Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Another USS Saginaw Story

The sidewheeler USS Saginaw achieved fame for both her beginning and her ending.

In 1859 the Saginaw’s launching was celebrated as the very first at the Mare Island Navy Yard. The ship’s ending in 1870 - wrecked on a Pacific island - resulted in one of the great sea rescue stories of all time. In between those two events Saginaw had an important career as a symbol of the U.S. Navy’s ever-expanding presence in the Pacific.

In April 1868, USS Saginaw steamed northward to Alaska, exploring along the coast of this newly-acquired American territory. She would remain in Arctic waters for the next year, with one brief return to Mare Island for repairs and provisioning. It was during that return trip to Mare Island (from September through November 1868) that the following interesting account appeared in the Vallejo Evening Chronicle:

November 9, 1868

Lo! The Poor Indian

“It is not generally known that our Government has been obliged to resort to a new method to prevent crime. We have noticed for some time, three Indians walking our streets, dressed occasionally in marine or sailor clothing of the U.S. Navy, but not until quite recently were we aware of the fact that these Indians were Chiefs of some tribe in our new possessions in the North and were held as hostages on board the USS Saginaw. It seems that a discovery of coal was made by the Saginaw’s officers, and a small party was left in charge of the stores on some part of the coast of Alaska, until the return of the Saginaw to that place; on return it was found that the Indians had been somewhat troublesome and had appropriated the stores without the consent of those in charge; a new supply was landed and placed in charge of a few men who consented to remain until the Saginaw had made a cruise to the Mare Island Navy Yard, and back to Alaska; but to prevent any more depredations, three Indian chiefs were taken on board the Saginaw, to be held as a guarantee that the stores of the party remaining behind might be safe from the incursions of the Indians in that locality. These are the main facts in the case, and we understand the Chiefs are getting very anxious to return to the bosoms of their families, but the Saginaw remains yet at the Yard. They may be seen almost daily walking our streets, and at times present rather a ludicrous appearance in their new costumes, they are rather intelligent looking individuals, and we do not know but that it would be a good plan for our Government to import more of them on the same terms and make sailors of them. Seriously, however, this is a matter that deserves attention, if our information is correct, and may be the cause of some trouble in the future.”

The three Alaskans eventually returned north aboard the Saginaw. One of those Alaskan chiefs, named Kitcheenault, was later popularly known as “Saginaw Jake.” (photo above courtesy of Alaska State Library Historical Collections) Only a few stories mention these Alaskan natives held hostage, and most indicate that they were “imprisoned” during their stay at Mare Island. The above account from the Vallejo newspaper would at least seem to indicate that they had the freedom to move about town without restraint during their stay here.

An excellent account of the voyage is the 1997 book USS Saginaw in Alaska Waters: 1867-1868 by Robert N. DeArmond.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

William Halford and the USS Saginaw

The USS Saginaw was the first of the long line of ships built at the Mare Island Navy Yard. The steam-powered sidewheeler was launched in 1859 and served her entire career cruising in Pacific and Arctic waters. The story of her wreck on Ocean Island in 1870 is one of the great tales of rescue in U.S. naval history. The hero of that rescue was Lieutenant William Halford, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his efforts. Following the rescue (described below) Halford continued his long career in the Navy, working at Mare Island’s ammunition depot, where he retired 105 years ago this week, in May of 1903.

From the Vallejo Evening Chronicle May 23, 1903:

Gunner Halford, U.S.N.

His Departure Recalls the Story of the Wreck of the Saginaw, in which the Heroic Old Veteran Figured

Chief Gunner William Halford, U.S.N., who has been on duty at the magazine at the Mare Island Navy Yard for the past ten years, having reached the age limit, has been placed on the retired list and with his family will make his future home in Oakland. The retirement of this heroic old veteran recalls one of the tragedies of the sea.

“In 1870 the United States sloop-of-war “Saginaw” wrecked on Ocean Island [also known as Kure Atoll]. The crew was threatened with starvation. The ship’s gig, of which Halford was then coxswain, was decked over, provisioned, and started for the Hawaiian Islands, 1400 miles distant, to secure relief for the stranded mariners on Ocean Island. Halford was one of the crew of six that manned the relief expedition, and he was the only man of the six that reached the Hawaiian Island alive. His strength and fortitude rose superior to intense privations and sufferings. For his heroic work Halford was appointed a gunner in the Navy, having declined to be named as a master on the retired list of the service.

