Mare Island Cemetery
also known as The Mare Island Naval Cemetery
Mare Island, Vallejo, California 94590
Telephone: (707) 557-1538
First recorded burial: 1856
Years of Usage: Circa 1856-1921, although some burials continued after the cemetery was officially closed.
Size: 2.43 acres
Number of interments: Approximately 1000
Open: The cemetery is beyond a locked gate and access is limited. The Mare Island Historic Park Foundation holds the key. Contact the Mare Island Museum at Railroad & 8th Streets.
Tours: The Mare Island Historic Park Foundation offers group tours by reservation. The two-hour tour includes the shipyard, the dry docks, the Commander’s Mansion, the huge 1855 Museum, the cemetery, and the West’s largest collection of Tiffany windows, inside the 1901 St. Peter’s Chapel. Suggested donation is $14 per person. Reservations: (707) 644-4746
A boat carrying horses for the Mexican military in the Bay Area foundered around this peninsula thrust out into the northern reaches of the bay in 1830. General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, commander of the Mexican calvary, believed his favorite mare was lost. Instead, she was eventually located here. General Vallejo named Mare Island, though not a true island, in her honor.
After the American takeover of San Francisco in 1846, the United States wanted to extend its power in the Pacific. In 1854, Mare Island was chosen to become the first naval base on the West Coast. As soon as 1859, it churned out its first warship. The first West Coast dry dock to repair ships already in the water was completed there in 1872. By that time, the granite-lined dry dock was already too shallow for the boats being built.
In World War I, Mare Island set a record when the destroyer USS Ward was built in seventeen and a half days. During the second World War, Mare Island built 17 submarines, 31 destroyer escorts, and more than 300 landing craft. Its final vehicle was the USS Drum, a nuclear-powered attack submarine in 1970.
Shipboard medicine being what it was, many sailors arrived at Mare Island ill or injured. In the early days, these men were simply transferred to ships heading back to hospitals in the East, with hopes they’d still be alive when they arrived. (Soon-to-be Admiral) David Glasgow Farragut, the commander in charge of establishing the base, successfully petitioned for a Naval hospital on the island — and the surviving building is huge, attesting to the need it served.
Even before the hospital was completed, the Navy saw the need for a graveyard. The West Coast’s oldest Naval cemetery was established on the tree-lined hillside at the south end of Mare Island. It serves as the final resting place for sailors, soldiers, and their loved ones. The first recorded burial was George Dowd, who died aboard the USS Massachusetts on February 11, 1856. He was buried by the Reverend Mr. Hunt from San Francisco the following day.
Most of the graves have markers, but not all. Cemetery records aren’t comprehensive, but the Public Works Department made a list of graves in 1918, which was updated in 1956. When the Naval hospital closed in 1957, a list of graves by section was given to the Shipyard Historian. The cemetery doesn’t have any big names buried in it, but it does hold some interesting stories:
Anna Arnold Key Turner — daughter of Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner “— is buried there in a grave whose monument says, “The children arise and call her blessed.” She had eleven children with her husband David. She served as one of Vallejo’s first public school teachers and died in 1884. David preceded her in death in 1860 and is buried beside her. He was a Congressional representative from North Carolina, where his father was governor, when he met Anna. He accompanied Farragut to Mare Island in 1854 and worked as the supervising civil engineer. Some of the buildings he built still stand.
Accused murderess Lucy Lawson was convicted of paying a man $50 to murder her husband in 1875. She was sentenced to hang. When the first of her co-conspirators was hung, the rope broke. The executioner was successful on his second attempt, but by then, evidence arose that one of the witnesses who’d testified against Lucy was a disgruntled ex-lover. She eventually was pardoned. She took a job as a nanny for the family of Commodore Stacy Potts. When the family moved to Mare Island, she came along and was buried there in 1919 after serving for 35 years.
The cemetery has three confirmed Medal of Honor recipients. The most heroic of them is William Halford, who rescued the side-wheel steamer USS Saginaw in 1870. After surveying the lagoon at Midway Island, the Saginaw detoured to Ocean Island to see if anyone had been shipwrecked there. In a twist of fate, the Saginaw his a reef and sank. Halford and four other men took a small boat to seek help. After 25 days at sea, they reached the island of Kauai. Only Halford made it safely to land. He found a boat to take him to Honolulu, where he directed rescuers to the shipwrecked Saginaw.
There may also be a bear buried in the upper lefthand corner of the cemetery. He had served as a ship’s mascot. Local newspapers reported his funeral, but it’s unclear if he was interred inside or outside the cemetery fence.
In addition to Japanese, Chinese, Irish, and other nationalities represented in the graveyard, two Russians sailors serving on the Lena died while their ship was at Mare Island undergoing repairs during the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905.
Toward the front of the cemetery lie six other Russian sailors, who died during the Civil War era. They’d served on the Bogatyr, flagship of Admiral A.A. Popov’s Pacific Squadron, which visited the Bay Area at the invitation of President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Lincoln was seeking international support to counter the French and British fleets gathering behind the Confederacy. While the Russians were in San Francisco, fire broke out in the Financial District. The six Russian sailors died fighting the blaze.
The original markers, paid for by their shipmates, were probably wooden crosses. The US Navy purchased more permanent markers for them in the 19th century, but those had become illegible over the years.
The Mare Island Cemetery made the news in April 2011 after the Russian Consulate voluntarily replaced the worn headstones of the Russian sextet with granite crosses copied from the crew of the Lena. Unfortunately, because the cemetery is a National Historical Landmark, it is illegal to change it in any way. While the Russian Consul-General had applied for the appropriate permits, they had not been signed by the time the replacement work was done. The director of the nonprofit Mare Island Heritage Trust, Myrna Hayes, pushed for criminal charges to be filed against the Russian Consulate for vandalism. Apparently an uneasy peace has been reached, because the new monuments continue to stand.
The Mare Island Naval Cemetery closed on November 1, 1921. The Navy wanted to expand the adjacent powder magazine by moving the dead to another Vallejo or military cemetery and clearing the land. The sailors could have been transferred to the National Cemetery at San Francisco’s Presidio, but the Navy couldn’t disinter the civilians without permission of their families. In the end, securing permission seemed too complicated, so the cemetery simply closed down.
For years, it was overseen by the Bureau of Medicine. The cemetery was transferred to the Bureau of Yards and Docks in 1963. Following that, it was overseen by the Mare Island Naval Station. Now that the Navy is gone, it’s cared for by volunteers from the Mare Island Historic Park Foundation and the Vallejo Parks Department.
The cemetery’s final burial took place in 1983. Eleanor Gibson, related to former State Senator Luther Gibson had lived on the island as a child. She made her burial arrangements many years before her death. Her ashes were buried in the Phelps family plot.
The Mare Island Naval Shipyard became a National Historic Landmark in 1975. The landmark’s boundaries include the Mare Island Strait, Causeway Street, Cedar Avenue, and Mesa, Ribeiro and Tyler Roads. Closed by the Navy in 1996, Mare Island was “conveyed” to the City of Vallejo in 2002.
Mare Island Historic Park Foundation website
A brief history of Mare Island
More Mare Island history
Story in the San Francisco Chronicle about the new Russian headstones
One of the docents has collected up stories of people buried here
Night photos of Mare Island
My review of the book about the Officers’ section of the cemetery on Cemetery Travel