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Sunday, October 01, 1995

Mare Island named for general’s swamped steed

Kristin Delaplane

Island selected in 1852 as new Navy yard site

Information for this article came from the Vacaville Heritage Council, Shipyard’s Historian’s Files and Vallejo Naval & Historical Museum.
First in a series
In 1775, Don Perez Ayala, described as a dashing young Spanish lieutenant, was the first to sail through the Golden Gate. He and his crew were aboard the gunboat San Carlos.

Ayala immediately claimed the area for the king of Spain. He then commenced to explore the unknown water area. In the course of this expedition, he came upon Mare Island, which he called Isla de la Plana.

The boat stopped at the island to hunt the wapiti elk. This is the earliest written record of Mare Island, which was destined to become famous as the Pacific Coast’s oldest and largest naval base.

In the early days, when Gen. Mariano Vallejo was establishing the area, a ferryboat of sorts was plying the waters around Vallejo and Benicia. It was fashioned primarily from oil barrels that came from whaling ships.

The barrels were secured by beams and planking. The craft was divided into compartments for transporting cattle and horses.

In 1835, on a trip from Martinez to Benicia, a squall came full force at the vessel, causing it to pitch and alarming the animals. The frightened horses kicked the sides down and fell in the water. Some swam to shore. Others drowned.

One prized white mare belonging to Gen. Vallejo was found a few days later on the island. To commemorate this stroke of good fortune, Vallejo named the island Isla de la Yegua, which translates to Island of the Mare.

In 1850, it is reported that the island was granted to one Victor Castro by Gov. Juan Bautista Alvarado. It was then purchased from Castro by Vallejo’s son-in-law, John. B. Frisbee, and a B. Simmons for $7,000. Frisbie and Simmons turned around and sold it to A.W. Aspinwall and G.W.P. Bissell in 1851 for $17,500. They added others to the title, forming the Bissell, Aspinwall & McArthur Combine.

It was in 1851 that President Millard Fillmore, noting the growing commerce and increasing numbers of whale boats in the Pacific arena, determined the Navy fleet required a Navy yard on the West Coast.

In June 1851, construction of a dry dock was started in New York by the firm of Dakin, Moody, Gilbert & Secor, which secured the contract for the future West Coast Navy Yard, its location yet to be determined.

Part of the agreement was that the contractors could make use of the facilities to repair mercantile ships for a period of six months after completion. The dry dock was built in sections so that it could be dismantled and the sections shipped in four vessels around Cape Horn.

In 1852, Commodore John Drake Sloat, renowned for taking Monterey from the Mexicans in 1846, was assigned to explore San Francisco Bay and select a viable site. After searching the area, Sloat recommended Mare Island, it being “free from ocean gales and from floods and freshets.”

The straits separating the island from the mainland was a quarter of a mile wide with a depth of five fathoms. The anchorage was as good as that found anywhere, the bottom being of a soft and sticky nature.

At that time, it was also auspiciously located next to the state Capitol in Vallejo. Sloat drew up plans for the shipyard, which was to be the site for the construction and servicing of ships. The plans included a foundry, machine shop, blacksmith shop, boiler shop, engine house, pattern house, carpenter’s shop and storehouses. The amount appropriated for the construction was $100,000.

The island, somewhat larger than 800 acres, was purchased from the Bissell, Aspinwall & McArthur Combine for $83,491.

The land was described as an area abundant with tule grass and hilly with level sloping plains. The shore at the bay presented vertical bluffs. The southern area terminated in high rolling hills with steep, inaccessible slopes to the water.

The highest point on the island was at this southern end, where it reached 280 feet in altitude. At this end there were oak groves and some buckeye trees. At the northern end there was evidence of mussel shells, and so perhaps the island was visited by Indians, who were known to have come to this area in years past to dig for shellfish.

Ships carrying the sections of the dry dock began arriving with mechanics onboard in September of 1852 or 1853, depending on conflicting records. First to arrive was on one of the ships was Darius Peckham, who was in charge of stores and machinery. Twenty days after his arrival, six mechanics arrived with Theodore Dean, manager and superintendent in charge.

Wages were high at $5 to $6 a day for a first-class mechanic. Civilians from nearby and from the ships provided needed labor.

Secor and Hanscom, agents of the New York firm, formed the Dry Dock Co. As such, they were responsible for constructing a basin to accommodate the floating dry-dock facility.

By the fall of 1853, the dry dock was in place. Built on 10 pontoons, it was 320 feet long and 100 feet wide.

Per the contract, the Dry Dock Co. began repairs on ships of commerce. It appears that the first vessel to enter the dry dock was the commercial steamer Pacific of the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. in the fall of 1853.

On Aug. 11, 1854, Virginia Farragut’s husband, a commander in the Navy and a native of a backwoods farm in Tennessee, was ordered to proceed to San Francisco with his family to assume command of the Navy Yard at Mare Island. The coal-burner Star of the West was their passage to San Juan del Nord.

From there, the party and its supplies traveled by boat and mule across the Isthmus. On the Pacific side, they boarded a steamer headed for San Francisco and then proceeded to the lonely outpost, arriving at Mare Island on Sept. 16, 1854.

Next week: The Navy takes command, evicting all squatters, and the building of the shipyard commences.