Several years ago, Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson starred in a delightfully entertaining movie called The Bucket List, whose premise was that each man had a list of activities to be accomplished before he “kicked the bucket.” Celebrating the recent engagement of our son Rob to Katie, a lovely young California woman, provided the opportunity for a side-trip visit that involved completing an item on my own bucket list.
The former Mare Island Naval Shipyard, 25 miles northeast of San Francisco, was the site of the first U.S. Navy facility on the West Coast. The island is separated by the Napa River from the city of Vallejo, named in honor of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, who was a strong proponent of transforming California from a Mexican district into a U.S. state. One legend has it that the general was moving livestock across Carquinez Strait when one of his horses was washed to sea. The plucky mare swam ashore to save herself, landing on what was known as Isla Plana, or Flat Island, and thus gave a new name to the site.
The Navy bought the lot of land in 1853, three years after California joined the union. In 1854 Commander David Farragut, a future Civil War hero, established the Navy base. It remained in active service until shut down in 1996 as part of the base realignment and closure process. Over its long history as a shipyard, Mare Island supported the Fleet with both new construction and repair.
Among the more than 500 ships and craft built there was the collier Jupiter (AC-3), which was converted in 1920 to the Navy’s first aircraft carrier, the Langley (CV-1). The California (BB-44), the Navy’s only dreadnought-type battleship built on the West Coast, also had her origins on Mare Island. Captain Edward L. Beach, one of two officers for whom the Naval Institute’s Beach Hall is named, was commandant of the Navy yard at the time of the California’s launching in 1919. His son, Edward L. “Ned” Beach—then a toddler at Mare Island—later became a bestselling author.
In the mid-1930s the yard began specializing in submarines and built some of the great fleet boats of World War II, including Slade Cutter’s Seahorse (SS-304), Dick O’Kane’s Tang (SS-306), and Dudley “Mush” Morton’s Wahoo (SS-238). In the nuclear era, Mare Island built and serviced both attack and ballistic-missile submarines.
In the years since the shipyard closed, the area has become home to a number of government and commercial ventures, as well as a museum that celebrates its storied history. There was little evidence of activity when I visited early one Saturday evening. As I drove across the causeway to the island, no guard was there to question my presence. The days of tight security were long gone, as were the hustle and bustle of activity that marked the yard at its peak. During World War II, the yard’s workforce numbered some 48,000. When I was there, I saw perhaps half a dozen people, one of whom was a roving security man.
The setting sun reflected a golden glow off the buildings in the yard—many of them empty and deteriorating. Only in my imagination could I see those thousands of people who had worked there or could I hear the noises of a shipyard: trains moving equipment around, steam whistles, the sound of hammers driving rivets home, the shouts of men trying to be heard above the clamor. The quiet I encountered was pervasive. Large graving docks stood empty, and the dockside cranes served as mute, now-immobile sentries.
Fascinating for me was seeing the physical objects that served as representatives of different eras of naval warfare. The museum building, formerly a pipe shop, bears the date of 1855, the year after the facility opened. On the side of the building is a banner urging that the Spanish-American War cruiser Olympia be brought to Mare Island, though the fund-raising challenge makes that goal a long shot. Anchors and anchor chain lie nearby. One anchor is purportedly from the steam sloop-of-war Hartford, Farragut’s flagship at Mobile Bay in 1864.
One artifact that particularly caught my attention was the after end of an old naval gun next to the museum. Most of the barrel had been chopped off, leaving only a few feet of the weapon, including the intact breech mechanism. My impromptu fingertip-to-elbow measuring device indicated a bore diameter of 18 to 19 inches. A subsequent call to Barbara Davis, a volunteer librarian and tour guide for the museum, told me it had been a 16-inch gun when the rifled liner was in it. Over the years the yard re-gunned a number of battleships.
Among other items I saw were the detached sail from the nuclear submarine Mariano G. Vallejo (SSBN-658), built in the yard in the mid-1960s; a Polaris ballistic missile; SubRoc antisubmarine missile; torpedoes; cannon from the Hartford and from the 1814-built Independence, the Navy’s first ship-of-the-line; the World War II landing craft LCS-102, reacquired after service in the Royal Thai Navy; the bell from the screw sloop Wachusett, which Commander Alfred Thayer Mahan brought to the yard in 1885 for decommissioning; and a 55-millimeter Hotchkiss revolving cannon from the Thetis, a wooden-hulled, Scottish-built whaler that served in the late 19th century and early 20th in the Navy and the Revenue Cutter Service.
In checking off this bucket-list item and seeing all those old treasures, I felt like the proverbial kid in a candy store.