MARE ISLAND — Nearly 20 years since it closed down as a shipyard for the U.S. Navy, Mare Island sits at a critical juncture. Many of its oldest facilities have been cared for by a nonprofit foundation dedicated to preserving Mare Island’s historic military importance to the nation, not to mention its economic significance to Napa and Solano counties.
But the time has come, according to the Mare Island Historic Park Foundation, for the federal government to step in and turn Mare Island into a national park to best ensure the preservation of the former base’s irreplaceable landmarks.
“It’s important because this naval base was the center of the United States Navy’s presence on the Pacific Coast for decades and it’s been involved in every conflict,” said Dennis Kelly, a foundation board member who is leading a grassroots campaign.
“If we don’t save it, all of these artifacts will go away, the buildings will probably deteriorate. We’ll lose it,” said Kelly, who worked for nearly 20 years at the base as a nuclear and welding engineer on the Navy’s ballistic missile submarines. “It’s really a national asset.”
The foundation’s financial future is uncertain, according to Kelly, which is why a larger entity needs to take over preserving what’s left of the base, he says.
The foundation tried unsuccessfully five years ago to get the National Park Service to take over key portions of Mare Island, including its oldest building, its first dry dock, and a century-old chapel rich with Tiffany stained glass.
In response to the foundation’s request, National Park officials carried out a “reconnaissance study” that found historic parts of the shipyard “to be nationally significant” and “to represent resources that are not currently in the national park system,” making them “suitable for addition.”
At the same time, however, the study determined Mare Island “appears not to be a feasible addition … based on the extremely high costs of addressing the significant deferred maintenance and treatment needs of the many historic resources in the area.”
In other words, it would be too expensive for the National Park Service to take on Mare Island. The request was rejected.
Kelly has refused to give up, and is seeking support from key historical organizations to strengthen political support for Mare Island’s inclusion into the national park system. The plan is to reach out to groups like the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the California State Military Museum, and National Parks Conservancy, among others.
The first attempt “failed in essence because there wasn’t enough political support,” said Kelly.
Another key player in the effort will be Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, whose district includes Mare Island.
Thompson says he’s for making Mare Island a national park.
“The sites in question are historical and important,” said Thompson. “It is too much for a group of volunteers to preserve it for future generations.”
“My staff is working on it to make it happen,” he sid, noting that Mare Island is “important enough to not take ‘no’ for an answer” from the Park Service.
So much history
Kelly is just one of the thousands of local residents who were employed at Mare Island, a major jobs center for generations.
At its peak, the base employed nearly 50,000 people during World War II. Even toward the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, Mare Island provided about 10,000 jobs to people living in Vallejo, American Canyon, Napa and other Bay Area communities.
American Canyon’s first subdivision, Rancho Del Mar, was established to provide housing for Mare Island workers after World War II.
Since the base closed in 1996 as part of the Pentagon’s base realignment, portions of it have been sold off to private development. Some historic buildings have been converted to modern uses.
Touro University, a private graduate school for health professionals, occupies the base’s former hospital, which cared for thousands of wounded and sick military personnel throughout the 20th century, including survivors and burn victims of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
Blue Homes, a manufacturer of prefab housing, has set up in what once was Mare Island’s mammoth machine shop.
The base’s oldest building, No. 46, has been turned into the Mare Island Museum, operated by the foundation.
Constructed in 1855, the brick-and-mortar building was originally a smithery — a word that eludes most spell checks, Kelly points out. Computers will say “it’s a misspelling because nobody knows what a smithery is,” said Kelly.
The smithery fashioned metal parts for shipbuilding, which was one of Mare Island’s most important contributions to the U.S. Navy. More than 500 vessels were assembled there, and hundreds more, including nuclear submaries, were serviced and repaired.
Building 46 holds a treasure trove of naval history. One exhibit features the sword of William Halford, the Medal of Honor recipient and lone survivor of an 1870 rescue party that rowed 1,500 miles across the Pacific to get help for the USS Saginaw, the first ship built at Mare Island.
Another exhibit includes a riverboat used in the “brown water navy” of the Vietnam War that conducted counterinsurgency missions. Training for these secret operations was carried out in the sloughs of the Napa River during the 1960s.
Plenty of other history and historical sites can be found within a short walk of the museum.
There is Dry Dock No. 1, Mare Island’s first facility used to build and repair ships. Constructed over the course of two decades from 1870 to 1891, the colossal dry dock was dug out by hand and lined with granite blocks carved in the Sierra Nevada.
It was used to dry dock everything from wood-hulled ships loaded with iron cannons to nuclear subs carrying Trident missiles before the base closed.
Another important structure is St. Peter’s Chapel, built at the turn of the 20th century. It features the largest collection of Tiffany stained glass west of the Mississippi, according to Kelly.
What’s also important is the human history of the chapel, he says. It was here that sailors and soldiers prayed and said their “I do’s” before being deployed overseas in times of conflict.
“If you think about it, World War II, and these guys going off to war, getting married here, going to their last service here,” said Kelly. It’s “pretty amazing.”