I’ve been away from my desk for a couple of weeks, visiting family in Brussels. Now back to a spectacular late spring here in northern California. Later this afternoon, I’ll be giving a walking tour of the grounds of the Naval Hospital on the island, the Navy’s first on the west coast, as part of an annual May Day celebration of spring and the rich historical heritage represented by the Navy Yard on Mare Island–also the first on the west coast.
Mare Island Navy Yard was established in September 1854 by Commander David G Farragut. Two days after his arrival on the 14th of that month, he called the sloop of war Warren over from her mooring in Sausalito. Aboard her was Assistant Surgeon John Mills Browne, a recent graduate of the Medical Department of Harvard University. Assistant Surgeon Brown was the first Navy Medical Officer in Mare Island. He served in Warren and then the razee frigate USS Independence, which served as the first medical facilities at the Navy Base. Browne later returned to Mare Island to supervise construction of the Yard’s first purpose-built hospital, and then served as its inaugural Commanding Officer after it opened on 1 Feb 1871. He went on to become Surgeon General of the Navy in 1888.
The first land structure to serve as a hospital on Mare Island was an unused granary converted to hospital use. It opened in January 1864 and was replaced 7 years later by a majestic edifice designed by Philadelphia architect John McArthur. This structure was severely damaged in the 1898 Mare Island Earthquake, and was abandoned as unsafe. Congress immediately appropriated money for a replacement hospital, the current “H-1” on Mare Island. Until this new hospital opened in 1901, patients were hospitalized in the nearby Marine Corps barracks.The new hospitals was of wood frame construction, and while more resistant to earthquake that the earlier brick structure, the doctors commanding her fretted continually about the danger of fire. Finally, in 1928, the first of several fireproof hospital buildings were built, and H-1 spent the last 30 years of her medical career as an administration building, with a family practice clinic on her third floor. When the Mare Island Hospital was closed in 1957, the structure became headquarters for the Schools Command on Mare Island, a role she filled until the Mare Island base was closed in 1997 in BRAC I.
Since then the hospital and its attendant structures have been purchased by Touro University-California. The University uses several of the hospital outbuildings for instructional and administrative spaces, but the main hospital structures, including H-1, lie fallow.
© 2011 Thomas L Snyder