History of Benicia - History

History of Benicia - History

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Benicia is a city in California.

(ScSIp: dp. 2400; 1. 250'6"; b. 38'; dr. 18'; s. 11.5 k.;

cpl. 291; a. 1 11" S. B., 10 9" S. B., 1 60-pdr. R., 2

20-pdr. BLR.;cl. Confiance)

Benicia was launched 18 August 1868 by Portsmouth Navy Yard as Algoma; renamed Benicia 15 May 1869; and commissioned 1 December 1869, Commander S. Nicholson in command.

Between March 1870 and August 1872 Benicia served on the Asiatic Station protecting American interests in the Far East and took part in Rear Admiral John Rodgers' expedition to Korea (16 May-11 June 1871). Following repairs at Mare Island Navy Yard, Benicia joined the North Pacific Squadron 6 December 1872. She cruised in Mexican, Central American, and Hawaiian waters and arrived at San Francisco 29 November 1874 carrying King Kalakana of Hawaii and his suite. Benicia made a cruise to Alaska (11 May-21 July 1875) and was decommissioned at Mare Island 29 November 1875. Benicia was sold 3 May 1884.

WATER: The story of Benicia’s decades of struggle to secure a reliable source

WHAT IS NOW BENICIA WAS ONCE TREELESS, except for a small area that is now the State Recreation Area. Early drawings and photographs show hills of grass and no year-round water supply. Native-American tribes seldom ventured from the Suisun area into what is now Benicia because of a lack of water. Water has been a problem from the very inception of the city.

The city’s earliest resident, Robert Semple, probably took water from the Carquinez Strait that ran clear and fresh until the rivers of the east slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains were dammed in the latter half of the 20th century. William Tustin, the first settler and undoubtedly the man who built the second dwelling in Benicia after Semple’s reed hut, ran a short pipeline from an intermittent spring, probably the one that still runs in East Benicia.

Many early dwellings used storage tanks and cisterns for water from the intermittent springs, rains and drafts from the Strait.

The Benicia Barracks, Arsenal and Quartermaster Depot, operated separately until 1922, struggled to provide water for its operations and personnel. The Army finally settled on a series of tanks to store water drafted from the Strait or collected from intermittent springs. One such system can be seen at the Benicia Historical Museum, where a spring behind Building 7 was tapped and an iron pipe laid to a cistern under the old Guardhouse (Building 8), from which it was pumped to other buildings. Many attempts to dig a well at the Arsenal failed to produce anything but bubbling sulphurous water until a fresh-water well was finally sunk near the Commanding Officers’ Quarters.

In the second half of the 19th century, several industries moved into Benicia, including packing sheds, tanneries and lumber yards, all requiring large amounts of water. On Oct. 10, 1879, a group of businessmen organized and incorporated the Benicia Water Company and capitalized it with $30,000. The BWC acquired water rights on Paddy Ranch Creek and Sulphur Springs Creek, northeast of Benicia, and secured a right-of-way across agricultural land to the site of the city’s first reservoir atop what was then known as Kaiser Hill, purchased from a Mr. Kaiser for $50.

The same year, 1879, the BWC hired a Mr. Delaney to build the Sulphur Spring Dam, a pumping plant, the pipeline and the reservoir on Kaiser Hill. Construction began in January 1880, and by summer of that year water was flowing into distribution pipes laid under the streets and alleys of the city. The original pipes were made of redwood panels, joined with mortise and tendon seams, wrapped in wire and covered with asphalt. The system came on line on June 25, 1880. One of these pipes is on display at the Benicia Historical Museum.

The Kaiser Hill lot, at East Third and W streets, was purchased in 1880 and a reservoir was quickly constructed. By 1958 it had a capacity of 1.5 million gallons. It was torn down in 1965 as part of the reorganization of the water system and is now a weed-choked vacant lot at the end of a short lane off Corte Dorado Street.

Just two years later, in 1882, the BWC experienced its first dry season when the Sulphur Springs Creek ran dry. Two wells were sunk just below the dam, and the water requirements were met for the remainder of the year.

Additional land was purchased in November 1883 from the D. N. Hastings Ranch along Paddy Ranch Creek, and construction was begun on the Paddy Dam the following year. Paddy Creek Dam was located about five miles northeast of Lake Herman and held back a reservoir of 52 million gallons. It was used until 1965.

LARGE CISTERNS used by residents and military in the Arsenal can still be seen these are near the Commanding Officer’s Quarters.
File photo

THE CITY GREW IN POPULATION and industrial water use. The dry seasons of 1882-83 and 1887-88 again found the city short of water. The lack of water became so acute in the spring of 1889 that it became necessary to barge water from the San Joaquin River. During these years, a new steam-powered pumping station was constructed and new cast-iron pipes were laid from Paddy Reservoir to the pumping plant and city reservoir on Kaiser Hill.

In the last five years of the 19th century, more water pipes were laid and an intake tower was constructed at the Paddy Reservoir. The construction required considerable amounts of money and created debt. As a result, a new company, The Benicia Water Works Inc., was organized on April 27, 1901, with a capitalization of $200,000. The equipment, dams, reservoirs and pipes were owned by the BWC.

