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Mare Island: A Navy Yard is Born
by Warrant Officer 1 Mark J. Denger
California Center for Military History
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 Mare Island.

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 traditions.


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