I love museums. There’s always at least one on my list for any place I’m visiting for the first time. Enter Mare Island and its museum.
Background: There’s actually a long history at Mare Island (1854 – 1996) as a shipyard for the U.S. Navy. Over its 100+ year history, Mare Island produced 16 submarines, 392 ships, and repaired over 400 damaged vessels (which apparently they were famous for).
The Mare Island Museum is located in Building 46, which was built in 1855 and was a pipe shop (probably of the metal variety) until 1984. It was mostly empty on the morning I visited, but the docent who greeted me was extremely friendly and very knowledgable about both the historic and more modern areas of Mare Island (of course, I forgot to ask her name, but she’s about 5′ tall with white hair and has a bunch of nurses in her family).
I thought this would be small museum that I could whip through in a half hour (and this blog post would be 600 words shorter). SPOILER ALERT: I ended up spending about 2 hours here. What can I say? I like museums. There are hundreds of photos, not only of the things built here, but also of those who served and worked. Since it was a Naval yard for over 100 years, the photos go from black-and-white to colored (and the men go from muttonchops, to close-shaven, to long hippy-dippy hair). My favorites were the ones with an individual pictured at their time working at Mare Island alongside a modern-day photo. Many mannequins are also scattered around the floor, displaying uniforms worn by various personnel, and I bumped into and apologized to a number of them.
Apparently Mare Island was big on mechanics and metalwork and such, because many of their instruments were kept and are on display. For those of you thinking, “Of course they had those things,” my ship expertise consists of two cruises, a ferry, and a few catamarans.
There are lots of personal stories/exhibits, but I focused on the ones that I thought were unusual (and one hilarious), including:
- The USS Shaw, a destroyer that was launched from Mare Island, had a jammed rudder that caused it to hit a British transport it was escorting. The resulting collision cut off 90′ of the bow and set it on fire. It apparently then sailed backwards to port for repairs.
- In 1961, Shop 31 on the island assisted a doctor from Vallejo’s Kaiser Permanente in creating a replacement heel bone for a patient.
- A lady had the honor of christening one of the newest ships, but decided not to rehearse it beforehand. At the ceremony, she missed the ship with the wine bottle, instead throwing it onto the ship. A crew member on board happened to catch the bottle by the rope, but the bottle continued to swing and hit the ship. The bottle broke, and the ship ended up being christened anyway. How do you not rehearse that?
- The flag that flew in that famous picture of the raising on Iwo Jima was sewn on Mare Island.
- The USS Guitarro sunk while docked at Mare Island because two groups were both working on similar tasks and didn’t know it.
- There is also a very interesting board dedicated to the Port Chicago mutiny, which took place on Mare Island and helped to usher integration into the U.S. Navy. From what I understood in the reading of the display, it was a huge civil (and human) rights ordeal that lasted for years beyond the event. FYI, Port Chicago is misleadingly named; it’s actually in California.
The docent informed me that one of the highlights of the museum displays is the one commemorating the USS Mariano G. Vallejo. There’s a working periscope within the display, and I spent a good 10 minutes circling while taking in sweeping views of the Vallejo waterfront, some trees, Farragut Plaza, a bunch of metal beams, and the side of whatever building is next to the museum. I also creepily watched some people working on the dock with what looked like a square boat. Definitely something I would recommend people try out (the periscope, not being a creeper).
Just a few other things I learned while I was here:
- I thought the museum was closed when I first pulled up. Check their website for hours, and if you’re there during business hours, just open the door. Keep in mind that the boat with the teeth isn’t out there anymore. That’s in the museum. There’s a giant anchor in the parking lot now. Or maybe it’s a regular sized one. I don’t know. I’ve only seen anchors as part of girly tattoos about “not sinking”, which doesn’t make sense because I feel like anchors are made to sink.
- Call if you’re interested in a tour of the grounds. They are offered on a reservation basis, and include many other historic sites along the island besides the museum. I’ll definitely come back for that.
- Museum admission is $5
- The parking lot is weird. There’s a couple of clearly marked parking spaces, but those were occupied when I visited, so I ended up creating my own parking spot. Check with the docent if you’re unsure about where you’ve parked.
Keep in mind that the museum is run by volunteers, and they’re always looking for more. Definitely a place that I’d recommend for those who are history buffs, naval/maritime/military enthusiasts, and anyone interested in machinery and things, just because they have a large amount of that stuff displayed. I spent almost 2 hours here because I like to read all of the display cards, but you could get through the place in much less time if you don’t like to read. Check it out if you’re into any of the above subjects. Maybe take the tour if you like architecture too.