Water use projections were made on the population and industrial requirements of water for the city. Surveys were made and property for a new reservoir was purchased. Herman Schussler, a highly respected San Francisco engineer, designed the dam and reservoir named after him. Completed in 1905, it had a capacity of 424 million gallons of water.

Again, it was realized that the Benicia Water Company was undercapitalized — not enough money was available for the planned projects. So a third company was organized and incorporated on January 24, 1905, and capitalized at $500,000. It took the name of the original company, the Benicia Water Company, and assumed ownership of the waterworks consisting of dams, reservoirs, pumping stations and miles of cast-iron pipes. Herbert Kullman, a partner of the Kullman, Salz and Company Tannery, was the first president. Five years later, in 1910, Ansley Salz became president and remained so for many years.

In 1906, a 12-inch wood stave pipeline was constructed from Lake Herman to the pumping plant. Two years later, the steam pumping plant was enlarged with the addition of new boilers. In the fall of 1913, another dry season befell the city and by Jan. 3, 1914, water barges from the San Joaquin were again employed. That same year, new gates were installed on the spillway of Lake Herman and water meters were installed for all customers, a proven water-saving measure. By 1916, chlorination plants were installed at the city reservoir on Kaiser Hill to make the water potable, and in 1917 more land was acquired in the Lake Herman watershed with the acquisition of the Frank Dotta Ranch.

IN 1918 THE FIRST WORLD WAR caused an increase in activity at the Arsenal, and Benicia’s population swelled to accommodate the additional work. That year the Pometta wells were sunkwest of Lake Herman and connected to the grid by pipes. In the following three years, increased demand and a dry season necessitated the barging of more water from the San Joaquin River. During the dry periods of 1921, water was pumped directly from the Carquinez Strait. The use of barges became so frequent that in 1922 the water company purchased the barge “Seminole” and installed sand filtering equipment on the waterfront to provide water to the industries and populace. In 1923, a new electrical pump system was installed to replace the steam units.

Benicia was not immune from the Depression that gripped the nation during the third decade of the 20th century. In 1930 the BWC experienced financial problems as the industrial plants closed or scaled back production. The BWC was purchased by the California Public Utilities Company that year. In the following decade some of the packing houses and lumber mills closed, and the tannery and Yuba Manufacturing scaled back. The biggest shock came with the opening of the railroad bridge from Army Point in Benicia to Martinez and the discontinuation of the two gigantic, steam-driven ferries that had run since 1878 from the base of First Street across the Strait to Port Costa. The industries, hotels, brothels — called “bawdy houses” in The Herald — bars and stores on First Street that depended on the railroad immediately felt the loss of business. The population of Benicia decreased from 2,913 to 2,419.

The Second World War changed all of that again. By 1944 the civilian population swelled to 8,368, and the industries — especially Yuba Manufacturing, which manufactured howitzers — swung into full production. Water use exceeded Lake Herman’s storage capacity and in 1943 the earth-fill dam was raised by 14 feet, requiring 40,664 cubic feet of excavation. A new concrete spillway was also built and the storage capacity was increased, at a cost of $100,000, from 424 million to 840 million gallons. The high priority of water service in the important Benicia war production area allowed the CPUC to secure all the necessary supplies without delays despite widespread wartime restrictions.

AFTER THE WAR, Benicia’s population stabilized around 7,200, primarily because the Arsenal was still in partial operation, accepting equipment back from the Pacific and Europe and reconditioning it for shipment to NATO and other countries.

The increased population and industrial use, coupled with three dry years of 1946 to 1948, caused the CPUC to search for more water. A source was secured from the Suscol Wells on the north side of Suscol Creek, north of Vallejo. The wells had long been a source of water for Vallejo. A pipe was run east from the wells to Highway 29, then south to Highway 37 and east to Lake Herman. The pipeline and an associated pumphouse cost $150,000. This source of water was used from July 1948 to June 1950.

In the spring of 1950, negotiations between the CPUC and the city of Napa resulted in a 20-year contract to connect Napa’s 31,000-acre-feet Conn Lake Reservoir, in the mountains above Rutherford, to the city system. There was already a water supply line to Napa from Conn Lake, so an additional $110,000 was spent running a pipeline from Napa. The line ran to Shipyard Acres, then south to the State Hospital at Imola and on to the point where the Suscol Wells line turned south adjacent to Highway 29. By December of that year, the pipeline was operational. For the first time in its history, Benicia had a stable water supply — but only for its current industry and population.

A pressure of 65 pounds was maintained throughout the system, except for the West Manor and Highlands subdivisions, where the pressure was lower. Because the water from Conn Lake, Paddy Reservoir and Lake Herman was cheaper than the water from Vallejo and the Suscol Wells, a rate decrease of 5 to 25 percent was declared.

In 1950, the census was 7,275 persons, twice the number of 1940, but the bulk of the water usage was in agricultural and industrial applications. The Korean War was on, and the Army raised Pine Lake by 8 feet. The CPUD at that time supplied 75 percent of the water to the Arsenal, as new rules limited the use of drafted water from the Strait.

