When Su Corbaley was growing up, her father, Len, used to tell stories about the old Mare Island Lighthouse and their ancestor Kate McDougal, who was lightkeeper there for 36 of its 44 years. Su didn’t pay much attention; stories about old times had a way of going in one ear and out the other, as they do for most children. As she got older, though, she found herself wishing she had listened a little better, learned a little more.
That’s why I’m here with Len and Su on Mare Island on a warm, sunny morning in early spring: Su wants to hear more about those old days, and so do I. We’re scouting the area around where the lighthouse used to be, according to old photos and maps. Its exact location had been something of a mystery until fall 2007, when a consultant to the Mare Island Regional Park Task Force found evidence that pointed to this spot, partway up a bluff to the west of the Navy’s old munitions depot.
This part of Mare Island is slated to become a 215-acre regional park, but for now it is still off-limits to the public except for guided outings because the Navy has not yet completed environmental cleanup, and the City of Vallejo has not adopted a management plan for the park. Our guide today is Myrna Hayes, volunteer North Bay project manager for Arc Ecology, who brings groups out here at least once a month; she also cofounded Mare Island’s annual Flyway Festival. With us is Bob Palmer, who works for the Navy’s caretaker site office and is escorting us through the part of the property that the Navy still owns, which includes the purported lighthouse site. We’re watching Myrna climb an overgrown hillside in search of some sign of the old lighthouse buildings. Len’s not going up there with his bum knee, and Su seems skeptical. I can’t blame her--the slope is steep and crumbly, and looks like it’s positively oozing poison oak. But I’ve got my camera, and I figure the scramble will be worth it if there’s something interesting to shoot up there. There isn’t. If this is indeed the site, to the untrained eye there is nothing left to indicate it.
The Navy built the lighthouse in 1873 on the southern end of the island, near where the Napa River enters Carquinez Strait, to keep ships from running aground. Kate McDougal came to her position in 1881, propelled by a tragedy. In March of that year, her husband, Commander Charles McDougal, inspector of the Navy’s 12th Lighthouse District, drowned off Cape Mendocino while delivering supplies to the lighthouse crew. The gold to pay the men was strapped to his body, and when his dinghy capsized, “he went down like a fishing weight,” Len says. Left with four children--three girls and a boy, ages five to 14--and only a small stipend from the Navy, Kate needed a job. The keeper of the Mare Island light had recently resigned, so the Navy offered her the position. “There were no survivor benefits in those days,” he says, “but she was taken care of by the Navy family.”
Kate stayed at her post until 1917, Len says (other sources have her leaving at various times); nine days after she left, the nearby ammunition depot exploded, destroying numerous buildings and gutting the lighthouse, a Victorian confection festooned with gingerbread. The remains of the building were razed in the 1930s.