Mare Island Naval Shipyard – A historic Background

by | Jul 10, 2018 | 0 comments

By: ebbflowin

Mare Island Naval Shipyard fought irrelevance for nearly a century. It was a geographically poor location, with existential military & logistical challenges. It is unequivocally true Vallejo was dependent on the Navy, and on war. I would venture to say this is due in part to a lack of imagination, not some manifest destiny.

Here is an excerpt from historian Roger W. Lotchin’s book ‘Fortress California 1910-1961: From Warfare to Welfare’ in reference to Mare Island’s suitability for the Navy’s desired main West Coast fleet base:

“In fact, the Carquinez Straits site was about the worst possible location for the main West Coast home base. In some respects it was downright absurd. Over the years, the Navy had expended over $20 million to maintain and build up the Mare Island facility, but by 1916 had come to the conclusion that the installation had reached the limits of its utility–or even the point at which the yard should be phased out. Under no circumstances did the Department (of the Navy) believe that Mare Island should be built up into the main home base. Vallejo and its naval meal ticket nestled on the very modest Napa River, near Carquinez Straits. This location was thirty miles from fleet anchorage in San Francisco Bay, a situation which wasted fuel in transit and which was remote from the Golden Gate entrance and exit from the Bay Area. The Navy valued highly its ability to get the entire fleet in motion quickly and out of its anchorage to the scene of action. Stationed at Mare Island, the fleet would have taken longer moving out to sea and would have been unable to disperse and line up for action.

What is more, the channel to the island silted up badly from the action of the tides moving the river-borne debris about. Only continual dredging had kept the passage open, but by 1916, the machines were losing the battle to keep up with the mud and the ever-growing size of Navy ships. Already, in that preparedness year, the Navy could not get its largest vessels to the Mare Island yard, and with the introduction of carriers, the problem became worse. On one occasion ships actually waited five weeks for a dredge to dig a channel into the mud-besieged facility. Smaller and older vessels could still reach the installation, but once they did, their situation was none too good. The area had little berthing space, many of the ships required special dredging of a berth before they could settle in, and the Napa River channel was so narrow that new or repaired ships launched from Mare Island ran a serious risk of plunging across the river into the Vallejo waterfront. Nearby San Pablo Bay and the Straits of Carquinez contained a limited amount of deep water anchorage for the fleet, but that area lay astride the main path of river and bay traffic. An anchorage at that point would have jammed the entrance to both the navy yard and the straights and would have crowded the ships together into a perfect target for attack.

The Vallejo site was as short of land as it was of water. Considerable new ground could have been created by dredging, which would have only added to the expense of the constant dredging already required. Mare Island did not have good land transportation connections, lacked an adequate labor supply, and in general did not possess the industry and commerce necessary to provide for 45,000 new residents and their civilian and military needs. Vallejo boasted about its milder climate which promoted year-round shipbuilding, but outside of this asset and its current investment, it had little to recommend it as a major naval base.”

The reason Vallejo’s Navy base lasted into the 90’s was mostly because of lobbying and some early circumstantial successes led by then-congressman Charles Forrest Curry. He was a political whiz adept at thwarting the Navy’s and San Francisco’s 12th Naval District plans to centralize naval assets mid-bay. There were also three Bay Area congressmen supporting this plan who died in close succession. First was Berkeley congressman J. Albert Elston, believed to have killed himself over failure in his navy base efforts, and natural deaths of congressmen Julius Kahn & John I. Nolan. Julius Kahn was head of the House Military Affairs Committee. As Lotchin notes, “These unfortunate occurrences deprived ‘The City’ of seasoned leadership at the exact moment of decision”, leaving Vallejo’s Congressman to continue promoting the obsolete Mare Island unopposed.

“Urban complexities were much more simple in Vallejo and in San Diego than in the more advanced urban area at mid-bay. Both these modest cities could concentrate more single-mindedly upon military resources because they lacked other interests. The Carquinez city had literally nothing else to bank on in 1916 and had accordingly organized its political power around its one pre-eminent interest, a navy yard.”

If the letter’s author is basing his argument for new toxic industry on sugar-coated nostalgia or cultural appeals, he might at least do his homework to show Vallejo’s economic existence was very much a contradictory one and always dependent on the government dole, in spite of the many well-founded reasons against it. This is the prevailing mentality propping up arguments for ORCEM- an outside savior should swoop in & save Vallejo (with a paltry 20-30 jobs?). False. Vallejo should swoop in & save Vallejo. Having clean air & building a beautiful, healthy waterfront is a good starting point.