A concerned reader recently e-mailed the newspaper’s assistant publisher to ask if Mare Island was, in fact an island.
“Looking at maps,” he wrote, “it appears Mare Island is not an island. Have folks been misled all these years?”
Predictably, the knowledgeable newspaper executive nodded sagely, leaned back in his chair and mused “Good question. Who IS the mayor down there, anyway?”
Fortunately he turned the inquiry over to me and I can assure our curious reader that Mare Island is, in fact, not an island but a large accumulation of extruded marshland surrounded by water and connected to the mainland by a series of bridges.
The popular but fallacious “island” definition came about more than 175 years ago when Gen. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo arrived in the community that was not yet named after him and decided he would have more success in combating the native inhabitants of Solano County if he had at least one nuclear submarine in his fleet of swift sorghum barges.
When preliminary tests in Sonoma Plaza proved impractical, the wily old military man decided that what he needed was an island and there certainly could be no better place for an island that just off the swampy coast of the city that would soon be named after him.
(Sonoma also was named after Vallejo but it lost something in the translation when Vallejo’s chief public affairs officer, Guillermo “Benny” Chimbadador, polished off a fifth of mezcal just prior to the official dedication of the barracks there.)
Although Vallejo managed to establish a small nuclear submarine research facility on the so-called island, he had no fissionable material to power his first craft. He abandoned the project after repeated attempts to fuel the proto-sub with large quantities of black powder were spectacularly unsuccessful (prompting Suisune Indian chief Sem Yeto to coin the phrase “We can take this guy …”).
Local folklore has it that Mare Island was so named because Gen. Vallejo once lost a valuable horse on the inappropriately named land mass. Nothing could be further from the truth. Actually, Vallejo nearly lost his lovely wife, Dona Francisca Maria Felipa Benicia Carrillo, there after she became briefly enamored of U.S. Navy commander David Farragut, who’d been surreptitiously observing the abortive submarine trials.
The city of Benicia later was named after Vallejo’s wife when it was determined that San Francisco was no longer available for the honor.
Mare Island is actually named – again with a slight but understandable spelling error – after an arcane inaugural ceremony practiced there during the dark of the moon by newly elected mayors of Vallejo.
The actual ceremony is, of course, closely guarded, but reliable sources within Vallejo City Hall say the process still involves black candles, a moose skull, spitting whiskey into a campfire and singing “Chattanooga Choo-choo.”
I hope this capsule history of the so-called “Mare Island” is adequate.
Originally published December 16.