Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Abandoned Places: Mare Island

A few weeks ago when my friend asked if I wanted to take a trip to the island as she had a college class she was attending. Huh? A private college on a closed naval shipyard? I was up for it.

Just driving through what had once been a guard station at the entrance to the island was a bit bizarre; but it was nothing compared to the rest of the experience. I’d entered a surreal world of abandoned buildings and roads. Sort of a military base ghost town.

Mare Island sits on the east side of the San Francisco Bay. Growing up, it was the place my father spent occasional weekends as a reservist with the US Navy. Which is probably why no one I was acquainted with ever knew much about it; the general public doesn’t get entry to military bases. Up until recently, If someone had asked me about the Island I might have said that it was a naval base or maybe it had been closed. The Mare Island Naval Shipyard was officially closed in 1996.


It was more than a bit freaky driving down long, palm tree lined, wide streets with barely a soul or car in sight. Brick buildings dating back to late 1800’s, empty deep water docks, scores of sprawling buildings whose past usage I could only guess about. It felt as though I were on a Hollywood back lot. And, it turns out, there have been films shot there.


A few places, like the Officers Club, still had their original signs up and some had been converted to student housing for the previously mentioned college. Others only displayed their building numbers. If I hadn’t been by myself, I might have tried to gain entrance to a few; curiosity was at an all time high.


One massive block long building, that was nearly as tall, clearly was some sort of assembly plant as the inside was an empty shell. I know this because I got out of the car to peer in the windows. (there may have been a sign or two warning to steer clear because of hazardous PCB’s or something along that line.) Just as I put my camera up to the glass fronted entry doors to get a few interior shots, a giant wind came up rattling what felt like the entire building. I was then sure that it was a ghost town.


I drove on and on, no traffic and no people. I would stop in the middle of a street, get out, take a few pictures, and continue on my way. Somewhere along the way I realized what I was doing and took to pulling off the road before getting out. And the more I explored the more I wished my dad was still around so that he could tell me what everything had once been.

I didn’t have a map so relied on the few posted signs. One led up the hill to the golf course; once the exclusive turf of officers and now open to all. I don’t play the game, but the views of the San Francisco Bay may be a reason to take it up. Going back down the hill I noticed an area with massive eucalyptus trees and what seemed to be housing. I headed towards it.


St Peter’s Chapel was the first stop. Built in 1901, it is filled with real Tiffany stained glass windows. Worth more than a small fortune, it is only open on certain days for tours. This looked like somewhere I would come back to but what really caught my eye was just around the bend.

I’d stumbled upon Officer’s Row; massive mansions lined a wide boulevard, each sitting on large lawn surrounded by giant trees. I froze. Never had I seen anything so magnificent. I’m a traveler; houses interest me but don’t compel me to move in. This time I was smitten. I wanted one of those babies and from the look of it, they were empty and just waiting for me.

Strolling up to the first one I saw a sign saying “available” and a number to call. I walked up the stairs to the large front porch and then to the glass windows. Inside was even more mouth-watering house; paneled walls, hardwood floors, built in window seats, and a splendid fireplace. I was literally drooling thinking about living here..

Looking down the street were at least another ten of these beauties. I later found out that the biggest one, the Captains House, is furnished and set up for tours. I still haven’t found out if the others are for sale, rent, or just a big tease.

I eventually realized that as much as I loved the officer’s mansions, they would be just a taste too big for one person. I started to look for smaller houses. It seemed that many of the big ones had more properly sized out houses, some of which appeared to be occupied. On the street behind these were your basic 1950’s military housing. Not at all tasteful but possibly affordable and I was beginning to get quite attached to Mare Island.

Eventually it was time to head back, off island surrealism and back into the here and now. The Mare Island Historic Park Foundation does tours and I plan to get there in the near future.


  1. This might sound a tad creepy, but I'd buy a house with you on Mare Island. When I visited the island in February for a video shoot, I got to go inside one of the Captain's Houses, and I had a few...odd experiences in that house. You are not alone regarding your feelings of the island, and I feel oddly at home there.

  2. I lived on Mare Island as a kid (1970-1973). I remember my walk to school, very adventurous as I had to go through a small wooded area (it was huge to me). There were big black bomb shelters that we played in and a parade ground nearby where we would watch marching practices. I would love to go back and take my dad. Great article!

  3. I lived on that base as a kid (1970-1973). I remember my walk to school. There were bomb shelters that we played in as kids, and a parade ground where we'd watch marching practice. I would love to go back!

  4. I lived on Mare Island as a kid (1970-1973). I remember my walk to and from school. Pretty adventurous as there was a small wooded area I went through (it was big to me!). I remember playng in the bomb shelters and watching marching practice at a nearby parade field. I would love to take ny dad back for a tour.