City had to adapt after Navy closed shipyard in 1996
Erin Hallissy, Chronicle Staff Writer
Mare Island Naval Shipyard racked up a lot of firsts in its 142-year history. The Vallejo Navy base was the first on the West Coast, founded in 1854 by the Navy's first admiral, the storied David Farragut, known for the Civil War battle cry "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.''
Workers on the nondescript island named for Gen. Mariano G. Vallejo's white mare built the first aircraft landing platform for a Navy ship and the first nuclear submarine in the western United States. The shipyard's golf course was the first west of the Mississippi River. Its 103-year-old St. Peter's Chapel, a charming wooden building with 16 stained-glass windows signed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, was the Navy's first interdenominational chapel.
Military history stopped being made there when the Navy closed the base in 1996, one of dozens nationwide shuttered after the Cold War. The pullout, vociferously opposed by workers and city officials, sent property values plummeting and unemployment soaring.
Vallejo's recovery, and Mare Island's conversion to civilian use, has turned that despair into hope. Housing prices are climbing as Vallejo, which offers a ferry to San Francisco, attracts people looking for affordable homes. A plan to bring houses, offices and manufacturing plants to Mare Island is years from completion, but 1,600 workers commute there to build public works projects, recycle steel or ship lumber.
The island's future is beckoning, and former shipyard workers, military personnel and Vallejo residents will gather Thursday and Friday to celebrate its past. On the 150th anniversary of the base's founding, when Farragut chased away squatters, a monument will be dedicated to the hundreds of thousands of civilian and military shipyard personnel and a plaque installed in the chapel commemorating the Navy's Medal of Honor recipients.
Among those who will attend is Capt. John Cavender, the base's last commander. He retired on March 31, 1996 -- the day he closed Mare Island -- after 36 years in the Navy.
"The last day was a very emotional day for a lot of people,'' Cavender, who now lives in Washington state, said in a telephone interview. It capped several emotional years as the Navy scaled back a base he loved.
"I had to tell 8,000 people -- 4,000 were my friends -- that they didn't have a job,'' Cavender said. "It drove me out of the Navy.''
Cavender considers his time at Mare Island "the best thing that ever happened to me.''
Mare Island produced 513 ships, from wooden paddle-wheelers and tall- masted sailing ships to sleek nuclear submarines. During World War I, workers built the destroyer Ward in 17 1/2 days, a record that still stands. More than 41,000 people worked around the clock building and repairing ships during World War II, and the shipyard was for decades Solano County's largest employer.
Its closure was a blow to Vallejo, driving everything from restaurants to stores and video rental shops out of business.
"I fought the closure very hard,'' said Mayor Tony Intintoli. "I knew the impacts over the foreseeable period of time were going to be very difficult to cope with. A shipyard is largely a civilian employment deal. Those jobs are hard to replace.''
Many lost jobs have not been replaced, but Intintoli said the city has bounced back. Ferry service to San Francisco, popular with tourists and commuters, and easy access off Interstate 80 have helped.
"You have a community moving away from (a military town) to something that is more tourist-oriented, more of a bedroom-type community,'' Intintoli said.
A development team, Lennar Mare Island, is converting 650 acres of the 5, 200 acres to civilian use, renovating military buildings for commercial use and starting construction on the first of 1,400 homes. Cleanup is being completed on contaminated areas where lead paint and other hazardous materials collected over the decades, said project manager Todd Berryhill.
Much of the base will remain open space, with development clustered along a channel separating it from Vallejo.
The 150th anniversary may be the last hurrah in Mare Island's naval history, and people like 88-year-old Lou Burgelin of Vallejo who remember what it was like to repair a submarine or build a battleship, are eager to share their stories. Burgelin left UC Berkeley in 1934 at age 18 to work at the base.
"I was going to be an anthropologist,'' he said. "I got a call to go work for the federal government as an apprentice.''
Student teachers at the university asked him how much the job would pay, and he told them 30 cents an hour at first and $1 an hour after he became a journeyman in four years.
"They said, 'That's more money than we're making,' " Burgelin said. "I never regretted it. I wound up as one of the senior managers, not only at Mare Island but at two other bases.''
Burgelin helped plan Mare Island's 100th anniversary in 1954, a gala with Ed Sullivan as master of ceremonies; Navy brass were among the 3,000 people attending a dinner where it was announced that that the base would begin building nuclear submarines.
Other VIPs who visited Mare Island through the years include presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Ronald Reagan visited in 1974 when he was governor, and Vallejo resident Sue Lemmon, who started at Mare Island as a stenography clerk and became the public information officer, remembers making sure she got to serve Reagan coffee.
"I wanted to see whether his flushed face was really flushed, or if it was makeup,'' Lemmon recalled. "He was just a ruddy man.''
Lemmon was ready to retire in 1976 when she "fell heir'' to 27 boxes of old photos that had been shoved under a stairway in the base's photography lab.
"Going into those boxes was the most fun I ever had,'' she said.
Lemmon became the base historian and spent more than two decades going over old photos, letters and files. She wrote three books on the base history, its chapel and its final years. One of her favorite stories dates to 1959 when Alice Roosevelt Longworth came to Mare Island to christen the first Polaris submarine built there, a vessel named after her father, Theodore Roosevelt.
When ships are launched, "you come in the day before, and you see your ship. It was customary to have a little practice,'' Lemmon said. "Alice Longworth decided she didn't need a rehearsal.''
When the time came to smash the champagne bottle against the ship, Lemmon said, "she gets up there and she misses. Then she misses a second time.''
Longworth actually threw the bottle at the moving ship, but fortunately the bottle was attached to a rope held by a sailor, who whacked the bottle across the bow.
Now the base is home to a company that builds aluminum fishing boats, as well as an engineering firm building foundation supports for Bay Area bridge retrofit projects and roof trusses for San Francisco International Airport.
The base hospital is an osteopathic college. Wedding parties can rent St. Peter's Chapel and the 100-year-old mansions on Captain's Row. They are among 502 buildings and other structures that are being preserved as historic landmarks.
Intintoli said the city, which would have preferred that the Navy stay, is making the best of the situation. Still, as the 150th anniversary approaches, he wanted to make sure the past is not forgotten.
"If you forget your history, it's like you forgot your family,'' he said. "It's an opportunity to just pause and say thanks for that glorious past.''
CELEBRATING 150 YEARS
This week's tribute to Mare Island Naval Shipyard will include the unveiling of a monument at Alden Park and a hand-carved plaque for the ceiling of St. Peter's Chapel. There will be two-hour tours of the former shipyard on Thursday for $12, and one-hour tours on Friday for $8.
For more information, call (707) 557-1538 or visit www.mareislandhpf.org.
E-mail Erin Hallissy at email@example.com.
Monday, September 13, 2004
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