[A letter to arms manufacturer James T. Ames]. Calvin Brown.
[A letter to arms manufacturer James T. Ames].

[A letter to arms manufacturer James T. Ames].

Mare Island, California: 30 May 1861. 8vo (25mm x 20mm), blue paper, 4 pp. of manuscript.

A firsthand account of the Mare Island Navy Yard, then under construction, where the U.S. Navy civil engineer Calvin Brown would design and build Drydock #1—considered both his masterwork and one of the most remarkable masonry structures in California and the broader U.S.

The Mare Island Naval Shipyard (1854–1996), located in Vallejo, California, was the first U.S. Navy base established on the West Coast, located some 25 miles northeast of San Francisco. It would become the premier U.S. Pacific Coast submarine port, and during WWII served as a shipbuilding site. Mare Island's Drydock #1—the first permanent drydock on the West Coast—was designed by Brown in 1871 and completed 20 years later. 122 ft. wide, 508 ft. long, and 32 ft. in depth, it cost $2,400,000. Prior to Brown's position at Mare Island, he had worked at Navy facilities such as the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

From the present letter, we know Brown began designing—or at least contemplating—the dock as early as 1861. He reaches Mare Island by sea on May 9, ‘61. After keeping to his quarters for the first few days upon arrival due to a cold, then spending two or three days “about the yard, he pens this letter to James T. Ames. Ames was the owner of the Ames Manufacturing Co. in Chicopee, Mass., "among the Union’s most important private manufacturers of side arms, swords, and light artillery, and the third largest producer of heavy ordnance.” From this letter, it appears Ames was a business associate of Brown’s. Alerting Ames he is about to "trouble [him] with a long letter," Brown explains, "this is a country which presents much new and various interests and recurringly of much vast extent, that it requires considerable space to represent any one of them, as it may appear to demand."

Brown begins by offering a lively account of the Navy yard: "The yard as yet is a mere skeleton in respect to that state of efficacy which its magnificent design seems to anticipate, and which is required in a first class establishment." He proceeds to make note of its various buildings, equipment, machinery, tools, and the labor on hand, noting, "We need machinery and tools more than anything else at present." He pauses again: "it is my opinion that we should now, before putting up any more building, endeavor to properly furnish what we have completed." This view would seem to explain why Brown's Drydock #1 took some two decades to complete. New to these parts, he inquires with Ames about matters such as the cost of materials and labor in California. He continues,

what I have above stated, is its general state as I have been able to observe it, and you will hence infer something as to what remains to be done here. We have one of floating wooden docks, called the 'Sectional Dock,' which has been made to answer the purposes of a dry dock, as far as such a structure can, but I am satisfied that its usefulness is pretty near an end corridor, its rotten and racked condition, and that a proper stone dock must soon be commenced: I hope to get in an estimate for a work of this kind this year.

Shifting gears from work, Brown relates that he has "not yet had any opportunities for looking over this country to any further extent than the region immediately around San Francisco." Writing 30 miles north of San Francisco, he records his first impressions of the surrounding country:

everything betokens, in addition to the present astonishing activity of business, unbounded resources for its future extension. California is undoubtedly a 'great country': the climate, probably is unsurpassed in its quality of equable salabrity…the atmosphere is most beautifully transparent, as you may judge from the fact, that with my little French opera glass, I can distinguish the rocks from the foliage on the slopes and summit of Mount Diabolo which is 27 miles off…There is indeed a world of beauty in the scenery about here, and I am told that it becomes grander as you go into the interior.

Brown proceeds to remark upon matters such as the local soil, agriculture, mining ventures (which "continue unabated"), and hay—"it would inspire a New England farmer to see how little labor is bestowed upon the making of this hay." He closes the letter by expressing his hopes that Ames will visit the yard soon and laments the ongoing Civil War.

“The stone dock [#1] is considered the finest piece of workmanship of its kind in the United States. Its great dimensions make it available for repairing the largest man-of-war that floats. It was designed by Civil Engineer Calvin Brown, who visited Europe for the purpose of examining the public docks of the great naval powers and adopting the one which he might deem the best for the Mare Island structure."—Sabine Goerke-Shrode

A observant letter written by this eminent civil engineer, recording his first impressions of the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, where much important work would soon be undertaken under his direction.

REFERENCES: Goerke-Shrode, Sabine. More than 500 ships were launched. Historical Articles of Solano County Online Database, 2003; Lynch, Jacqueline T. The Ames Manufacturing Company - Civil War and the New England Mill Town; National Register of Historic Places Continuation Sheet. United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1997, p. 17.

Item #4415

Price: $950.00

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