By 1952 the city was confronted with requirements of the Air Pollution Board to remediate the lack of sewage treatment for the city and Arsenal, and the Army and State Attorney General had begun a campaign against “vice” in the city. Sewage treatment would require more water, and the elimination of the brothels and gambling houses would undermine the tax base of the city.

By March 1953, the CPUC was collecting $139,783 to deliver water to 1,802 customers in Benicia. But there were a lot of complaints. Customers didn’t like the fact that the water company would occasionally cut delivery to whole sections of the town without notice. The City Council and city businessmen’s organizations fretted about the cycles of drought. Everyone complained about the bills. Particularly distressing was when a large company with a large payroll couldn’t come to town because the CPUC couldn’t deliver the 250,000 gallons of water a day it required to operate.

THE CITY COUNCIL FRETTED and dithered for 10 years over the issue, which was complicated by the threat of litigation from the state if the city didn’t build a sewage treatment system. Another problem: constant issues with the police department and the fact that chiefs had a tendency to get fired or go to prison. Additionally, the houseboats — called arks — that discharged raw sewage into the Bay had to be remediated. In 1953, Benicia was the only city in the entire Bay system that didn’t have a sewage treatment system.

But there was an opportunity on the horizon. That year construction began on the Montecito Dam, a potential source of water for the city. In 1955 the city opened negotiations with the CPUC and was faced with a price of $1,200,000 for the water system and an additional $280,000 for its Napa properties —mainly a water line shared with Napa to Conn Lake. By the next year, the CPUC had lowered its asking price to $875,000, with the Napa pipeline thrown in. The City Council put forward a bond issue of $1.1 million, which included the sale price and a reserve fund.

The water bond vote failed on April 4, 1957, and again on May 16 the same year. But the sewer bonds passed the following November, and a site was selected on East Fifth Street. Perhaps as a guide to follow with the water bonds, the city had sweetened the sewer bond vote by negotiating a deal with the Army to participate in the sewer construction and operation.

By May 1958 the city and state were at war with the ark owners, threatening them with legal action. The ark owners, described in one Herald article as a bunch of rapscallions, responded with various obscene gestures.

In June 1961, city officials again rolled out a water bond vote. The landscape had changed. The sewer system was up and running and the arks were gone. The city had shown the voters that it could follow through on a large civic improvement project. The price was the same, but Watchie Builders, which was buying up ranches north and east of Benicia for what would become the Southampton subdivision, had cut a deal with the city. Watchie would pay half of the bond price, $500,000, for CPUC land that wasn’t needed for watershed, thus cutting the debt in half. In addition, the State Department of Water Resources had set a deadline for the city to participate in the massive state water program. On Sept. 21, 1961, the water bond issue was approved.

Over the following year, a Chicago investment firm purchased the bonds for 3.7252 percent, and the legal process of purchasing the water system from the CPUC progressed. It was long and tedious, but by the end of 1963 the water system belonged to the city.

But by then the landscape had changed again. The Arsenal was closing, people were leaving the city, the industrial park was being developed and a major oil firm was thinking of coming to town.

Dr. Jim Lessenger is a docent at the Benicia Historical Museum and the author, most recently, of “Commanding Officer’s Quarters of the Benicia Arsenal.”

Benicia Chamber of Commerce

Benicia Tannery

Benicia State Capitol
c1918 with Firehouse and
Chamber of Commerce

Clocktower Fortress c.1912

Francisca Benicia
Carillo de Vallejo

St. Augustine College

History Abounds in Benicia

Unlike Any Other Town or City in California

Conceived in 1846, founded in 1847 by Rogert Semple and Thomas Larkin on land sold to them by General Mariano C. Vallejo, Spain's last Commandant General of the Mexican forces in California, for the grand sum of $100, Benicia was settled in 1848. It has the distinction of being the first American city founded in the Golden State by Anglo-Americans, as compared to earlier Spanish missions, forts and trading centers. The City was named in honor of Doña Francisca Benicia Carillo de Vallejo, the wife of General Vallejo. The name initially decided on was "Francisca," but soon had to be changed to avoid confusion when leaders of the rising young city of Yerba Buena were successful in obtaining the official designation of San Francisco for their town. The city was obliged to turn to the second of Senora Vallejo's names, and the city was re-christened Benicia.

In the world of commerce, one of the earliest companies in California, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, selected Benicia as the site of its northern repair refuel and cleaning facility. The shipyard became the first large industrial enterprise in California. Railroads were also a critical part of Benicia's historic past. Southern Pacific built their transcontinental route to the water's edge at Benicia and ferried trains across to the opposite shore for the final journey to San Francisco. This operation lasted from 1879 to 1930, a fifty one year episode when Benicia was on the window of the world and was once the educational center of the Pacific, hailed the "Athens of the West."

