California State Military Department
The California Military Museum
Preserving California's Military Heritage
California Naval History
The Navy in California
 
by
Ruthella Schultz Bollard
Transcribed with Editorial Notes by WO1 Mark J. Denger, California Center for Military History

As the year 1996 marked the closure of California's oldest Navy Ship Yard, it is appropriate to remember the Mare Island Naval Ship Yard and the contributions it made to California and its Naval Battalion. The following article entitled, The "Navy in California," by Ruthella Schultz Bollard was first published in The Californian, 1891-1892, Vol. I, pp. 293-303, and provides us with a rare historical look at the early workings of the Mare Island Navy Yard and just what role it played on the Pacific coast.
Comparatively few outside of its immediate vicinity, in fact, scarcely any but "navy people," know exactly how the navy yard of the Pacific Coast is situated. The are also, as a matter of course, several other things that only navy people know. None but they, for example, know how important a factor of the body politic navy people are.

But (to return to the subject that at present demands our attention) the ideas of Americans in general as to the location of their own naval establishments are certainly either very vague or altogether erroneous.

Let it be understood, then, that the San Francisco Navy Yard is located on Mare Island; the New York Yard at Brooklyn; the Philadelphia Yard, on League Island; the Norfolk Yard, at Portsmouth, Va.; the Boston Yard, at Charlestown; that of Portsmouth, Me., at Kittery; while those of Washington and Pensacola are where their names would indicate.

The San Francisco Navy Yard, the only one as yet established on the Pacific Coast, is located on an island which, lying along the eastern side of San Pablo Bay, is separated by a narrow strait from the mainland, and is directly opposite the charmingly situated town of Vallejo.

This island, which is twenty-six miles distant from San Francisco, is two miles and a half long, with an area of about a thousand acres, and an altitude, at the highest point, of 280 feet.

The location is admirably adapted for a naval station, the land-locked harbor having every advantage of accessibility, capacity and depth; while, owing to the influx of fresh water from the San Joaquin, Sacramento and Napa rivers, it can boast immunity from the destructive teredo.

Probably no one hears for the first time the name of the island without question as to its meaning and derivation. Those versed in legendary lore answer with the story of the old white mare.

In "the early days" there was but one ferry-boat on Carquinez Straits and the waters adjacent, -a barge constructed of planks secured to a float made of oil-barrels.

One upon a time this craft, on its way from Martinez to Benicia, encountered a sudden squall; and it required but a few moments for the terrified animals of which its freight consisted to kick the boat to pieces and betake themselves to the water.

Among those that succeeded in reaching terra-firma was an old white mare belonging to General Vallejo; and the island on which it was found contentedly grazing was named by the General Isla de Yegua, or Island of the Mare.

It is probably, however, that some of the early missionaries named it Mare Island, from the Latin mare, the sea; just as the region to which it belongs was doubtless named from the Spanish solano, the east wind; though General Vallejo states that the county so called was named for Solano, the chief of the Suisuns.

In the year 1850 Mare Island was granted by the Mexican Government to one Castro, who forthwith sold it for the sum of $7,000, the purchasers disposing of it in 1851 at the advanced price of $17,500. Within two years thereafter (January 4, 1853), it was purchased by the United States Government for more than four times the last-named amount, and nearly twelve times the exorbitant price first paid, -for no less a sum than $83,000!

A further expenditure of $317,000 was required to put the Pacific Coast naval station in simplest working order, mechanics' wages being five and six dollars, while ship-carpenters and caulkers rated as high as nine dollars per diem.

Commander David G. Farragut was the first commandant of the yard, the national flag being first hoisted October 3, 1854.

The sectional dry-dock, built by private enterprise, was the initial step toward the equipment of the yard, the sloop-of-war WARREN being the first vessel floated in, September 25, 1856.

The month following, the astronomers of the Exploring Expedition erected the observatory.

Other buildings then in course of erection or begun soon thereafter were foundry and machine shops; storehouse and workshops of the Department of Construction and Repairs; storehouse and workshops of the Department of Equipment and Repairs; yards, docks and workshops; Bureau of Navigation; store-house, sawmill, bishop-derrick, yard stables, etc.

Since then the office building, commandant's residence, officer's quarters, marine barracks and adjuncts, naval hospital and accessories, magazine reservation and buildings, lighthouse reservation and buildings, stone drydock and buildings, receiving-ship and cemetery reservation, have been severally built or established, forming, together with "Dublin," a cluster of cottages for those employees who cannot be spared to live on the mainland, -a very considerable colony.

