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Mare Island Naval Shipyard

Mare Island was the first U.S. Naval shipyard built on the West Coast. It is located near the town of Vallejo in the San Francisco Bay. It served as an important shipbuilding and maintenance center for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, particularly during WWII.


The Navy bought 953 acres of land in the San Francisco Bay in 1853 and began building ships there on 16 September 1858, with the laying-down of the wooden steam sloop Saginaw. This ship was the first U.S. Navy vessel built from the keel up on the West Coast. Mare Island’s first commander was David Farragut. Farragut would later command Union Naval forces in the battle for Mobile Bay during the Civil War, where he spoke his famous line “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

In 1901 the shipyard was bought by Union Iron Works and was commissioned to build the first of John Holland’s Adder-class submarines. These ships, Grampus and Pike, were the first submarines built on the west coast. Mare Island sent ships and supplies to San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and was a major sending-off point for many early Pacific Fleet ships.

Mare Island was a major shipbuilding site during WWI. The shipyard still holds the record for fastest-built destroyer. The Ward of Pearl Harbor fame was built in just 17 and ½ days. In 1919 Mare Island became the only west coast shipyard to build a battleship, with California slipping down the ways on 20 November 1919.

Mare Island’s workload and size reached their peak during WWII. In addition to construction a variety of ships, Mare Island repaired and overhauled hundreds of U.S. Navy and allied navy ships during this time. 50,000 men and women worked at the shipyard, and its facilities included a hospital, ammunition depot, test labs for paint and rubber, and firefighting, anti-submarine warfare, and optician schools. Mare Island was the sole repair and refit port for the famed heavy cruiser San Francisco and its extensive submarine-building program launched five of the seven most decorated subs of the war. Mare Island workers raised $76 million during the war, a sum that could have funded every one of the seventeen subs built there during WWII.

After the war, Mare Island continued to set records. In 1957, it became the first west coast shipyard to build a nuclear-powered submarine with the launching of Sargo. It was also the last west coast facility to build a nuclear sub in 1970 as Drum slid down the ways. The world’s first nuclear submarine, Nautilus,was decommissioned at the shipyard in 1980 and prepped for tow to Connecticut, where she serves as a museum. Mare Island became the last training base for the U.S. Navy’s Brown Water forces in 1969. PBRs and Swift Boats were easy for drivers to spot along Highway 37 during this period.


By 1993, Mare Island encompassed 5,200 acres. The shipyard had built well over 500 vessels and repaired thousands more. Despite a strong case being made for its continued operation, Mare Island was shut down in 1996 as part of the Base Realignment and Closure process. Since then, numerous state and private ventures have redeveloped parts of the former base and shipyard and these efforts continue as of 2012.

Risk of Asbestos Exposure

On September 8, 1934 the ocean liner Morro Castle caught fire off New Jersey due to improper insulation of her steam power plant. After this disaster, the Navy introduced new regulations stating that all new ships be built with asbestos insulation throughout their machinery.

Mare Island’s shipbuilding and repair work reached its height immediately after these rules were introduced. Asbestos use was rampant throughout the shipyard in this period, as new ships were built and damaged ships were repaired.

Damage to asbestos insulation can cause it to break down into millions of tiny fibers, which are easy for sailors and workers to inhale. Inhalation of asbestos is a proven cause of mesothelioma, a malignant form of lung cancer. There is no known cure for mesothelioma, but it can be treated with methods such as chemotherapy.

If you or someone you know served or worked at Mare Island Shipyard and has contracted mesothelioma, please fill out the form at the bottom of this page regarding your rights to compensation.

Resources/Further Reading

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