Family Outing to Mare Island

Moms, dads and grandparents are always looking for fun and educational outings to do with their children and grandchildren. One splendid place for just such an outing sits right next door to Benicia: Mare Island, in Vallejo.

The Mare Island Naval Shipyard is a National Historic Landmark.

It opened in 1854 and closed in 1996. That represents almost a century and a half of American and military history, and with Memorial Day coming up, a visit there carries a special meaning and poignance.

The best spot to start a tour may be Alden Park, in the center of the island’s “historic core.”

This grassy green space is easy to spot because of the three-story high Polaris missile that stands near the bandstand. The shipyard built more than 40 submarines in its history, including nuclear subs with ICBM warheads that formed part of America’s national defense during the tense Cold War years with the Soviet Union. 

The last time I was there, I saw a family gathered around the missile with their children posing for pictures on it.

Kids can also inspect and climb on Civil War-era cannons displayed in the park. Most fascinating to me are the many bomb shelters that were built after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, that brought the United States fully into the Second World War.

Mare Island, a key military base on the West Coast, was a potential target for Japanese planes being launched from aircraft carriers offshore. So, on the day after Pearl Harbor, work on the bomb shelters began. The shelters have metal doors, no windows and are made of concrete with one-foot thick walls. Ivy now crawls across the walls and doors. Unfortunately, the doors are locked and it’s not possible to peek inside one.

This is one of the problems with Mare Island, in general.

There are fenced-off areas, “No Trespassing” signs here and there, and various old structures closed to the public. (The Mare Island Museum, for instance, is shuttered until further notice.) Some of the sidewalks and alleys are uneven and may contain walking hazards, so watch your step.

Nevertheless there are still lots of things to see and explore.

Within steps of the park are the Admiral’s Mansion and the row of Officers’ houses on Walnut Avenue. If you walk (or drive) along Walnut past the bomb shelters you will come upon sweetly beautiful St. Peter’s Chapel. This small ancient church, which served as a refuge for Navy and service personnel through two world wars and other hard times, is famous for its Tiffany stained glass windows.

The island’s can’t-miss attraction is, of course, the waterfront with its views of the sailboats, the bay ferry passing by, and the big ship civilian repair work still going on there. You’ll also see something you won’t see anywhere else: the actual dry docks where they built and repaired nuclear subs such as the USS Mariano G. Vallejo. Named after Vallejo’s founder, a memorial to the submarine’s “sail”—the structure that sits above water when the vessel is submerged—has been erected close to the rusted massive cranes that built it.  

Not a tourist spot, but still a place worth visiting, is the restored Mare Island Naval Cemetery.

It’s in the nature preserve at the end of Blake Avenue. Park there, and follow the asphalt path behind the gate a short way on foot. It is a quiet and solemn place, one that helps to remind us of the sacrifices that have been paid by men and women to protect our fragile freedoms. Three Congressional Medal of Honor winners are buried here, as are Anna Arnold Key Turner—the daughter of Francis Scott Key—and her husband, a veteran of the War of 1812.

If you’re feeling adventurous, keep following the path about a quarter- to a half-mile up the hill.

There, you’ll find splendid views of the Mare Island and the Carquinez Straits, and a sculpture in the form of a ship that holds metal placards of the names of the ships built by the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in its glory years.

The best days to visit are Saturday, Sunday and holidays, when the work week is over and business activity is on pause. Tours of St. Peter’s and the Admiral’s Mansion occur on the first and third Saturdays of each month for a fee. See the website of the Mare Island Historic Park Foundation for reservations. Nice spots to have a bite to eat and a beverage are Mare Island Brewing and Savage and Cooke, at opposite ends of the waterfront promenade.