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Haunted Landmarks: Mare Island Naval Shipyard

A classified Navy photo of the shipyard during WW2

America's first naval base on the Pacific Ocean, Mare Island Naval Yard, can trace its military history back to 1852 when Commodore John Sloat suggested the site to Secretary of the Navy Will A. Graham. Two years later the shipyard opened and was placed under the command of a future admiral named David Farrugut-- the Civil War hero who, years later, later issued the famous order, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"

Mare Island Naval Shipyard, known to sailors around the world simply as MINSY, played a crucial role in both world wars, and finally closed in 1996. Today it is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and has also been designated a California Historical Landmark.

In 1917, MINSY was rocked by tragedy when a barge loaded with munitions exploded, killing 6 and wounding 31. However, there is a less famous tragedy associated with Mare Island-- a tragedy which led to the haunting of the famed shipyard.

The Phantom Sentry of Mare Island

In the late 19th century, Post No. 7 was known to sailors as the "haunted post", and the haunting stems from an incident involving two Marines who decided to leave the island one night by rowing across the strait to the city of Vallejo on the opposite shore. Legend has it that the men were promptly devoured by crabs and fish, and what was left of them was buried a few days later.

According to legend, from that day forward, every Friday night at 11 o'clock sharp, when the second relief is posted, the night sentry is subjected to the sound of phantom footsteps from an unseen source.

"Halt! Who goes there?" demands the sentry, but there is no reply. The ghostly footsteps cease-- but not for long. Only when the bells chime midnight do the footsteps finally stop, only to be replaced by the splashing of water, followed by a blood-curdling scream. Novices, unaware of the ghost of Mare Island, have been known to throw down their muskets and run into the guardhouse, informing the sergeant on duty that a man is drowning. The sergeant chuckles, shakes his head, and finally tells the tenderfoots about the phantom sentry.

An abandoned building on Mare Island

One interesting account of the ghostly activity was shared by Lieutenant Barnwell in 1898. He wrote:

Three years ago I was stationed at the barracks at Mare Island, and on the night I speak of I had been doing duty at the post for more than a year. Of course, I had heard the yarn about Post No. 7, and had seen men punished for leaving that post. However, I am no believer in the supernatural. Time and again I had visited No. 7 at night, seeing nothing or hearing nothing unusual, and laughed at the story of the phantom sentry.

One night I was on duty as the officer of the day, and the early part of the evening I spent in the office reading some work on military surveying. With my head full of this stuff, shortly before midnight I started out to visit sentries... First I visited No. 9, then No. 8, and rapidly came up to No. 7. Without any assignable reason, unless it was the resonance of my footsteps, I experienced an uncomfortable nervous feeling of being cold. I walked more rapidly, but the feeling only increased...

There under the lamplight stood the sentry, who challenged me in clear, sharp tones, his rifle rattling as he brought it up to 'port arms'. I halted and gave the countersign and the sentry ordered, "Advance, officer of the day!" I walked up to him and as I did so I broke into a cold perspiration. At first there seemingly was nothing unusual about the sentry, though I did not know the man's face. I ordered him to repeat the orders of his post and he did so, but instead of giving the recent orders of the post he gave those that were in force several years previously. Then I noticed that the man was ghostly pale and that his eyes burned with a deep hollow fire, and that his rifle was rusty and damp... I wheeled around and rapidly moved off. When I reached the end of his post, involuntarily I turned to take another look; the man had disappeared.

Numerous deaths have occurred at Mare Island-- the result of industrial accidents, explosions, drownings and suicides. But the incident most closely surrounding the legend of the haunted sentry occurred in 1883, when two Marines, identified in reports as McElroy and Dantignac, paddled a barge across the bay to Vallejo for a night of drinking and carousing. They were detected by a sentry during the return trip and to avoid capture they leaped from the barge and attempted to swim. Both Marines were drowned, and all that was ever found of them were their caps.

Chicago Inter-Ocean, May 15, 1898
Oakland Tribune, October 18, 1883

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