Historical sites and points of interest in Benicia are numerous and varied. Stop by the Chamber of Commerce office at 601 First Street for a copy of our historical map and walking tours which correspond to marker signs at the sites of various historical points of interest. Other historical sites you may wish to visit include:

Benicia Capitol State Historic Park: Benicia was the site of California&rsquos third seat of government and served as the state capitol for thirteen months during 1853 and 1854. During the Gold Rush years, Benicia became a way station for miners en route from San Francisco to the gold fields. Its classically designed City Hall was built in just three months from bricks and architectural materials salvaged from abandoned ships in San Francisco Bay. It became California's Capitol and the building, located at 115 West G Street, remains the only pre-Sacramento capitol that survives in California. The Senate Chambers were on the first floor, and the Assembly met on the second floor. In 1854 the building also housed the State Treasury since no wooden structure was considered safe for this purpose. The original building has been restored with reconstructed period furnishings and exhibits. The interior includes a board-for-board reconstruction of the building's original floor with ponderosa pine.

It is now a State Historical park and is open to the public (effective July 2013) from the hours of 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The Capitol is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Admission is $3 adults (age 17 and older), $2 children (age 16 and under). Docent-led tour arrangements may be made by contacting the Park staff at (707) 745-3385 or the Benicia State Parks Association at (707) 745-4670 or by email at [email protected] .

Benicia Historical Museum at the Camel Barns (or, The Camel Barn Museum) stems from Benicia's unusual contribution to U.S. Military history in the 1850's and 1860's. During that time the Army experimented with the use of camels as pack animals. However, because of the outbreak of the Civil War, the project was shelved and 35 of the camels were shipped to the Benicia Arsenal to be sold. Dedicated as a museum in 1982, the Camel Barn is located at 2060 Camel Road and houses a variety of exhibits and displays recounting the history of both the City of Benicia and the U.S. Army Arsenal. Exhibits are changed periodically and reflect the past as it relates to the future. Student education programs in history are available to any school or school district wishing to participate. Building #9 houses the museum on the upper level, and the Charles P. Stone Hall on the lower level. This large, open, air-conditioned space may be rented for weddings, concerts, business meetings and other occasions, accomodating 150 people for dinner and up to 300 for other types of activities. Museum hours are 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Adults $5, Seniors/Students $3, Children 6-12 $2, those under 5 are free. Call 707-745-5435 for additional information.

The Clocktower Fortress: Built in 1859, this sandstone military bastion was strategically built atop Army Point to control the key passageway of Carquinez Strait to the gold mines of the interior and was designed to protect the post from Indian attacks, although the "Old Fort" never fired a shot in anger, even during the alarms of Civil War days.

The three-story structure was as much a fort as storehouse, with its roof crenelated with battlements, and its two towers, like castle keeps, topped by lookouts. These were actually shot towers for the casting of balls for cartridges. The walls were pierced by apertures for cannon, and by slits for defensive, close-in, musket fire. Since hostile Indians were scarce around Benicia, its builder must have had foreign invaders or treasonous rebels in mind. In 1912 a fire resulted in an explosion which decapited the building, sending stones hurtling back to their quarried birthplaces. Red hot metal flew through the air for a hundred yards, as spontaneous combustion on the second floor set off a conflageration which consumed enough supplies for a 30,000-man army, over 15 million rounds of ball cartridges, 34,000 stand of rifles, an undetermined number of small arms, uniforms, shoes, blankets and leggings.

The gutted fortress was rebuilt two years later as a two-story building but with one tower. The name was changed from Old Fort to The Clocktower. The six-day Seth Thomas clock (now stopped) set into its tower was operated by a mechanism consisting of an unwinding cable, weighted by a cannon ball, on a windlass. Still a large building, its upstairs hall is the largest community facility in Benicia, with a maximum capacity of 750 people (536 seating capacity), serving a variety of uses from community civic functions to dances, private parties, and receptions. It is located in the Arsenal at 1189 Washington Street. For rental information call Parks and Community Services at 707-746-4285.

Commanding Officer's Quarters (Previously known as the Commodant's Residence - Arsenal Building No. 28): Built in 1860 by Col. Julian McAllister, the two-story, 8883 sq.ft., 20-room Greek Revival mansion was used as a residence for the commander of the Benicia Arsenal, as well as the former home of poet Stephen Vicent Benet, whose father commanded the post from 1905 to 1911. The interior has intricate inlaid parquet flooring and elegant scrollwork and woodwork. The building, located at One Commandant's Lane, is listed on the National Register of Historical Buildings and is now owned by the City of Benicia. It was once leased as a restaurant, which later closed in 1979 after a kitchen fire. Closed for over 20 years, funds were raised for much-needed renovations and were completed in 2009, which includes handicap access, a new roof, air conditioning, phone/data lines, elevator, interior repairs, siesmic upgrades, and exterior ornamental trim repairs by expert craftsmen.

Benicia Arsenal: From 1849 to 1964, the Benicia Arsenal housed millions of pounds of ammunition and explosives. Now it's home to some of the Bay Area's successful artists and craftpersons. In 1849 Benicia's founders gave 345 acres of land near the Carquinez Strait to the Army. In 1850 the Arsenal became the first ordinance supply depot on the West Coast, supplying equipment and munitions for conflicts from the Civil War through Korean War. The federal government decided to close the base in 1960 and in 1964 the Army turned the Arsenal over to the City of Benicia. The Arsenal became the hub of Benicia industry. Some of its large warehouses were used to store goods and some were converted to machine shops.

