Mare Island is a peninsula in the United States alongside the city of Vallejo, California, about 23 miles (37 km) northeast of San Francisco. The Napa River forms its eastern side as it enters the Carquinez Strait juncture with the east side of San Pablo Bay. Mare Island is considered a peninsula because no full body of water separates this or several other named "islands" from the mainland. Instead, a series of small sloughs cause seasonal water-flows among the so-called islands. Mare Island is the largest of these at about 3.5 miles (5.6 km) long and a mile wide.
The Napa River widens and forms a harbor between Mare Island and the mainland.
In 1775, Spanish explorer Perez Ayala was the first European to land on what would become Mare Island - he named it Isla de la Plana. This area was part of Rancho Suscol, deeded to General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo in 1844. It became a waypoint for early settlers. In 1835, whilst traversing the Carquinez Strait, a crude ferry transporting men and livestock capsized in a squall. Among the livestock feared lost in the wreckage was the prized white mare of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, the Mexican Commandante for Northern California. Several days later, General Vallejo's mare was found on the island, having swum ashore. Grateful for the fortunate turn of events, he renamed the island to Isla de la Yegua, Spanish for Mare Island, in her honor.
In 1850 United States Navy Commodore John Drake Sloat led a survey party in quest of a logical site for the nation's first Pacific naval installation. Sloat recommended the island across the Napa River from the settlement of Vallejo, as it was "free from ocean gales and from floods and freshets."
On November 6, 1850, two months after California was admitted to statehood, President Fillmore reserved Mare Island for government use. The Navy Department acted favorably on Commodore Sloat's recommendations and Mare Island was purchased for use as a naval shipyard in July 1852 at a cost of $83,410. On September 16, 1854, Mare Island became the first permanent US naval installation on the west coast, with Commodore David Farragut, as Mare Island's first commander. For over a century, Mare Island was the Navy's Mare Island Naval Shipyard. The growing size and number of the country's naval fleet was making older facilities obsolete and led to increased building and refitting of shipyards nationally. In 1872 the US Public Works Department commenced construction of a 508-foot (155 m) drydock on the island, setting it on a foundation of cut granite blocks. The work was completed in 1891. A second drydock was begun in 1899, a concrete structure 740 feet (230 m) long set on wooden piles; it was completed in 1910. By 1941 a third drydock had been completed and drydock number four was under construction. The ammunition depot and submarine repair base were modern, fireproof buildings. A million dollar, three-way vehicle causeway to Vallejo replaced a ferry service.
Before World War II, Mare Island had been in a continual state of upbuilding. By 1941, new projects included improvements to the central power plant, a new pattern storage building, a large foundry, machine shop, magazine building, paint shop, new administration building, and a huge storehouse. The yard was expected to be able to repair and paint six to eight large naval vessels at a time. Several finger piers had recently[when?] been built, as well as a new shipbuilding wharf, adding one 500-foot (150 m) and a 750-foot (230 m) berth. It employed 5593 workers at the beginning of 1939, and rapidly increased to 18,500 by May 1941, with a monthly payroll of $3,500,000. In 1941, the drafting department had expanded to three buildings accommodating over 400 naval architects, engineers and draftsmen. The hospital had 584 beds.
In 1969 the Navy transferred its (Vietnam War) Brown Water Navy Riverine Training Forces from Coronado, California to Mare Island. Swift Boats (Patrol Craft Fast-PCF), and PBRs (Patrol Boat River) conducted boat operations throughout the currently named Napa-Sonoma Marshes State Wildlife Area, on the north and west portions of Mare Island. Mare Island Naval Base was deactivated during the 1995 cycle of US base closures, but the US Navy Reserves still have access to the water portions of the State Wildlife Area for any riverine warfare training being conducted from their new base in Sacramento, California.
During the latter years of Mare Island's military use, US Marines were trained for Security Management and Security Force Operations, including; F.A.S.T. (Fleet Anti-Terrorism Team), Security Guards, and Security Force Reaction Forces.
Restoration and reuse
In 1993 Congress approved the findings of the Base Realignment and Closure report, leading to the closure of Mare Island Naval Shipyard. The shipyard had long been the economic engine of the city of Vallejo, having reached an employment peak of 40,000 workers during World War II, and even employing 10,000 workers after scaling back in 1988. When Congress ordered the base closure, the shipyard employed 5,800 workers.
