Mare Island charts a new course

Long locked away from prying eyes, Mare Island is now a local treasure
The Sacramento Bee, May 20, 2002


The biblical phrase “to hammer swords into plowshares” has a nice, logical feel to it. And it’s a relatively simple operation: Once the hammering’s done, you hitch up a mule and start plowing.

But what if your “sword” is a 5,000-acre naval base that was in operation for nearly 150 years and built everything from Civil War sidewheelers to Cold War nuclear submarines?

What, then, are the modern industrial equivalents of “plowshares”? Particularly if your “sword” lies near some of the world’s most beautiful (and expensive) real estate?

For Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, the swords-into-plowshares transformation is an ongoing project. Since the base closed in 1996, it has become home to an osteopathic college, Touro University, as well as a collection of nonprofit, governmental and private business concerns.

It is also to be home to the Mare Island Artifacts Museum, a repository for the base’s vast collection of naval artifacts, which is scheduled to open late this year.

Groundbreaking for the 50,000-square-foot museum will be at 3 p.m. Wednesday, and the public is invited.

“Groundbreaking” is a figure of speech, since the museum will occupy a huge brick foundry built in 1855, where metal was hammered into the many parts of warships.

The museum will house thousands of items that have long been stored in a 25,000-square-foot warehouse on the base, says Ken Zadwick, president of the museum foundation.

“We’ve got everything from antique furniture to books to cannons, christening bottles from ships, electron microscopes, stuff that goes back to the 1800s,” Zadwick says.

“There’s going to be a lot to see.”

There is already a lot to see on Mare Island, even in this relatively early stage in its transformation, and it is an easy, one-hour drive down Interstate 80 from Sacramento.

In fact, it is at this point, before the retrofits and redesigns are finished, that one can best see the oldest naval base on the West Coast as it once was.

The rectangular island, which measures 1 mile wide by 3 miles long, is approximately 5,500 acres, of which 1,650 are developed, the remaining acreage being mostly undeveloped wetlands. Some 670 acres of those wetlands are planned as a national wildlife refuge complete with an environmental research center run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, while the U.S. Forest Service has its regional headquarters on the island.

In addition, the California Conservation Corps has leased some buildings, and condominiums, an industrial park, a sports facility, Vallejo School District buildings and other nonmilitary uses are either under way or are in the planning stages.

For now, much of the island and the base is still in a state of comely disrepair. And while it may one day be a thriving center of the Vallejo area, right now it has a worn, overgrown and somewhat vacant feel that is as appealing as it is unlikely to last.

One way to see the island in its current state, and to get a vision of what it is planned to become, as well as its past, is to take one of the tours that are offered by the Mare Island Historic Park Foundation, which gives two-hour-plus tours to groups and individuals for $10 per person. Tours must be scheduled in advance by calling (707) 644-4746.

The tours are by minivan and are led by docents, many of whom once worked at the shipyards or elsewhere on the base, which employed as many as 44,000 people at its peak during World War II.

Joyce Giles is one such tour guide. She took us around the base on a recent sunny, windswept April day, with views of Mount Tamalpais to the west and the hills of the city of Vallejo to the east.

In leading the tour, Giles is a font of trivia, mentioning that the radio station out on the wetlands that dominate the western half of the long, rectangular island was where news of the attack on Pearl Harbor was first heard on the mainland. She is also careful to note the existence in the same wetlands of the salt marsh harvest mouse.

Elsewhere, there’s Building 627 (there are more than 1,100 buildings on the island), where in 1945 the component parts of the atomic bomb were stored on the way to being dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.

On a lighter note, Giles notes that another site, Building 657, was where the Dustin Hoffman film “Sphere” was filmed. During a brief period in the mid-’90s, a number of Hollywood films were shot here, including “Flubber,” “What Dreams May Come,” “Patch Adams,” “Metro,” and even episodes of “The X-Files.”

There is also an 18-hole golf course built in 1892. The golf course, open to the public, is part of the expansion plan of the southern part of the island, which is planned as a regional park.

But it is still the history of the place that can take a visitor by surprise. For instance, Giles notes that a particular site was involved in “the Korean campaign.” Not the Korean War of the early ’50s, but the Korean campaign of 1871, in which U.S. gunboats invaded the “Hermit Kingdom” and a number of U.S. soldiers died.

And other drive-by tidbits are fun: Those buildings with all the metal poles around them are ammunition buildings, and the poles are lightning rods, placed there for very practical reasons.

The tour isn’t particularly unified or thematic, and some of the places that sound most interesting – a room where submarine commanders used to practice their craft – are tantalizingly close, yet off-limits.

But one does get a sense of the place. And the places one can actually visit can be interesting. The commander’s mansion on Officer’s Row, a string of large houses just next to the dockyards, are elegant – one house features woodwork entirely of birds-eye maple – but have yet to be returned to their full glory in terms of furnishings.

St. Peter’s Chapel, a lovely wooden structure at the end of Officer’s Row, is stunning, full of carved wood, decorative medallions and dedications to a variety of soldiers and families whose histories intersect with the island. Built in 1901, it also features 16 stunning Tiffany windows, signed by the master glassmaker himself.

The island’s history is easy to picture with so much of the base still undisturbed. Unlike the nearby Kaiser Shipyards at Richmond, Mare Island’s four dry docks still exist, giving visitors a sense of the process of shipbuilding that is foreign to most people born after World War II.

And those dry docks have ties to the Sacramento area, as well. The granite used to build the first dry dock came from a quarry near Rocklin in the 1870s. It took 13 years to build, says Giles.

People, too, came from the Sacramento area to work in the shipyards, she adds. “I knew people who commuted here from Rancho Cordova,” she says. “Greyhound used to run buses here from up to 75 miles away.”

As she implies, Giles’ own family history is tied up with Mare Island. She worked in military personnel, her husband worked in a machine shop and later as a nuclear inspector, and her brother was a pattern maker.

Right by the dry docks, in the old coal “shed” – actually, a huge 19th century industrial brick building – has been turned into artists studios, called Coalshed Studios. Well-known mobile maker Timothy Rose is among the tenants.

The spirits of the past claim the greatest presence here. Giles notes that one wing of the old hospital, now part of Touro University, is said to be home to a ghost.

The dry docks stand ghostly and empty now, though they produced some 513 ships of all descriptions. Part of the plan, says Giles, is to place the USS Drum, the last submarine built at Mare Island, back in dry dock for the enjoyment of visitors.

As with much of the island, that’s just a vision. But it is a vision that its backers hope will make Mare Island a bustling tourist destination. For now, it is a bit of a ghost town, and all the more evocative for it.

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