It didn't take long for local artists to see the potential in the old buildings, and in the late '60s some warehouses were converted to studios. In 1991 the city rezoned parts of the Arsenal, making it possible for artists to live and work in their studios. About 9 acres (4 buildings) were converted. It enjoys 24-hour security (as a port) and is minutes from downtown Benicia. It's home to Arts Benicia, the nucleus of the local arts and culture scene.

The Fischer-Hanlon House: Located next to the State Capitol Building at 137 West G Street, the house was orginally a hotel on another site in town and after extensive fire damage, Joseph and Catherine Fischer moved and remodeled the building for their home in 1856. The house was occupied by successive generations of the family until it was donated to the State of California in 1969. It has been restored as a completely furnished home representative of middle-class living in the late 1800's in Benicia. Its parlor features a Steinway piano of the era the upstairs bedrooms display such period treasures as a crazy quilt and children's wooded toys. A Victorian Christmas is recreated each year with appropriate décor, docents in period dress, and a visit from St. Nick. The Victorian Garden at the Fischer-Hanlon House features heirloom varieties of trees and flowers, including a wisteria plant over 100 years old.


FROM THE BEGINNING, the city of Benicia and the Benicia Arsenal were joined at the hip. In 1847, two years before the Benicia Barracks were founded, the “Military Reservation” was included east of the city in the first Benicia Survey. The fate of the city has risen and fallen in unison with the Arsenal since — first as a cavalry barracks, then as an Arsenal and finally as an industrial park.

The city and the Arsenal are well situated for success. Positioned at an important choke point on the north side of the Carquinez Strait that connects the Sacramento Delta to the San Francisco Bay, they share a southern exposure, a broad bay and high ground that can be easily defended.

The land was originally tree-less rolling hills covered with wild grasses. There was no year-around water source, so the Patwin Indians who populated the area for millennia stayed close to the water when they ventured away from the rich hunting areas of the Suisun Marsh to the northeast and the oaken woodlands to the north. The Patwin lived in small bands of fewer than 100 persons and spoke a dialect of the Wintun Indians who lived in the Benicia-Vallejo area, the Napa Valley, and the Sacramento River valley. The Patwins were primarily a hunter-gatherer society: they ground acorns with stone tools and traded with tribes to the east for obsidian, from which they made arrowheads. The arrowheads, stone implements and a few baskets are all that remains of them.

While there may have been limited European contact before 1810, it was in that year that Captain Gabriel Moraga, the first European born in California, became one of the first Spaniards to explore the Carquinez. He engaged a large group of Patwin on the shores of the Suisun Marsh, northeast of where the Arsenal currently rests, slaughtering them. The surviving children, including Francisco Solano after whom our county was later named, were taken as slaves to Mission Dolores in Yerba Buena. Two decades later epidemics of smallpox and syphilis swept through the California Indian tribes and by 1823 the Patwin lands were owned by the Church.

Mission Solano in Sonoma at the northernmost end of the El Camino Real and the Mission Road was the last to be founded. Father Jose Altimira, a Franciscan trained in Spain, was assigned in 1819 to Mission Dolores. He soon became dissatisfied with the unexciting rhythm of mission life and came up with a plan to found a new mission north of Mission San Rafael. Bypassing Church leadership, he applied directly to Governor Don Luis Arguello, who presented the plan to the Territorial Assembly in Monterey in 1823. The legislature approved the scheme and added the transfer of Mission San Rafael to the new mission.

When the ecclesiastical authorities caught word of the plan, three cornered negotiations ensued that resulted in the foundation of Mission Solano, named after St. Francis of Solano, a martyred Peruvian missionary.

The territory that belonged to the Mission was enormous and probably included present-day Benicia and most of the property north of the Carquinez. Several ranchos, including Petaluma and Suscol, were formed by the Mission priests to provide food and income.

Father Altimira relied on flogging and imprisonment to bring the Patwin neophytes into the Church many escaped. In 1826 they rebelled and burned the buildings, forcing Altimira to flee to Mission San Rafael and eventually to Spain. The Mission then went through a succession of priests until secularization.

Part two: The rise of California’s most powerful landowner

GEN. Mariano Vallejo.
File image

THE MISSIONS AND THE MEXICAN GOVERNMENT owned most of the property in California prior to 1830. At that time, only 21 pieces of property were in private hands in all of Alta California thus, there was little property for new immigrants, the sons of the Californio dons, and, most important, the legions of unemployed Spanish army veterans left to their own devices after Mexico renounced the Spanish crown in 1821.

Further, the missions were never intended by the Council of the Indies — which ran affairs in the New World for the Spanish Crown — to be permanent. They were intended to exist for only about 10 years until enough neophytes were converted to establish a pueblo, at which time the mission churches would become parish churches.

