Situated at the top of San Pablo Bay is a low lying island. For at least two thousand years it was home to the native Patwin tribe, who were culturally part of the Miwok-Costanoan group. In 1775, the Spanish explorer, Don Felix Ayala, named the island Isla Plana, or “Flat Island” and claimed it for King Carlos II of Spain. Later, the island became part of Mariano G. Vallejo’s Rancho Suscol. It was Vallejo who renamed the island in 1835 after a prized white mare of his ended up on the shore after a ferry, carrying the mare capsized in the Carquinez Straits. From then on, the island was know as “Isla de la Yegua” or Mare Island.
At the end of the Mexican War, the US Navy wanted a base and a shipyard for its Pacific Fleet. In 1852, a naval commission lead by Commodore John D. Sloat, suggested that the government purchase Mare Island for use as a shipyard. On January 4, 1853, the Navy purchased 956 acres of Mare Island and on September 16, 1856, under the command of Commander David Glasgow Farragut began operations as the first United States Naval Base on the Pacific Coast. The first ship launched at Mare Island was the USS Saginaw, a paddle wheel steamer. Over the next 142 years, 513 vessels would be built at the shipyard and 1,227 would be repaired or overhauled. At its height during World War II, Mare Island Naval Shipyard employed 48,000 workers including 9,000 women and was one of the largest shipyards in the country.
Mare Island is the site of the first naval hospital on the West Coast, which began in a granary in 1869. The first hospital building was built from 1869-1871 and opened in 1871. It operated until 1898, when a massive earthquake rendered the buildings unusable. A new hospital was built on the foundations of the old and opened in 1901. In the 1930’s the hospital became world renowned for its expertise in crafting artificial limbs and during World War II thousands of wounded servicemen were treated there. The hospital buildings are now owned by Touro University. Another first is the Naval Cemetary, the first on the West Coast. Francis Scott Key’s daughter is buried there as are several Medal of Honor recipients and six Russian sailors who died while fighting a fire in San Francisco.
Mare Island is also the home of St. Peter’s Chapel, built in 1901, the oldest military chapel on the West Coast which contains the largest collection of Tiffany stained glass windows west of the Mississippi River. Drydock #1, on Mare Island is one of the oldest dry docks on the West Coast and is still in use, operated by Mare Island Dry Dock, LLC. Finally, there is Mare Island Golf Course, the oldest golf course west of the Mississippi. It is currently closed. On one side note, Mare Island was the site where the radio transmission from Pearl Harbor announcing the attack was received on the West Coast.
Among the historic ships which were built at mare Island are the battleship USS California, the destroyer USS Ward, which was built in 171/2 days and holds the record for being constructed in the least amount of time of any modern vessel and was the first US naval vessel to attack the enemy at Pearl Harbor, the USS Jupiter, which was later converted into the first United States aircraft carrier, the USS Langley and the USS Tang, which sank the second highest number of enemy ships of any submarine in World War II. In 1964, the bathyscaphe Trieste II was also built at Mare Island.
Today, Mare Island is home to several facilities including a Veteran’s Administration Clinic, Touro University, Mare Island Drydock, a US Forest service facility, a light rail repair facility, a brewery and a few others. The streets which once thronged with shipyard workers are largely silent but there are two museums which allow you to have a glimpse into Mare Island’s historic past. The first is the Mare Island Museum, 1100 Railroad Avenue, housed in the old smithery, an original building from 1855. The museum has many exhibits on Mare Island history and shipyard life. There are tours of St. Peter’s Chapel and other historic buildings available. The museum’s hours are from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm Monday through Friday and from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm on Saturdays. The museum’s fee is $5.00 and the phone number is (707) 557-4646. Their website is www.mareislandmuseum.org
The second is the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum which has many artifacts from Mare Island and exhibits about the shipyard and the city of Vallejo. One of its crown jewels is a working periscope. The museum is located at 734 Marin Street in Vallejo. Its hours are from 12-4, Tuesday through Friday and 10-4 on Saturday. The cost is $5.00 for adults, $3.00 for students and seniors and children under 12 are free. Their phone number is (707) 643-0077 and their website is www.vallejomuseum.net
After visiting Mare Island you may have worked up a bit of a thirst. The Mare Island Brewing Company operates a tap room in the Vallejo Ferry Building, 289 Mare Island Way, Vallejo. The tap room is open daily from 11:30-10:00. Besides their craft beer there are food offerings as well. For more information visit their website at www.mareislandbrewingco.com.
If beer is not your beverage of choice, there is also Moschetti Coffee. Moschetti operates a cafe located at 925 Marin Street, Vallejo with exellent coffee choices and a bistro style menu. They are open from 7:30 am until 2:00 pm Tuesday through Saturday. The phone number is (707)731-0541. They also have a roasting facility at 11 Sixth Street, Vallejo which is open from 9:00 am until 5:00 pm, Monday through Friday and 9:00 am to 1:00 pm on Saturday. Moschetti hosts a free coffe tasting on Saturdays at the roasting facility. The number there is (707) 556-9000. You may run into Brother Erik Keilholtz at Moschetti. Don’t forget to say Hi!