California gained statehood in 1850. Two months later Navy Secretary William Graham wrote to President Fillmore that “a new empire has, as by magic, sprung into existence. San Francisco promises, at no distant time, to become another New York.” He went on to say that “a Navy yard is very much needed in California, and no time will be lost in accomplishing the work.”
A three-officer commission was soon dispatched to choose a suitable site, and they decided on one protected inside San Francisco Bay at Mare Island. Commander David G. Farragut (of “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” fame, a Civil War hero and the first admiral of the U.S. Navy) arrived at the remote place in 1854.
Within two days of his arrival at the California site, Farragut ordered the sloop-of-war over from Sausalito. This ship, soon to be replaced by the much larger USS Independence, served as the first naval medical facility on the West Coast. Ambulatory care was given in the ship’s sick bay, and the “hospitalized” were cared for from wooden bed frames suspended from the sick bay overhead or from their own hammocks. The average inpatient load was 10 sailors or civilian Navy yard workers.
The limitations of care aboard ship are made clear in a note from the yard surgeon in 1863; he wrote, “The frigate Independence, particularly in the winter season, is a very unsuitable place to treat the sick. It is cold, wet, and open to every wind that blows.”
Navy officials, while sympathetic to the plight of men serving in the tiny Pacific squadron, did little to correct the situation—likely because their attentions were focused on prosecuting the Civil War and not on a little Navy yard in far away California. Taking the situation into their own hands, surgeon Bishop and the commandant of the Navy yard submitted plans for a temporary facility—to be fashioned from an unused granary. The plans provided for a 25' x 25' ward on the first floor and a 24' x 40'9" ward space above, and called for a large cistern for year-round water supply, an attached bath approached from outside, and a nearby outdoor privy.
Still, Washington resisted, recommending that sick sailors be sent to the Marine (Public Health) Hospital in San Francisco, 25 miles away. This suggestion was met by stiff resistance both by local Naval authorities who feared desertion by sailors not under their direct observation and by the sailors themselves, who didn’t cotton to being hospitalized with merchant mariners.
Permission from Washington finally came through in July 1863. Work completed, the “Temporary Hospital” at Mare Island Navy Yard opened on Feb. 23, 1864.
The hospital carried an average inpatient load of 30, cared for by a surgeon and a surgeon’s steward, until the first permanent hospital—palatial by comparison—opened in 1871. TH
Dr. Snyder is a retired captain of the U.S. Naval Reserves’ Medical Corps. He writes regularly about naval medicine.