Beginning in 1833 and over the next 16 years, the missions were secularized by the California Department of the Mexican government. The initial plan was to divide out the public and religious segments of the missions and turn the public parts over to the Indians. Unaware of their value and inexperienced in matters of land ownership, the Indians quickly lost them to gamblers and land speculators. Mission Solano was secularized in 1834, leaving a power vacuum in the northern tier of Mexican California and vast stretches of land to be divided. Stepping into the power void was Mariano Vallejo.

Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo was born at the most distant outpost of a Spanish Empire that lasted from the first voyage of Columbus to the capture of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines by the United States during the Spanish-American War. He was, above all else, a Californio, a Spanish Creole born in California and an officer and a gentleman. A major California city would be named after him and, seven decades after his death, the U.S. Navy would launch a nuclear submarine named in his honor — the only foreign general to be so honored.

The third son of Spanish Sergeant Ignacio Ferrer Vallejo and Maria Antonia Lugo, Vallejo was born into the military at the Presidio of Monterey on July 4, 1807. He was christened in the still-existent presidio chapel the following day. He grew up in an extended military family and in his adolescence attracted the attention of Governor Pablo Vicente de Sola, who became his mentor and who taught him that diplomacy could be far more effective than the sword, especially in distant California. When Sola returned to Mexico to become part of its first legislature, Vallejo became personal secretary to Governor Luis Arguello.

Now a semiautonomous department of Mexico, California thrived on the relaxation of laws, especially those that pertained to the establishment of ranchos. Vallejo’s father was granted the fertile Rancho Bolsa de San Cayetano in 1822. In 1824, at the age of 19, Mariano became a member of the California territorial legislature, el diputacion, meeting in Monterey. At the age of 22 Vallejo was appointed a second lieutenant and in 1829 defeated Estanislao and the Miwok Indians among reports of brutality on both sides. Vallejo next came to the attention of Governor Jose Figueroa, a prime mover in California history and a man who was part Aztec. In 1832, Vallejo married the frank, beautiful 17-year-old Francesca Benicia Maria Filipa Carrillo, member of a wealthy and politically powerful Californio family. Francesca was reputed to be intelligent, a good shot with firearms, and a prodigious horsewoman.

Vallejo was transferred to the San Francisco Presidio a year later their first son arrived. Later that year, Figueroa advanced Vallejo to the rank of general and placed him in command of a military post in Sonoma adjacent to the mission. After secularization of the missions, Figueroa awarded Vallejo the 66,000-acre Rancho Petaluma, formerly part of the mission.

During the subsequent decade, Vallejo made peace with his neighbors — the Russians at Fort Ross, the padres of the mission, and the Patwin Indians — through a cunning alliance with the 7-foot-tall Chief Solano. The large adobe homes on the Sonoma Plaza and at Rancho Petaluma soon were renowned for their hospitality.

General Manuel Michaeltorena, a personal friend of the tyrannical General Santa Ana, landed in California with a military force in August 1842 to become Governor. Soon, Michaeltorena and his government were broke and needed money to create a standing army to deal with the increasing American immigration across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He approached the Californios for money Vallejo ran a hard bargain. In exchange for $5,000 to support a military battalion, Vallejo received $11,000 in agricultural equipment and the 80,000-acre Rancho Suscol, an immense area that included what is now Vallejo, Benicia, the Arsenal and the western part of the Suisun Marsh.

Part three: Acquisition of land under Mexican rule

Courtesy Benicia Historical Museum

THERE WAS CONSIDERABLE DIFFERENCE between how land grants were issued in the Spanish and Mexican periods of California history.

In Spanish times, the land belonged to the King of Spain and was administered by the Viceroy in Mexico city and the Governor in Monterrey, California. During the Spanish era, the word “land grant” was a misnomer. The King maintained actual ownership over all the land, but “concessions” and reconacimientos (recognitions) were officially granted to the missions and individual users. Presidios were formed and along with them ranchos del ray — Royal Ranchos — to supply the presidios with food.

As the missions were formed, gigantic swaths of land were transferred to the church by concession. These lands were subsequently broken into administrative units of mission ranchos, such as the Ranchos Suscol and Petaluma. Later, military veterans, such as Sergeant Jose Ortega who discovered San Francisco Harbor, were awarded concessions for large swaths of land distant from both the Royal and Mission Ranchos. Lastly, four square leagues were set aside for the use of pueblos and lands — called rancherias — were also set aside for the Indian tribes.

Mexican authorities, like the Spanish, also gave vague cattle-grazing permits. When the Mexican laws of 1824 and 1828 clarified the issue so that actual grants of full title could be made, governors were given authority to grant vacant lands to “contractors (empresarios), families, and private persons, whether Mexicans or foreigners, who may ask for them for the purpose of cultivating and inhabiting them.”