The vision of rebuilding Mare Island as a vital place where people lived and worked was a key goal in the base conversion planning process undertaken by the city of Vallejo in the early 1990s.
Preservation of many of Mare Island’s 661 structures and other cultural resources was an additional factor in the planning process. As the oldest shipyard and naval facility on the West Coast, the shipyard earned a National Historic Landmark designation by the federal government in 1975. In 1979 California listed the entire naval base as a State Historical Landmark. In 1999 the city of Vallejo added Mare Island to the National Register of Historic Districts with 42 individual city landmarks.
Finally, as with any restoration of an industrial, brownfield landscape, both city and government agencies required environmental review, toxics removal, and soil mediation before any new development and reuse.
In 1998, Vallejo contracted with Lennar Mare Island LLC to develop the island’s 5,657 acres (22.89 km2) into a multi-use community. Lennar contracted the Sausalito-based SWA Group to provide a Master Development Plan for Vallejo, additional historical research and landscape architectural services.
The final land-use plan SWA submitted to Vallejo in 2005 divided Mare Island into 13 zones, including a university district, and industrial zone, historic core, and residential neighborhoods. In addition, 78% of the island was set aside for wildlife habitat and wetlands, parkland and open space, and dredge ponds.
SWA’s site plan began with the island’s grid of small, tree-lined streets and extended them so that they terminate in dramatic views of the bay and river and a new public waterfront. The historic core was repurposed as a new town center with retail, entertainment attractions, and additional, higher-density housing. Other improvements included a new grove of Canary Island Palm trees and London Plane trees along the G Street corridor, one of two entry points on the island. This feature enhances a visitor’s sense of arrival and frames the long view of Mt. Tamalpais across the San Pablo Bay.
In 2007 Lennar finished construction on three new residential neighborhoods. Farragut Village, with 277 new homes in a site layout and landscape pattern designed by SWA Group, was the first completed neighborhood. Additional neighborhoods include Coral Sea and Kirkland Isle II. When all construction is complete, Mare Island will have 1,400 homes and condos, plus 7,000,000 square feet (650,000 m2) of commercial, retail, entertainment, and industrial space.
Mare Island’s new residents petitioned Lennar Corp. and the city of Vallejo to drop the dredge ponds, whose role had been to collect silt, drainage, and stormwater from the Napa River and the Bay, and instead restore that acreage to wetlands. The city and the developer agreed, and in January 2006, the land use plan was amended to add the Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve. An advisory board was appointed by the city to restore the 215-acre (0.87 km2) site into publicly accessible parkland.
Overall, the conversion and reuse of Mare Island will result in the 3,075 acres (12.44 km2) of protected tidal and nontidal wetlands providing wintering habitat for thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl. During the 2008 migrating season, thousands of people attended the three-day San Francisco Bay Flyway Festival in February on Mare Island. The event, which included an art show, exhibitors, and music, marked the annual return of more than a million shorebirds, ducks, geese, and hawks to the Bay Area.
Mare Island is accessed by State Route 37 on its north side, as well as by Interstate 80 via the Mare Island Causeway and Tennessee Street, a designated route.
For information on visiting Mare Island, see:
For information on the Historic Nature of Vallejo, see:
- Lott, A Long Line of Ships, pp. 117–206
- Lott, A Long Line of Ships, pp. 209–37
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- Blackman, Raymond V.B. Jane's Fighting Ships 1970-71. London: Jane's Yearbooks
- Lott, Arnold S., Lt. Comdr., U.S.N. A Long Line of Ships: Mare Island's Century of Naval Activity in California. Annapolis: United States Naval Institute, 1954 (available for purchase at the Mare Island Museum, 8th and Railroad)
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- Steffes, James, ENC Retired: Swift Boat Down- The Real Story of the Sinking of PCF-19. (2006) ISBN 1-59926-612-1
- Tillman, Barrett Clash of the Carriers. New York: New American Library, 2005. ISBN 978-0-451-21956-5
- 1941 Society of Naval Architects Bulletin, Harold W. Linnehan, writing as a visitor from Design section, Mare Island, California
- Holzer, T.L. et al. (2002). Comments on potential geologic and seismic hazards affecting Mare Island, Solano County, California [U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 02-425]. Menlo Park, CA: U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
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