The shipyard was established by the Navy in 1854 and was known as Naval Magazine, NSY Mare Island. The shipyard’s primary missions were to maintain, overhaul, and refuel ships, including nuclear-powered ships; provide logistical support for ships and service craft; and provide services and materials for other Navy functions.During its tenure as the Navy's oldest base on the west coast, Mare Island built 512 ships and repaired hundreds more. Those ships, both great and obscure, fought in every conflict since. Mare Island's first ship, the paddle-wheeled gunboat Saginaw, was launched before the Civil War, in 1859, and its last ship, the nuclear submarine U.S.S. Drum, was launched in 1970 when our country was divided over the Vietnam war. These vessels also included the small ferryboat Pinafore, which chugged between Mare Island and Vallejo for 30 years starting in the 1890's, and the battleship U.S.S. California, the only battleship built on the west coast. During World War II the shipyard quickly set a record that was never broken, building the destroyer USS Ward, in 17 1/2 days. In addition to the Ward, Mare Island built 17 submarines, 4 subtenders, 31 destroyer escorts, 33 small craft, and more than 300 landing craft. In the 1960's the decision was made to build nuclear submarines at Mare Island. The USS Sargo was the first, with 16 more following, ending with the launch of the USS Drum in 1970. The 4,351 acre facility included shipyard and hospital areas which in the mid 1950s employed 13,000 civilian workers, down from Mare Island's high point in World War II, when the shipyard population reached 46,000. Drydocks, cranes, waste-handling facilities, and offices were located at the shipyard. Activities supporting nuclear power propulsion systems were performed in accordance with the requirements and authority of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, a joint DOE and U.S. Department of Navy program responsible for all activities relating to naval nuclear propulsion. There are 996 buildings with 10.5 million square feet of space, 4 dry docks, 20 ship berths, 2 shipbuilding ways, 3 finger piers, 21 large industrial sites, a school, 2 day care centers, medical clinic, 3 fire stations, a golf course, 2 athletic fields, 3 swimming pools, 9 tennis courts, riding stables, and 416 housing units. In 1993, the Department of Defense (DoD) Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission recommended the closure of Mare Island NSY in the "third round" (BRAC 3) of military closures. The operational closure of Mare Island NSY was completed in April 1996.
Over 140 years of operations, various activities at Mare Island NSY generated hazardous wastes including: metal plating; lead acid battery repair; oil handling and reclamation; abrasive blasting; discharge of contaminated waste water to Mare Island Strait; landfill disposal of solvents, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contaminated fluids, asbestos, and other hazardous wastes; disposal of contraband and miscellaneous ordnance, and murcuric substances; the detonation of projectiles, war-heads, and high explosives; and overhauling nuclear powered submarines.In 1854 Commodore David G. Farragut was sent to California to establish and to take charge as first commandant of Mare Island. During World War I, Mare Island grew into a major ship construction and repair facility employing 41,000 persons at its peak. Mare Island held the record for speed in construction of naval vessels, having earned the distinction in 1917, when the destroyer USS Ward was only seventeen days from keel-laying to launching. At the outbreak of the Second World War pproximately 6,000 men were employed at Mare Island in the construction and repair of ships. By December 1995, employment was down to 1,500 and by closure in April 1996 all employment ceased.
The Navy completed a final Basewide Environmental Baseline Survey Report which documented the environmental condition of the property. This document and additional information were used to support future lease and transfer opportunities. The City of Vallejo's Final Reuse Plan was published in July 1994."Sphere," adapted from Michael Crichton's book, was filmed by Warner Brothers using four buildings at the base. An agreement was reached in June 1996, with filming beginning in December and continuing for six months. Originally, the dry-dock was to be used to film underwater footage. Due to escalating costs and the complexity associated with under-water photography and dry-dock set construction, the film studio turned to the use of a smaller tank erected at the shipyard. Warner Brothers both sub-leased and sub-licensed sites from the City of Vallejo, which in turn leased or licensed the sites from the Navy. Disney filmed parts of "Flubber" at Mare Island. "Jack" starring Robin Williams and Bill Cosby was filmed in Building 523 from November 27-December 11, 1995. As many as 300 people were employed at one time. "Metro" with Eddie Murphy was filmed at a number of locations in the summer 1996.