The steps to ownership began with a petition to the governor that contained a written description of the land and a diseno, or map. Grants made to families and private persons were not to be held valid without previous consent of the Territorial Deputation or of the supreme government. Grants to empresarios for colonization purposes called for final approval of the supreme government. The laws required the governor to issue and sign a document “to serve as a title to the person interested,” and to keep a record of petitions and grants, with maps of the lands granted. Failure to cultivate or occupy the land within a proportionate time would void the grant. To secure the right of ownership and to freely dispose of the land, the colonist was expected to prove cultivation of occupancy before the municipal authority. In this way not only were the Petaluma and Suscol ranchos granted to Mariano Vallejo, but the Rancho Suisun was granted to Francisco Solano, “chief of the tribes of the frontiers of Sonoma.”

In addition to the ranchos at Suscol and Petaluma, Vallejo owned land in the San Ramon Valley and on the coast of Marin and Mendocino counties. The land owned by Solano was probably a front for Vallejo’s ownership. By the fourth decade of the 19th century, Solano had become a vassal of Vallejo, who had his own private army of Indians to keep other Indian groups in line and to ward off Mexican and American squatters. By 1846, the Americans were starting to trickle over the Sierra Nevada Mountains and into Johann Sutter’s Fort, at what is now Sacramento. Vallejo was to become the focus of a rebellion and in the process meet Robert Semple.

Part four: Robert Semple: Eccentric visionary

AN AERIAL VIEW of the Benicia Arsenal from the 1950s, in the waning days of the military base.
Courtesy Benicia Historical Museum

DR. ROBERT BAYLOR SEMPLE was a dentist who also had worked as an attorney, medical doctor, farmer, businessman and newspaper writer before coming west in a wagon train in 1846. He was an exceptionally tall man — estimates of his height vary from 6 feet, 9 inches to 7 feet — and somewhat of an eccentric, renowned for wearing fringed buckskins and a coonskin cap turned backward so that the tail dangled in his face. During the winters Semple would wear a heavy buffalo robe coat over his buckskins.

Semple participated in the Bear Flag Revolt of June 10, 1846. Described as “an almost bloodless guerilla war, with comic opera overtones,” the Revolt consisted of a group of Americans who left Sutter’s Fort, secretly entered Sonoma, captured Mariano Vallejo, manufactured a series of flags with bears on them, raised them, and then transported Vallejo back to Sutter’s Fort via the Pena Adobe, which now lies on Interstate 80 between Fairfield and Vacaville.

Semple assumed the role of the adult of the raiding party, members of which later called themselves “Bear Flaggers.” He tempered the hotheads (the Bears) who wanted to shoot up the town and hang people. He and Vallejo became friends during the ordeal and Vallejo would later refer to Semple as “El Buena Oso” — the “Good Bear.” It was Semple who assisted the ailing Vallejo back to Sonoma once he was released by the Bears. By the time Vallejo returned to Sonoma, the Mexican war was over and California was part of the United States, ruled by a military governor.

One published account has it that the Bear Flaggers were sailing from Sonoma to Sacramento when Semple turned to Vallejo and pointed to what is now Benicia, saying something to the effect that that bay would make a good site for a town. Since the Bear Flaggers actually journeyed through what is now Vacaville, the story is undoubtedly untrue. It’s more likely that Semple was searching for business deals and saw the property on one of his later trips from San Francisco to Sacramento.

Semple first approached the Martinez family with the idea of building a town on the south side of the Carquinez Strait, but opposition from Walsh and Frisbe, owners of the land to the east of Martinez, squashed the deal. So, Semple approached Vallejo to buy the land that is now Benicia.

There is no record of what went on in the negotiations between these two hardheaded businessmen, but Vallejo sold the land to Semple for $500 in gold and a promise to name the town after his wife, Francesca. When the Alcalde of Yerba Buena received word that Semple planned to name his new town “Francesca,” he immediately changed the name of his small pueblo to San Francisco. Thus, Semple was left to name his new town Benicia. Later, Francesca Vallejo started referring to herself as Benicia and probably visited the town named after her.

The Feb. 6, 1947 edition of the Californian contained the contents of the agreement between Vallejo and Semple:

“In the town of Sonoma, Upper California, on the twenty-second day of the month of December, in the year eighteen hundred and forty-six, Messrs. Mariano G. Vallejo and Robert Semple, the first being the owner in fee of land known by the name of Soscol, in the Jurisdiction of San Francisco, have agreed upon the following articles:

“1st. That between them, of their free will and accord, will found on the aforesaid land, a city, which shall be called, ‘Francesca,’ commencing the same as soon as possible.

“2nd. Said city to be built on the strait of Carquinez, within the Bay of San Francisco, commencing at a rock situated within said strait, and marked with the initials, ‘R.S. 1846,’ thence extending to the west five miles which shall be the present length of said city, and the breadth one mile from North to South.

“3rd. The title to said land, being now held by Mr. Vallejo its legitimate possessor, he, by this agreement, grants to Mr. Semple in fee, and for his use (en propriedad y uso fructo), one individable half of said five miles of land, with the condition that all of this said land (conpension) shall be dedicated to the building of the said city Francesca.

“4th. As soon as circumstances may require it, there shall be established, at the cost, and on account of the contracting parties, a ferry, to facilitate the quick and easy communication between the two sides of the strait. Also, wharves to expedite the loading and unloading of the vessels which may trade there.

