Western Trips

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Mare Island

mare island museum
On the far north shore of San Francisco Bay, adjacent to the city of Vallejo California, is a living piece of western history. If you're heading up to the Napa Valley wine country from the east bay area you may very well pass right by it. The place is Mare Island California and today it is on the National Register of Historic Places. When visiting the San Francisco Bay area you may just want to add this historic old naval shipyard to your California vacation or wine country trip planner. Many veterans of the Navy no doubt have heard of Mare Island and some may have spent time on duty there. What is certain is that a stop on the island will be a rewarding experience for all who wish to know more about naval operations on the U.S. west coast that spanned over a century.

Mare Island Naval Shipyard has the distinction of being the very first United States Navy Base and naval shipyard established on the Pacific Coast. The history of this island goes way back in time. The Spaniards explored the island in 1775 and the Rancho Suscol, which it was named, was granted to General Mariano Vallejo in 1844. Vallejo was a big Mexican military figure during the last years of Mexican rule. The city directly to the east of Mare island, Vallejo California, is named after the general.

The U.S. Navy actually purchased the land at Mare Island in 1853 and went ahead and constructed a naval shipyard there in 1854. This would have been just a few years after the Mexican American War where the U.S. took control of California. The shipyard was used for both construction and repair. In fact, for over one hundred years, Mare Island was a U.S. Navy shipyard. Dry docks were built during the last half of the 1800's, one sized over 500 feet long and another over 700 feet. Another interesting fact I think not widely known was that Mare Island was called on to dispatch vessels in the late 1800's to the northwest during Native American uprisings. This gives you a good idea of the history attached to this piece of land on the north side of San Francisco Bay. At the time, Mare Island was considered the largest of all naval shipyards in the world.

mare island california drydock
Mare Island dry dock
Another little bit of Mare Island Shipyard history has to do with a munitions explosion that occurred there in 1917. The blast killed six. This was during World War One and the explosion actually was found out to be an act of sabotage perpetrated by a German agent by the name of Lothar Witzke. Witzke was tracked down and arrested in Nogales Arizona on the Mexican border. he was also working with another German agent named Kurt Jahnke. As it turned out, Witzke and some others were also involved with an explosion in 1916 in the new York harbor which killed four. The New York explosion was so big that people as far away as Philadelphia reportedly heard it. needless to say, Lothar Witzke was tried and sent to prison for sabotage. If Witzke had been successful in getting into Mexico he may have been safe. Germany was making many inroads with the Mexican government during the war and could have easily reached a safe house there. Witzke was sentenced to death for his actions but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by president Wilson in 1920. After many requests from the new German gevernment, Witzke gained his freedom in 1923 and was immediately deported back to Germany.

mare island california shipyard
Shipyard buildings and equipment
To be sure, Mare Island California was one of the navy's largest and busiest shipyards. To give you an idea of the size of this facility, the shipyard was originally designed to repair and paint six to eight large naval vessels at a time. Two dry docks were built in the 1800's. In the future, by the year 1941 a third dry dock was built and another one was being constructed. The job of Mare Island was to essentially help build and maintain the U.S. Navy's Pacific fleet.

At Mare Island during the 1930's there were about 6,000 workers. Estimates are that there were up to 50,000 workers assigned there during the Second World War. In fact, the amount of workers during World War Two became so large and the available housing so scarce that what was considered the world's largest bus system was put in operation at Mare Island traveling some 800,000 miles per month.  Mare Island Shipyard was kept busy repairing ships that had been damaged during the war in the Pacific. This included not only U.S. vessels but also Royal Navy ships and Soviet Union vessels. Both surface ships and submarines were serviced at the base. During the life of this shipyard, 1854 to 1996, over 500 vessels were constructed there including nuclear submarines. In addition, the shipyard repaired over 1,000 vessels.

The size of boats and ships built at Mare Island were a variety of larger and small. The small ferryboat Pinafore was constructed there which operated between Mare and and Vallejo for thirty years. The larger of the vessels included the battleship U.S.S. California. During World War Two, Mare Island was responsible for the building of 17 submarines, 4 submarine tenders, 31 destroyer escorts, 300 landing craft and 33 small craft. In the year of 1943 alone, Mare Island built 18 destroyer escorts in just nine months. An absolutely enormous amount of wartime production. In regards to repairing vessels, Mare Island handled some 274 ships during 1942 alone. By 1944, damage repair work totaled some 4.3 million man days of work. It has been reported that twenty-two Mare Island built or refurbished submarines were responsible for the sinking of over 250 enemy ships. Nuclear submarine construction went on during the 1960's with the first completed sub the U.S.S. Sargo. The last nuclear sub built at Mare Island was the U.S.S. Drum which was launched in 1970.

See our Western Trips article on the Last Remaining Salt Water Paddlewheel Tugboat.

mare island shipyard officers quarters
Mare Island Commandant's Quarters
The historic artifacts at old Mare Island Shipyard are today maintained by the Mare Island Historic Park Foundation. The foundation cares for four of the shipyards most historic structures. This includes St. Peter's Chapel built in 1901, officers Quarters A and Quarters B and Building 46 which was built in 1855 and now serves as the artifacts museum. The effort of the Mare Island Historic Park Foundation is ongoing. Work continues to create displays and acquire historic vessels. According to the Foundation, the master plan is to recover, as much as possible, Mare Island's history plus the operating character of the shipyard and make it available to scholars and other interested individuals and groups.

The Mare Island Historic Park Foundation state that their educational and museum projects aim to represent many of these activities in a meaningful and living way. The museum is located at 1100 Railroad Avenue on Mare Island. Their main phone number is 707-557-1538. The numbers to arrange tours are 707-644-4746 or 707-280-5742.

I believe you'll find a side trip to Mare Island California a very interesting and historically enlightening stop. Mare Island's location on the extreme northern side of San Francisco Bay allows it to be a fine addition to your Napa Valley or Sonoma Valley wine tour.

(Photos are from author's private collection) 

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