The stone dry-dock, the largest in the New World, constructed at a cost of $2,750,000, was begun in 1872, and has not yet arrived at full completion [1892], some fine finishing work being now on hand. The receiving-ship INDEPENDENCE was the first ship floated in, October 30, 1886, since when the docking of numerous vessels, among them the CHARLESTON and SAN FRANCISCO, has been witnessed by admiring crowds.

"Mare Island is certainly a paradise for children," was remarked to an officer of high rank who was deploring the mandate of Fate and the Department banishing him (and by consequence his family) to the inclement Atlantic seaboard. "Mare Island is a paradise for grown people," he answered with the emphasis of strong conviction, -an assertion readily conceded by those familiar with the delightful all-the-year-out-of-door life, the unrestrained social intercourse, the natural isolation which so effectually promotes the much-desired exclusion of the work-a-day world, -and withal the accessibility of the metropolis, all of which make this one of the most desirable stations in the Department.

Fancy an emerald isle set in a silver sea, a realm of fairy-land where Uncle Sam (being a good paymaster) is fairy godfather; where in one park you have your lawn-tennis court; in another your croquet-ground, and yonder your bowling-alley; where, of an afternoon, In * * * * * * * a land in which it seemeth always afternoon, you may lounge or promenade or drive or dance -if so you choose -to the music of one of the best-trained bands outside of San Francisco; where you can ride or drive miles overlooking the summer sea, or with billowy verdure on the one hand, on the other the glory of flower-gardens.

Yet, when all is said, it must be confessed that there is vast room in this paradise for improvement.

Though etiquette constrains the officers of foreign navies who visit Mare Island to speak only in general terms of commendation, it is nevertheless a fact that civilians from foreign lands —even from the English colonies in America —are unanimous in their expressions of disappointment, invariably comparing our naval stations and other Government reservations with their own, —greatly to our disadvantage in point of architecture, landscape gardening and neatness.

It must be said, however, that every year sees some advance in these respects, the administration of each successive commandant being marked by some special line of improvement in accordance with his individual taste and judgment.

But it is when considering as Uncle Sam's workshop that the navy yard is of interest to the greatest number. At times there have been as many as nineteen hundred men employed in the various departments; at present there are about five hundred.

The history of this station has certainly demonstrated the fact that Government works in the neighborhood of a small town are a decided disadvantage, -even a misfortune. They are desirable only in the vicinity of large cities, where numerous and old-established industries make it impossible that the Government works should be regarded by the entire population as the one acceptable place of employment.

In this instance, the navy yard and Vallejo having grown up together; few industries have been able to gain a foothold in the town. Private enterprise cannot compete with Government works. It is not only the fascination of working for the fairy godfather, but also the substantial advantages of oftentimes larger wages and always shorter hours that make men seek work in "The Yard," notwithstanding the risk -even the probability -of long periods of idleness.

As, however, in the natural course of events an infant outgrows its leading-strings, so Vallejo will doubtless in time outgrow its dependent condition, and learn merely to account the Government works as one of the many industries within its reach.

Though the commandant of a navy yard can scarcely be styled an autocrat, his rule is sufficiently absolute to justify to some extent the declaration of a well-known commodore who, when the chaplain, without having first consulted the commandant, gave notice of the visitation of the bishop, exclaimed, "I'll have you know, sir, that I am bishop of this navy yard!"

Certainly every navy yard the commandant is chief. He and his household strike the key-note of its social life. One administration might be styled "The Gay;" another, "The Intellectual;" another, "The Devout."

Of the present regime it is safe to say that never have smiling Peace and happy-hearted Contentment more graciously adorned this earthly paradise.

It would be absurd, however, to consider the navy yard simply as an earthly paradise to officers, "Uncle Sam's Workshop," the "Saints' (or Sinners') Rest," the nursery of the party in power, or the stamping-ground of politicians, -a phase of the subject on which I forbear to dwell.

Though it be confessed that nine-tenths of those who have any connection with the navy yard naturally view it in one or another of the lights above named, the fact remains that the vast majority of the American people are without personal connection, either directly or indirect, with the naval establishment. To one living in the neighborhood of a provincial navy yard it would seem that the whole of America and a large portion of Ireland, Germany, England, Scotland, Italy, France and Greece were striving to impress the American Eagle into the service of each and every individual. While some would fain mount upon his back, others would gladly pick his bones.