“The boat in which he made the perilous trip is now exhibited among other objects of national note in Washington, D.C.”

William Halford died in February 1919 at the age of 77. He is buried at the Mare Island Cemetery.

The Saginaw’s gig was later moved from Washington, D.C. and placed on display in Saginaw, Michigan. In recent years efforts have been made to return the gig to Mare Island.

The wreckage of the Saginaw was found in 2003.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Casa de Vallejo

Built in 1919 as the Industrial YMCA, the Casa de Vallejo was acquired by Harry Handlery in the 1920s, redecorated with a Spanish theme, and reopened as a luxury hotel in 1928. Throughout the 1930s and 40s the Casa de Vallejo hosted many of the top entertainers of the Big Band Era. A major expansion took place on the eve of WWII, and the hotel remained a thriving center for community events through the 1950s and 60s.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"I was proud!" - A Yardbird's Story

The archives of the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum are filled with treasures of local history. Recently a letter was received from Dick Marquette of Marysville, California, sharing his own personal story of working at Mare Island during WWII. Mr. Marquette wrote:

"To the historian ...

"When I was quite young I worked at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard. I went to the Apprentice School there and studied to be a machinist. I worked in Shop 31, which was the machine shop, and said to be the largest machine shop west of the Mississippi. While there I worked all shifts. I had a white badge with Shop 31 in big black letters and two black bars on top, which meant I was working in Shop 31 and on the swing shift. Three bars meant graveyard, or 12:00 to 8:00 shift.

"I worked on all [the] machines and was at times called upon to make parts for French ships in port (metric parts). Sometimes I was called upon to work outside on a ship in dock and was then given a blue badge with black numbers which was Shop 38, the outside machine shop.

"My dad worked as a burner out of the welding shop and their headquarters was called “the snake ranch” because of all the welding hose there. Uncle Will was on the U.S.S. California which was built [at Mare Island]. He was on that ship for almost 38 years.

"We mostly went to work in the big gray Navy busses, of which there were 300. We could go to Sacramento on those busses or many other cities. One night our driver (a lady) was murdered in the bus lot in San Francisco.

"Marine guards had a booth at the north end of Mare Island and all busses stopped for the guard to come aboard for a walk-through. If you looked suspicious, he would order you to go through an “electric-eye” at his station. Every morning Marine guards marched prisoners (Marine/Navy) down past Shop 31 to their work details. They had a big P stamped on their uniforms. Coming from Georgia Street, Vallejo, the little ferry cost 10 cents and was [an] easy way to get to work. I remember the good cafeteria on the south of our shop and how good the food tasted.

"Every noon hour on Mare Island there was a lot of wonderful Patriotic music over the loudspeakers. It was called “shipping over music.” There were also boxing matches every noon. Sometimes girls boxed.

"There were air raid shelters for everyone those days and we all knew which one we were to go to in case of a raid. Also there were “barrage balloons” floating above the base, anchored by cables, and spotlights were everywhere. Thousands of people worked there and it was truly an exciting place during Wartime.

"One night Port Chicago blew up and many folks thought it was a Japanese two-man sub. But how could it have breached the net put out from the Navy at Tiburon? Another time there was an explosion inside of Shop 31 from accumulated gas fumes while machining a large propeller. I think two men were killed because of that.

"In the end, I have my check stubs [and a] letter of award from the Admiral because I never missed one day of work. Also I received two pins, which were Naval “E” for excellence awards. I was proud! I still have some of the old newspapers, called the Mare Island Grapevine. Those were wonderful years for those of us who were lucky enough to work at Mare Island!!"

Dick L. Marquette

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Vallejo Garden Tour 2008

The 2008 Vallejo Garden Tour is right around the corner and tickets are selling fast! The tour will be held on Sunday, May 18th from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and is sponsored by the Vallejo Naval & Historical Museum and the Vallejo Beautification Advisory Commission. Our beautiful garden tour poster was designed by artist Carlo G. Carlucci and it perfectly captures this year’s theme of “The Glory of the Garden.”

Nine gardens splashed with color, imagination and personality will be featured on this year’s tour. Master Gardeners will be available at some of the gardens, as well as at the Museum, to answer questions and provide helpful gardening hints.

