The once massive shipbuilding engine of the Bay Area is now open for exploration of its bird-filled wetlands, grassy hills, famous dry docks, and historic buildings (perfectly preserved and nearly falling down alike).
Not really an island, and home to no horses, “Mare Island” is something of a misnomer. The island is really a peninsula, but legend holds that there was once at least one horse. Before California became a state, this land was the property of General Vallejo, and supposedly the island gets its romantic name from the miraculous survival of the general’s prized horse, thought lost in a ferry accident, but who was later miraculously discovered unhurt, roaming on the island.
From 1850 on Mare Island has been government land, and by 1854 had been established as the first US shipyard and naval facility on the West Coast. Known as Mare Island Naval Shipyard or MINSY, it served as a major shipbuilding yard during both WWI and WWII, building sea-going vessels of assorted types as well as landing craft. That legacy held until 1996, when the base was decommissioned. Since then the land had been undergoing slow redevelopment into park land, housing and public service buildings.
In 2012, one of the island’s enormous abandoned warehouses burned to the ground, requiring more than 60 firefighters to tend to the blaze. Giant burnt timbers remain on the site.
Today, most of the island is open to exploration by visitors, from abandoned buildings and grand officer’s homes to the west coast’s oldest Naval cemetery, and the oldest Naval chapel in the country. The all-volunteer Mare Island Museum operates out of the oldest building on the island, across Railroad Avenue from Alden Park. Former shipyard workers and Navy sailors gather on Fridays to maintain the building and build new exhibits.