only battleship, the USS California became an integral part of Vallejo’s history on the very day she was launched in 1919. As the largest ship ever built on the Pacific Coast slid into the water from Mare Island, the steel restraining cables gave way and the ship moved quickly across the channel to the Vallejo side of the Mare Island Strait before crashing into the Georgia Street Pier and swamping several small boats. Of all the ships built at the shipyard, the USS Ward is probably the most talked about. Built during WWI in a record 17 1/2 days, she is best known for firing the first shots of WWII for the United States when she sank a midget Japanese submarine just off the entrance of Pearl Harbor during the early morning hours of December 7, 1941. During the height of WWII the shipyard employed over 46,000 civilian and military personnel and served as one of the most important ship repair facilities for the Pacific Fleet. Battle damaged ships from the United States and Allied navies were brought to Mare Island to be repaired before being sent back to war. Mare Island entered the atomic age in 1954 by building the first nuclear submarine on the west coat, the USS Sargo. The shipyard went on to build a total of 17 nuclear-powered submarines, ending with the USS Drum in 1970. The City’s namesake, the USS Mariano G. Vallejo was built at Mare Island and launched on October 23, 1965. As the submarine slid down the ways, its decoration even included a huge sombrero on the boat. Although Mare Island did not build any additional ships in its final 26 years of service, it did continue its mission of "Service to the Fleet" as it repaired, dry docked, and overhauled nuclear submarines well into the 1990’s. The shipyard also aided our country during the cold war by equipping submarines to carry out top secret spy missions against the Soviet Union.

Another historical highlight of Mare Island is St. Peter’s Chapel. The Navy’s first interdenominational chapel was built at a cost of $5,000 and held its first service on October 6, 1901. It is the oldest Naval Chapel in the Pacific. Along with its bronze wall plaques and hand carved wood tablets in the ceiling, the true jewels of this chapel are its 29 stained glass windows. Designed by Tiffany Studios at the request of Chaplin Adam McAlister, 16 of the windows were produced and signed by the studio. These priceless windows represent one of the finest collections of translucent glass under one roof anywhere in the world. The Mare Island Naval Shipyard had a tremendous impact on Vallejo and the surrounding area for almost 150 years. When plans of its closure were announced, it still employed over 9,000 civilian workers. It was visited by no less the four sitting U.S Presidents, numerous Senators, Congressmen, Governors, and other heads of state. During the war years, many famous film stars, entertainers, and musicians also visited Mare Island to do their part for the war effort.

Spirit Ship (courtesy of Joyce Scharf)

In the spring of 1996, the shipyard officially closed its doors, thus ending 142 years of United States Navy history. And though the naval shipyard is gone, Mare Island is not. The City of Vallejo, in conjunction with private developers, has exciting plans for the three-mile long island. Many industrial, educational, recreational, residential and historical areas have been developed for the "new" Mare Island which will continue to evolve for years to come. Despite its change in use over the next few years, Mare Island will continue to serve Vallejo and the surrounding area in a variety of different ways. Time may pass but Mare Island will continue to remain in the memory of the hundreds of thousands that lived, served and worked there. It will be remembered always as an important place in the history and defense of our nation. The Mare Island Historic Park Foundation offers two-hour tours of Mare Island. St. Peter's Chapel is available for weddings as are two of the historic mansion's on Officer's Row. For more information, contact the Mare Island Historic Park Foundation at (707) 557-1538.