Walking the Historical Talk

Last Sunday, as part of the local “Mare Faire” to promote the former Naval Shipyard on Mare Island, I led two walking tours of the grounds of the Navy’s first hospital on the west coast. The structures and property, part of the much-larger Mare Island Naval Shipyard National Historic Landmark, are now owned by Touro University, which operates Schools of Osteopathy, Public Health and Pharmacy, and a Graduate School of Education there. Presently, the University uses four of the many buildings on the site for administrative and instructional spaces. According to Jay Ritchie, Vice President for Administration/Facilities, University authorities hope to convert most of the rooms in the four floor ward buildings and the Sick Officers’ Quarters, all built between 1927 and 1942, to instructional space. While probably earthquake safe, it would be prohibitively expensive to convert these structures to anything like modern hospital design.

Touro University Logo

The Navy Hospital first opened doors in 1864, in a converted granary. A purpose-built hospital received patients on 1 February 1871. That hospital was seriously damaged in the 1898 Mare Island Earthquake; it was replaced with a wood-frame structure which opened its doors in 1901. This building later served as an Administration Building for a much larger hospital complex. It still stands, designated “H-1”. Ultimately expanded to an official pre-war capacity of 600 beds, the Naval Hospital complex reached its maximum of capacity–~2500 beds–at the height of World War II. The facility was designated the Navy/Marine west coast amputee center during World War II and provided absolutely cutting edge prosthetics, created right on the Navy Yard.

Even today you have the feeling of walking hallowed ground there, especially when you remember that thousands of men who gave up limbs in service to nation, healing and recovering from war’s wounds, recuperated on this hill overlooking the then-busy shipyard and the Napa River behind. People who walk the tour with me never fail to be touched.

This is what I mean by “walking the historical talk”. All of us who harbor an interest and knowledge of local historical matters owe it to our neighbors and visitors to teach that knowledge, to inspire as many people as we can reach to appreciate and learn from their local history. I am continually pleased to note that a good number of young people (meaning, to me, anyone without gray hair!) come out for these historical walks. People are interested in their history. We owe it to them to make that history accessible and “living”!

© 2011 Thomas L Snyder

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