Cross a retired U.S. Navy shipyard with a bird sanctuary, add a dash of ghost town and throw in a jigger of whiskey. That’s an approximate recipe for Mare Island: a sparse, puzzling and often surreal landfall, just an hour by ferry from San Francisco.
Despite decades spent exploring the Bay Area, I’d never considered visiting. But here I was on a daylong adventure to the historic Naval base and present-day mystery spot, so near yet so far from Gate E of the Ferry Building (but actually very close to Vallejo). On approach under foggy skies, Mare looked somewhat bleak and industrial. But there were some surprises in store.
“I’ll try to make it lovely for you,” said Myrna Hayes, my highly animated volunteer guide, when she met me at the dock.
She had her work cut out for her. Hayes—who grew up in Paradise, California—has been the community co-chair of the Restoration Advisory Board for Mare Island Naval Shipyard since 1994. As we left the dock in her Prius, I started with the basics.
“So,” I asked, “is Mare Island actually an island?”
“No. It’s a peninsula.”
“Was it ever an island?”
“Yes, it was—before the Navy filled up the marshlands during its 142-year presence here.”
“Hmmm. And why will ‘making it lovely’ be a challenge?”
“Well, the eastern side is a dry dock repair site for government and private vessels. So it’s going to be more rugged than beautiful. But the strangest thing about Mare Island, in my experience, is the juxtaposition of the old, obsolete Navy structures with the new rash of neat little suburbs and McMansions. In the context of Mare Island’s history, they just seem out of place. Everything here will make you feel a little bit uneasy.”
The first inhabitants of Mare Island were the Patwin, a band of the Wintu people. But the place was named by Gen. Mariano Vallejo in 1835, when his prized white mare fell off his raft and, though presumed lost, swam safely to shore.
Nineteen years later, in 1854—shortly after the Mexican-American War—Mare Island became the first U.S. naval shipyard on the Pacific Coast. The base saw action through more than a dozen conflicts—from the Civil War through World War II (during which it employed more than 40,000 workers) and into the Cold War. It was the construction site of the first U.S. warship (1859), the first aircraft carrier (1911) and the first nuclear submarine built on the West Coast (1959). And in 1963—for what it’s worth—the North Beach stripper Carol Doda was somehow spirited onto the shipyard to enliven the launch of the classified submersible research vessel Sea Cliff. It’s an image worth Googling.
The Naval base closed in 1996. Today, Mare Island is a bizarre hodgepodge of antiquity and aspiration—from 121-year-old St. Peter’s Chapel, with its high wooden beams and brilliant Tiffany stained glass windows, to artist Martin Taylor’s steel giraffes along the Mare Island Artyard, an outdoor waterfront gallery.
There’s the Vino Godfather wine bar, the Coal Shed Brewery, an art studio and the tastefully trendy Savage & Cooke distillery—where a generous shot of its Burning Chair Bourbon made those life-size giraffes appear to prance.
But driving around with Myrna, I understood her cognitive dissonance. At one point, we emerged from a wasteland of faded buildings and empty lots into a perfect suburb of trees, lawns and pastel-painted private homes in a variety of faux architectural flavors. Under vivid fall foliage, the neighborhood looked like a scale railroad model of a little town.
About 300 homes on Mare Island are actually lived in. But the newer McMansions and view properties, on west Mare Island—were built in the early 2000s by the master developer Lennar. When Lennar’s optimism faltered, it sold its holdings to Nimitz—which is still contemplating what to do with its prize. So parts of the island (err, peninsula) have a ghost town feel.
There are street lamp-lined roads leading nowhere, an abandoned sports center and rows of cement-block World War I bomb shelters, which an art-minded eye might mistake for a Donald Judd installation.
And, of course, there are scores of old Navy buildings—some of them historically listed—scheduled to be torn down or retained for industrial use. Not all of them are abandoned; in one former warehouse, Google and Autodesk are mass-producing small living modules that will serve as no-frills housing for future waves of “techno serfs.”
Hayes, sensing my feeling of desolation, cast me a sympathetic eye. “I’ll take you to our one natural attraction.” She drove west on Dump Road (I kid you not), past endless chain link fences and through a gate. “This is the Mare Island San Pablo Bay Trail. It’s just over a mile from the ferry—and it’s open every day,” she said.
The 3.6-mile loop was opened in 2010, after testy negotiations between the Restoration Advisory Board and Navy, state and federal regulators. “We kept on dogging them until they agreed it would be a good idea to control the people just wandering out here in the wilderness, and focus them onto a trail,” she said.
The area protects the salt marsh harvest mouse, federally listed as endangered. “They're the size of your thumb,” said Hayes. “As many as 5,000 of them live here on Mare Island, in the pickleweed marsh.”
As salt marshes are filled in to make room for development (which made Mare Island a peninsula) the little mouse’s habitat was disappearing. “They’re the only land mammal that can drink and thrive on salt water,” Hayes explained. “And one day we may want to know how they do that—when we don't have any fresh water left.”
In February, the trail—which leads to a seasonal wetland to the east, and San Pablo Bay to the west—is part of the San Francisco Bay Flyway Festival. Thousands of visitors arrive for this event, observing the millions of ducks and geese, shorebirds and raptors that migrate through San Francisco Bay.
Driving back to the dock, the words Myrna said to me earlier—about feeling a bit uneasy—rang true. I’d come to Mare Island in a Gertrude Stein frame of mind, looking for a “there” there. It’s not that I didn’t find one; I found half a dozen. But what they add up to is hard to say. Mare Island recalls that old Indian parable about the blind men and the elephant. Whatever part you encounter seems to define it, but is only a comically misleading impression.
“It's not the Presidio,” Hayes acknowledged. “It has a flavor all of its own. It's just sort of quirky and fabulously beautiful and weird and super special.”
“Thank you,” I said, “for making it lovely for me.”
Getting to Mare Island: Ferries run from San Francisco to Mare Island after a stop in Vallejo. The trip takes about 1:30 each way, and boats run several times a day. Check the schedule carefully; you may have to land in Vallejo and take a Lyft from there. By car, the journey from the city to Mare Island takes about 45 minutes. If you bring a bike, then you can really explore the island’s varied venues. (Note: Bikes aren’t allowed on the Bay Trail.)
Be sure to explore the waterfront, Navy buildings and the Mare Island Artyard around the ferry landing. Stop into the Savage & Cooke distillery, justly famous for its fried chicken and biscuits. Then cross the street to Alden Park and Captain's Row, lined with restored officers’ housing and gardens from the early 1900s—one of which is now the Vino Godfather wine bar.
Upcoming events include Open Studios the weekend of Nov. 12-14, and the annual Christmas Concert, in St. Peter’s Chapel on Dec. 18—an annual tradition put on by the Vallejo Choral Society.
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