California brick

Dennis Jordan, Mare Island


Dennis Jordan was a prominent pioneer brick mason and builder, who had built structures throughout northern California. He was born in Jonesboro, County Armagh, Ireland in 1830 and came to the United States in 1845. He married Mary Woods in New York in 1852 and they had eight children. They moved to San Francisco, California, in the late 1850s. He built the foundations of the first San Francisco City Hall and the Hall of Records. Other buildings include the barracks at the San Francisco Presidio, San Francisco Branch Jail No. 2, the Merchant Exchange Building, Starr King Church, the dry docks at Mare Island, the training wall at San Antonio Creek, parts of the Folsom Prison, the agricultural building at the University of California, and many other buildings. In the 1870s, he owned a rock quarry near California City in Marin County. In the 1890s, he held patents for a devise for the construction of levees and a rotary dredging and excavating machine. He was known for his successful 12-year battle with the state to recover money owed for his work at the Folsom State Prison. He died in 1903 at his San Francisco residence at the age of 73 years.

Naval Hospital at Mare Island
View of the 1870 Naval Hospital at Mare Island. From the Mare Island Historic Park Foundation Museum.

Jordan's brick at Mare Island was first brought to my attention in 2009 by Thomas L. Snyder, MD, Executive Director of the Society for the History of Navy Medicine, who was researching the history of the Mare Island Naval Hospital Building H-1. Dr. Snyder had inquired about the brick made by Jordan, of which I was not aware. After visiting the site, I was able to study the brick and provide the description below. Only a few bricks were exposed for observation; most of the bricks were either covered by the redwood boards or painted over. Fortunately, rejected bats were found on the site that could be photographed. Much of the historic information about Jordan's operation and the building of the hospital was provided by Dr. Snyder.

When the Navy called for bids for the new Naval Hospital at Mare Island in April 1869, Dennis Jordan submitted the lowest bid at 20 percent below the next competitor. His bid was $148,000. Excavating the red-burning clay on the property, Jordan hand-molded the bricks using the soft-mud process. Jordan, like many early builders, did not have his own brickyard, so he manufactured his bricks on the building site when there was suitable clay. The wet bricks were dumped from their wooden molds. After the bricks were sun dried, they were fired in two field kilns. The bricks were described as "hard, of good color and of superior quality." Thousands of hard bricks were made and ready to be laid into the walls of the new hospital building.

The construction of the large three-story hospital building started in the summer of 1869. The cornerstone was laid on October 12, 1869. In addition to brick, it was reported that granite and Angel Island stone were used. The building was completed in late 1870 and it opened on February 1, 1871.

On March 31 1898, a severe earthquake rocked the Pacific Coast resulting in damage to several brick buildings on Mare Island, including the Naval Hospital. The Sacramento Daily Union reported that the brick building "is cracked from top to bottom, and every joint seems loosened, while the plastering is strewn everywhere." Fortunately, there were no fatalities.

The damaged hospital building was razed down to its foundation. The new hospital building was to be constructed of redwood over a stone foundation. But when it was found that the original brick foundation was mostly intact, brick remained in the foundation. About 113,000 of Jordan's brick were salvaged and used in the basement walls of the new hospital. The two to three floors above the basement were of redwood. Jordan was not involved with the rebuilding of the new hospital, though he may have been consulted while he was building the Mare Island dry docks at that time. The hospital building was completed in 1901. It was used as a hospital until 1957. The building is currently a part of Touro University.

Naval Hospital at Mare Island
View of the 1901 Naval Hospital at Mare Island. Photo by Dan Mosier, 2009.

Jordan Brick

The brick is pale red with a fine coating of sand on the surface. The edges are irregular and dull. The corners are dull. The sides display fine transverse striations. The top face has been longitudinally struck with a fine brush to make the face smoother. The bottom face also has fine striations in the longitudinal direction, which are probably the wood grain imprint from the mold bottom. There was no maker's mark; so few bricks were seen to know if any were marked. Minor cracks and bulges are present on the surface. The interior contains 15 percent subangular white quartz up to 1/8 inch across and 3 percent subrounded black rocks, probably a metabasalt, up to one inch across, in a porous sandy red clay body. This brick was made using the soft-mud process. Length 8 - 8 1/4, width 3 1/2, height 2 1/4 inches.

Jordan brick in foundation wall
View of sides of Jordan brick in the foundation of the Naval Hospital Building.

Top face of Jordan brick
View of the top face of a Jordan brick bat showing the longitudinal strike marks and black metabasalt clasts.

Bottom face of Jordan brick
View of the bottom face of a Jordan brick bat showing the wooden mold imprint partly covered by white mortar.

Interior of Jordan brick
View of the interior of a Jordan brick showing large black metabasalt clasts, white quartz in a porous red sandy clay body.


Daily Alta California, Marin County Items, July 28, 1872.

Daily Alta California, New Advertisements, April 10, 1869.

Daily Alta California, October 10, 1880.

Daily Alta California, University of California, June 27, 1872.

Federal Census Records, 1860.

Federal Census Records, 1870.

Federal Census Records, 1880.

Federal Census Records, 1900.

Mare Island Historic Park Foundation Artifact Museum.

Sacramento Daily Union, Naval Items and Naval Record, March 22, 1869.

Sacramento Daily Union, Vallejo Items, June 1, 1869.

Sacramento Daily Union, Wednesday's Earthquake, April 1, 1898.

San Francisco Call, February 28, 1900.

San Francisco Call, Interests the People of the Pacific Coast, March 5, 1899.

San Francisco Call, Prominent Contractor Called To Last Rest, October 13, 1903.

San Francisco Call, To Build Big Drydock, June 11, 1899.

Snyder, Thomas L., MD, written communications, 2009.

Copyright 2010 Dan Mosier

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