A delicious buffet luncheon will be served at the Museum from 12:00 to 4:00 as part of the tour. Tickets for “The Glory of the Garden” are $30 for the general public and $25 for Museum members and are available at the Vallejo Museum 734 Marin Street or at Zoey June Gift & Garden, 1426 Tennessee Street, in Vallejo. For more information call (707) 643-0077 or visit

Friday, May 9, 2008

Vallejo's Thriving Salmon Industry

On this date in 1890 the Vallejo Evening Chronicle reported that striking salmon fishermen had reached an agreement with local canneries and had returned to work:

Friday, May 9, 1890: The Strike Ended

The strike of the Fishermen’s Union against the canneries has at last terminated, and a compromise been effected satisfactory to both. On Monday the fishermen were selling salmon to the cannery at Martinez in large numbers, and several teams were engaged in hauling the fish. The catch on Monday was unusually large, and upwards of 1,000 salmon were landed at the wharves. Of this number, between three and four hundred were shipped to the city, and the cannery handled the remainder. The terms of the compromise as near as can be ascertained are three cents per pound and an agreement on the part of the canners to take the entire catch or as near so as possible. The run of fish is good at present, and if it continues times will be lively in this industry. The fishermen have acted sensibly by compromising matters with the canneries, but for a time it looked as though they would stand firm and demand the terms of the strike, which was four cents a pound, or cease fishing altogether. The salmon along the straits are said to be in better condition than those taken in the river, many of the fish landed on Monday weighing as much as 25 pounds.

During the late 19th century, salmon fishing was one of the mainstays of the local economy. Salmon canneries employed workers throughout the region, with canneries located in Benicia, Antioch, Martinez, and Rio Vista. The F.E. Booth Company established a salmon cannery in Collinsville in 1873, ultimately reaching production levels as high as 20,000 cans of salmon per day. A salmon cannery was started in South Vallejo around 1875. Many of the workers at that cannery were Chinese immigrants. Fishermen working the Carquinez Strait and the Sacramento River competed with each other, but they also faced competition from hungry sea lions that became entangled in the fishing nets while attempting to feast on the salmon.

Record salmon catches like the 1,000-fish day described above continued into the 20th century. In September, 1913, the Vallejo Evening Chronicle boasted the following headline: “Fishermen Get 18 Tons of Salmon as One Day's Catch.” The accompanying article stated:

“The Englebre Wiese Salmon Packing Company at South Vallejo is running full blast and during the last few days some unusually large catches have been made. Yesterday the fishermen brought in eighteen tons of salmon, one of the largest catches ever recorded in this vicinity, and it is believed the factory will be taxed to its full capacity during the remainder of the season. The salmon packing concern is one of the important industries of the south end, employing a large number of hands.”

In more recent years, water diversion, dams, over fishing and pollution have all but eliminated these vast numbers of salmon in the Delta region and along the Pacific Coast, resulting in a total ban on salmon fishing in 2008. But in earlier days the salmon industry helped cement Vallejo’s reputation as a thriving maritime city.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Early Vallejo Breweries

Founded by German immigrants Charles Widenmann and Peter Rothen- busch, the Solano Brewery was renowned for its Solano Steam Beer. By 1891 the Marin Street facility had a brewing capacity of 6,000 barrels a year and boasted its own malting house. Charles Widenmann later bought out his partner and continued operating the brewery until 1918. Like many cities, Vallejo boasted several small breweries in the years prior to Prohibition. Among these were the Solano Brewery on Marin Street, the Pioneer Brewery at the corner of Marin and Carolina Streets, and the Philadelphia Brewery in South Vallejo.

Friday, May 2, 2008

USS Sunfish (SS 281)

During its 142 years as an active military base, the Mare Island Naval Shipyard built nearly 50 submarines for the U.S. Navy. Many of those subs were launched during the tumultuous years of WWII. On this date in 1942 Mare Island launched the submarine USS Sunfish (SS 281), a Gato-class, diesel-electric vessel that would serve heroically throughout the War.

At 4:15 on that sunny May afternoon, Mrs. J.W. Fowler christened the sub with the ceremonial bottle of champagne and sent her down the ways. Shipyard Commander RADM Wilhelm Friedell hailed the Sunfish as “another answer by Mare Island to what we think of the Axis powers.” As a further demonstration of the Shipyard’s dedication to the war effort, USS Sunfish was completed a full eight months ahead of schedule.

USS Sunfish made eleven war patrols during WWII and earned nine battle stars. She returned to Mare Island for overhaul in May 1945 and departed for Pearl Harbor on 31 July. While Sunfish was preparing for her 12th war patrol, the war ended and she returned instead to Mare Island where she was decommissioned on 26 December 1945.