But these multitudes constitute in reality a very insignificant, an almost inappreciable, part of the body politic.

The fact to be considered, and that which it is hoped the Fifty-second Congress will take seriously and effectually into consideration, is that the American people look to the navy for that protection of their interest, that vindication of their rights, and that maintenance of the national honor, which a navy, and a navy alone, is able to afford them.

Events of the past year have not only demonstrated the urgent need of an effective naval establishment, but have also aroused the American people to a strong and unappeasable determination to become a power upon the high seas, to be able to defend their own seaboard, to protect their industries, to command the respect of neighboring nations, to demand justice and secure courtesy for every American citizen in foreign parts and on the high seas.

What prospects have we of soon realizing these ambitions?

To the mind of that vast majority of the American public which has no connection with, or special understanding of, naval affairs, it is only the number of ships at the command of the Department that conveys any tangible idea of the status of the navy. The numerical strength of our available fleet is, indeed, of prime importance; but equally to be considered are the merits of the respective ships, -their type, rate, armament, etc., not to mention the efficiency of the "service" (by which is meant the personnel of the navy); the equipment of navy yards; the manufacture of ordnance; the improvements in ammunition, etc.

That the number and merits of our ships are of the first importance let the following from a leading English magazine bear witness:

"Every additional war-ship that floats the star-spangled banner at her peak," says the Review of Reviews, "increases the urgency of a good understanding that may hereafter ripen into a good working, and, if need be, a fighting, alliance, between the two branches of the English-speaking race in the Western hemisphere."

To our ships, then!

The latest official naval register reports, aside from receiving-ships, school ships, training ships, tugs, etc., none of which come within the scope of this article, the magnificent number of sixty-four vessels, including all types now into commission at short notice. But I am obliged to add that twenty-one of these compose an array of old wooden ships, concerning which I quote from Secretary Tracy's annual report, as dispatched to the San Francisco Chronicle, December 7, 1891:

. . . "The old wooden ships have practically passed out of existence. They no longer count even as a nominal factor in naval defense. The sole reliance of the country today for the protection of its exposed seaboard is the new fleet."

Elsewhere Secretary Tracy is quoted as saying that in the course of four years, if present plans are successfully carried out, the United States will have a navy of creditable efficiency.

The plans referred to comprise among other matters (such as the establishment of an ordnance factory on the Pacific Coast, the test and manufacture of explosives, the improvement of the service, etc.) the completion of sixteen vessels of various types, each of which is expected to be a model of its kind.

But it takes one's breath away to think of what might happen -what might not happen! -during those four years. To quote again from the Secretary's report:

"Even with the present authorized fleet, to protect either seaboard will involve stripping the other at a critical moment. If the Nicaragua Canal [Panama Canal] were completed the strategic situation would be largely modified." (To judge from present prospects, the availability of the canal and that of our new navy are likely to be very nearly contemporaneous.)

"The press of the country, representing the people," continues the Secretary, "does not believe that cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Tacoma should be open to attacks of a third-rate power, whose ships by a sudden movement may enforce contributions that would pay in advance the expense of a war. If any one believes that such rapidity of movement is impossible, let him recall the circumstances under which the Esmeralda appeared in April last without warning close to the California coast, sending on the Itata to San Diego. As little does public opinion believe that the commercial seaports of the Gulf and Atlantic should be unprotected from an attack by any nation whose fortified harbors and fully equipped dockyards are within forty-eight hours' steaming. It is erroneous to suppose that seacoast States alone have a direct interest in the matter. The prosperity of the whole interior depends upon the uninterrupted service of the demands of a foreign magnet. By a blockade of the great outlets the great industries of the interior may be paralyzed."

These are serious considerations presented with the force of profound conviction, the dignity of unquestionable authority and the clearness of practical insight.

What are we to do about it?

Let every village newspaper, every great daily, every Fourth-of-July orator, every stump speaker, -above all, every voter, -take up the strain and ring the changes on the theme, acting as well as talking, until our representation take the subject up in earnest, and see to it that no Englishman ever again says, as was said in the Review of Reviews for September last:

"There is not an officer in the British navy who is not trained from his childhood to regard the French as the only enemy to be feared on the high seas. No other power possesses a navy worth speaking of. If the French navy did not exist we might dismantle more than half our ironclads."

It is to be hoped that France appreciates the compliment, and that it may be our turn next!


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