It is one of the things we find ourselves saying over and over again, yet sometimes we need to remind even ourselves: if we look at the places near us with the same kind of wonder we normally reserve for far-flung travel, the world is a more magical place by far.
Nonetheless, even for us at Atlas Obscura, it can be really easy to overlook places right in our backyards which are full of fascinating history and places to explore. Mare Island is a perfect example. Located at the mouth of the Napa River, it’s an easy drive from anywhere in the Bay Area, free and open to explore and full of interesting and overlooked corners.
1857 map showing Mare Island and Vallejo. (via Wikimedia)
Spread over more than 900 acres, Mare Island has a rich military history dating back to the Gold Rush era, and is home to shipyards and industrial architecture, pretty Victorian officer’s quarters, and one of the oldest cemeteries in the area.
For context, I looked into a little bit of history to see what we might find and what it all means. To start with, Mare Island is kind of a weird name for a place with no native horse population and which is, technically, not an island. There are a few ideas on how it got its name, but the lead contender seems to be a tale dating back to the 1840s when the land belonged to General Vallejo (for whom the town is now named). According to this legend, the area was named in honor of the miraculous survival of the general’s favorite horse, thought lost in a tragic ferry accident nearby, but found romping in the hills of this peninsula. And maybe the general was not too good with geographical designators.
Mare Island, 1866. (via Wikimedia)
Mare Island panorama, 1911. (via Wikimedia)
More or less from the moment Mare Island was surveyed by the new state of California, it was designated as military land, becoming the first US shipyard and naval facility on the West Coast in 1850. Through the early years of the state and two world wars, Mare Island Naval Shipyard (or MINSY) was a shipbuilding powerhouse supplying the US government with watercrafts from submarines to battleships.
USS Cummings at Mare Island, 1942. (via Wikimedia)
In 1996, the base was decommissioned and slowly opened to the public. Some major changes and cleanups have been made, but other parts of the island stand strangely empty and frozen in time behind chain-link fences.
Mare Island today. (via Google Maps)
A recent sunny afternoon provided the perfect excuse for a day of poking around what the island had to offer for daytrippers like ourselves.
Most of the eastern side of Mare Island is still covered in aging and dilapidated military buildings and storage areas. Many of them have been badly damaged in fires since the base closure, and are covered with warnings to keep bored teenagers and camera toting busybodies like ourselves at bay. Some were more effective than others.
A huge fire in 2012 destroyed this massive warehouse on the water’s edge, leaving behind rubble, melted glass, and a forest of charred timbers, gently swaying and creaking in the breeze.
Nearby barracks buildings also suffered from fire, although they were not completely destroyed. It is possible to get right up close and peer into the ruined buildings, but the floors were unsafe to walk on.
A large part of the island has been tidied up and allowed to return to marshy nature, one of the last remaining natural saltwater marshlands on the bay, most of it having been infilled in the early 20th century for development and water access. Hiking paths skirt off limits areas behind razor wire-topped fences and signs direct visitors to keep on paths.
The endangered saltwater harvest mouse lives on the prickly plants by the water’s edge, where efforts are being made to preserve their disappearing local habitat.
Back in the built areas, we found huge administrative buildings, seemingly in good shape, but empty and off-limits — though it was obvious that others has been inside recently.
Towards the far end, part of the peninsula has been designated as the Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve, with a trail leading from a modest visitor’s center, up onto the hillside past historic officers homes, bunkers, and the old cemetery.
The Mare Island Naval Cemetery is the oldest military cemetery on the west coast. About 900 servicemen and their loved ones were buried here between 1856 and 1921. Today it is a charming and well-groomed little burial ground, surrounded by a white picket fence.
The small hillside park has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1975.
The whole of Mare Island is a haven for birds, including a thriving population of birds of prey. Huge osprey nests were visible in the tree tops surrounding the cemetery while we were there, and we also discovered this lovely remainder of an unsuccessful competitor:
The trail winds up the hillside and ends at a hidden little park, an overgrown remainder of old terraced gardens, ponds, and a sweeping view back over the old base and shipyards towards Vallejo.
There were so many things we were not able to explore in one afternoon that we have already made plans to come back — the shipyards, preserved historic buildings, and museum at the center of the island remain for next time.
All images by the author unless otherwise noted.
Further reading and resources:
MARE ISLAND, Vallejo, California
MARE ISLAND NAVAL CEMETERY, Vallejo, California
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