- Historic California
Posts, Camps, Stations and Airfields
- Mare Island: A Navy Yard is Born
- by Mark J. Denger
- Gold was discovered in California in 1849
and the great stampede from the eastern shores reached across
the broad American continent. This sudden migration westward
made it immediately imperative for the United States Navy to
establish a base on the West Coast from which ships of the Pacific
Squadron could operate and at which they could be repaired.
In 1850, Commodore John Drake Sloat was ordered to lead a survey
party in quest of a logical site for the nation's first Pacific
naval installation. Sloat, who had claimed California for the
United States four years earlier at Monterey, recommended the
island across the Napa River from the little settlement of Vallejo
--Mare Island: It being "free from ocean gales and from
floods and freshets.".
In 1775, Don Perez Ayala, a Spanish explorer, was the first white
man to set foot on Mare Island, which he dubbed Isla de la Plana.
This long, low segment of land called Isla de la Plana was carried
on by the first settlers of the region. Legend, well founded
in fact, has it that the island's name was changed in 1835 when
a crude ferry, transporting men and livestock between land on
either side of the Carquinez Straits, was caught in a small squall
which caused several of the animals to panic, kicking the ferry
apart. Some of the animals swam to shore. Most of them, however,
were drowned. One prized white mare belonging to General Mariano
Vallejo, Mexican Commandante for Northern California, was found
several days later on Isla de la Plana. Vallejo renamed the "Isla
de la Yegua," meaning "Island of the Mare" or
It was in 1850, too, that the first California legislature accepted
General Vallejo's offer to locate the state capital at the new
city of Vallejo. The General was then serving as State Senator
from the region. Thus, the Charts prepared by Navy cartographers
in Sloat's surveying party bear the inscription "Site of
Vallejo, Seat of Government of California" opposite Mare
Island. However, California's government was seated there for
only a brief time, moving on to Benicia in 1853, and then on
to Sacramento a short time later. But the U.S. Navy remained
there for over 140 years.
In 1850, according to Land Records, the island was granted to
Victor Castro, who soon sold it for $7,000 to Vallejo's son-in-law,
John. B. Frisbee, and his partner, B. Simmons. In 1851, the partners
sold it to A.W. Aspinwall and G. W. P. Bissell for $17,500. Navy
Department officials acted favorably on Commodore Sloat's recommendations
and Mare Island was purchased in 1852 for $83,410.
That year, construction of the dry dock began in New York; it
being built in sections so that it could be dismantled and the
sections shipped around Cape Horn. By the fall of 1853, a basin
to hold the dry dock was completed and the dock was in place.
Until the Navy could take over, the crews were allowed to work
on private contracts. The first vessel to enter the dry dock
was the commercial steamer Pacific.
In 1854, Commander David Glasgow Farragut was ordered to assume
command of the Navy yard at Mare Island. Commander David Glasgow
Farragut arrived September 16, 1854, aboard the ship USS WARREN
and immediately took command of Mare Island and commenced the
creation of a naval base that would become the largest of its
kind in the nation.
Within days, the WARREN was towed from Sausalito to Mare Island
and was the first Navy ship to dock at Mare Island Navy Yard.
The boat was outfitted with living quarters and became home to
the Farraguts, Col. Daniel Turner and his family, and a few others.
A flagpole was erected and on October 3, 1854, the first hoisting
of the American flag took place with a 13-gun salute.
In 1855, the commandant's house, a large brick building, was
completed as living quarters for the Farragut family. Commander
Farragut departed Mare Island in 1858 to gain immortal fame at
Mobil Bay. His cry of "Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead"
shall always remain among the most cherished of American naval