CONTRACOSTATIMES.COM: February 3, 2012
Not since its heyday has Vallejo’s Mare Island seen this kind of publicity. The once-bustling naval shipyard that was shut down in 1996 is the backdrop for a major TV ad campaign touting Jaguar.
Three souped-up cars are playing “tag” on the ghostly streets of a shipyard gone silent. The Jags race past an old red brick building and a collection of giant warehouses and metal cranes. They skid to a stop inside a massive glass and steel structure that once housed thousands of ship builders.
During World War II, Mare Island was one of the busiest ship construction and repair sites in the world. Crews repaired or overhauled a staggering 4,560 vessels and built 392 more in the five war years there. Many of the later vessels were nuclear submarines, which lends to the eerie feeling you might feel on the island today.
This is a destination worth visiting. Drive over the causeway from Vallejo to Mare Island and follow the signs to building 46, the Mare Island Museum. Housed in an 1855 red brick warehouse, there are 150 years of naval history in this former pipe shop. The museum is open Monday through Friday and the first and third weekends of the month.
Walk or drive the short distance to St. Peter’s Chapel and picture the stately brown-shingled building full of worshipers back when Mare Island was teaming with officers and service personnel. This is the oldest naval chapel in the United States, and if you ask for a tour, you’ll be awestruck by the chapel’s interior. The massive brass pipe organ frames the back of the church, and the light filters through 29 exquisite stained glass windows — most designed by Tiffany in New York. The word “heavenly” doesn’t begin to describe this scene.
“It’s the largest collection of Tiffany stained glass windows west of the Mississippi,” says Jim Reikowsky with the Vallejo Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “Which one would you take if you could only save one in a fire?” I looked at the intricate detail on each window and decided that the large image of Christ in the flowing white robe would have to be saved first. It’s a stunning circular piece that splays beams of light onto the altar.
Down the street from the chapel is the white colonial mansion that was once home to America’s first admiral — David Glasgow Farragut. It’s one of four landmark buildings on Mare Island that is available for special events along what’s known as Officer’s Row.
If you “Google” Mare Island, you’ll find it’s a popular wedding site. Some couples even make a dramatic entrance onto the island by boat.
“You feel you have an entire small town all to yourself,” says one wedding site. The gardens are planted, and the lawns trimmed by volunteers who lovingly honor the importance of Mare Island through more than 150 years of this nation’s history.
For some of us, it takes an automobile ad campaign to remind us of the national treasure in our own back yard.