Mare Island sits due west across the Napa River from the Navy town of Vallejo. The island was home to the Mare Island Naval Shipyard from 1852 until 1996, when its closure was completed. The shipyard still sports huge dry docks, gigantic cranes and huge red brick buildings, mostly vacant, but during World War II, the yard hosted 50,000 workers. (Not all at once.)
Much of the timbers inside these derelict buildings have been, ahem, “scavenged,” because much of it was virgin redwood.
They may be empty, but there is something both majestic and haunting about these buildings and this waterfront. Certainly there are some businesses in place along Nimitz Avenue, the island’s eastern waterfront that looks out over Vallejo. (The G-Street bridge connects the two.) Many of the beautiful old mansions that were officers’ quarters are available for lease, and one of them is the tasting room for Godfather’s Prohibition Wines. I was told by a Vallejo resident that there is a golf course and a “nice” gated community on the island but I didn’t drive by to see it. Frankly, the haunted buildings and the huge equipment draw me, not golf courses.
The original chapel of the shipyard is still open to the public; it can be rented for events but I think they also give tours. It’s on Walnut Avenue and if you have a chance for a tour, take it, because it has the biggest collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany Company stained glass windows on the west coast.
At the end of WWII into the long Cold War, Mare Island specialized in building and repairing nuclear submarines, but another specialty was “riverine warfare,” an important factor in the Vietnam War. The Napa river was home to many swift boat groups and maneuvers.
Vallejo was 100% a navy town and its fortunes were linked to the shipyard. It was a bad economic blow to the city when in 1993 the base was identified for closure. Some Vallejo locals feel that the closure was not dictated by military need but as retaliation against the region’s liberal Congressional Representative, Ron Dellums. I am not a local, but I believe that too. The base shut down completely in 1996.
Still, there is economic life on the island. There is a company that builds pre-fab kit houses; there is a gallery and a whole row of businesses on 7th Street between Nimitz Ave and the water. The Vallejo city council just voted to open negotiations with an electric car company (not Tesla) to build a manufacturing plant on the island. A Faraday Future plant would bring good-paying, long-term jobs to the area.
I don’t understand exactly how Mare Island works, because some of it is still federal land, I think. There is a museum close to the waterfront, and a microbrewery, and there is a project to create a Cultural Core centered on two or three of the beautiful long warehouses on Nimitz.
I think my favorite building along this stretch was Power Plant Station 03. From every angle, it looks like a different building, from the Chutes and Ladders effect on the western side, with the huge smokestack and the curving connector that makes it look like an ocean liner; from the sturdy red brick and the dark windows, to the door that opens to the air.
I would love to photograph here just before dawn, in the fall, before the sun hits the Napa River. I’d love to photograph at twilight. I’d love to see these buildings in the rain, and from the view point on the water.