“5th. Semple, on his part, obliges himself to pay alone the costs of the survey and plan of the said place, and to direct personally said operation.

“6th. All the benefits, privileges and advantages which may result from the sale and leasing of lots, wharves, &c. &c., shall be divided equally between the two contracting parties, when and how they may judge convenient.

“7th. As soon as the population shall be prepared for the establishment of PUBLIC SCHOOLS, they will set apart for their use and the embellishment of the city, seventy-five percent of the net products of the FERRIES and WHARVES.

“8th. Messrs. Vallejo and Semple reserve the right of adding to this contract such additional articles as they may deem necessary, which shall not be contradictory to the preceding.

“9th. For the sale or leasing of lots, or any contract, which shall refer to the building and advancement of the city and its population, it shall be necessary that the contracting parties concur, and that both sign such contracts.

“And that the preceding articles shall have due force, and fulfillment the two contracting parties declare that they bind themselves and their successors, and their property in possession or to be possessed, and both sign before the Justice of the Peace of this jurisdiction, and the witnesses in attendance as the law requires.

“VOR. PRUDON, witness. WM. M. SCOTT, witness.

“Done and executed in my presence this 23d day of December, 1846.

“Translated and recorded in the original, and translation on pages 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 & 32, of the land records of the District of San Francisco, Jan. 19th, 1847, by WASHINGTON A. BARTLETT,

“Chief Magistrate of San Francisco.”

Part five: Semple backed by wealthy diplomat

THOMAS O. LARKIN. Courtesy Benicia Historical Museum

ROBERT SEMPLE, as was and is typical of developers, had no real money of his own. So in seeking to buy the land that would become Benicia, he approached the richest man in California at the time, Thomas Larkin.

Larkin, United States Consul to Mexican California, had extensive land holdings and business connections. With Larkin’s money, Semple ordered in 1847 a survey of his future city to be done by Jasper O’Farrell, who also did the original survey of the city of San Francisco.

With survey in hand, Semple got down to the business of selling lots. In addition to proposed streets and lots, the first survey included a “Military Reservation” to the east of the town.

The “Relinquishment Agreement” was executed so that Larkin could be included in the deal. It was reprinted in the July 10, 1947 edition of the Californian:

“In the town of Sonoma, Upper California, on the eighteenth day of the month of May, one thousand eight hundred and forty-seven, the following, by mutual and spontaneous consent, was agreed to between Don Mariano G. Valejo [sic] and Robert Semple.

“1st. That making use of the right of retraction which belongs to them, it is their will to annul as they in fact do annul, the contract celebrated between the two on the twenty-second day of December, last year one thousand eight hundred and forty-six, by which the former ceded in favor of the latter the dominion and perpetual and hereditary usufruct of an indivisible half of five miles of land on the estate of Soscol, in the Straits of Carquinez, with the object of founding in said land a city to be called Francisca, as the said contract expresses which was celebrated in presence of Mr. J.H. Nash, at the time Alcalde of this jurisdiction, and is recorded in the Magistrate’s office of Sonoma, and likewise in that of the Yerba Buena, now San Francisco, at folios 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, and 32, in the month of January, of the present year, being then Magistrate of that jurisdiction Mr. Washington A. Bartlett.

“2nd. That whereas neither of the before-mentioned contracting parties have laid out any expense in the said place, nor sold any lots, nor granted any rights or privileges to any one neither has any other person directly or indirectly gone to any expense in the said place, which to this day remains still in the same state as it was in, on the said twenty-second day of December, one thousand eight hundred and forty-six, both (of the contracting parties) by mutual consent, wish and agree that the said land, referred to in the contract of said date, return to the possession of Don Mariano G. Vallejo, its legitimate and sole owner, with the same rights and privileges which he had to and in it before said contract, which by these presents is declared to be null and void, by both contracting parties retracting spontaneously, freely, without compulsion, deceit, or fraud of any kind, the mutual obligations which they had contracted, and wishing to desist from and renounce, as they in fact do desist from and renounce in their own name and in that of their heirs, administrators or representatives &c., all and every one of the articles of the said contract, without exception.

“In certification and testimony of all which, they signed these presents, on the above date, in the presence of the Alcalde of this jurisdiction, Citizen L. W. Boggs and the undersigned witnesses.


“Territory of California, District of Sonoma. Personally appeard [sic] before me the undersigned Alcalde of the Dictrict of Sonoma, Don Mariano G. Vallejo, and Robert Semple, all being personally known to me as the persons whose names are subscribed to the within instrument of writing, and acknowledged the same to be their act and deed, for the purposes therein-mentioned.

“Given under my hand and private seal at the office in Sonoma this 19th day of May, 1847.

The “Deed for Benicia city,” from M.G. Vallejo to Semple and Larkin was executed on May 19, 1847. The Semple deeds were recorded on Dec. 10, 1847, and the Larkin deeds recorded Dec. 18, 1847.

There were no deeds from Semple to Larkin after Semple withdrew from the Benicia land project and there was no land swap between Larkin and Semple for Larkin’s Colusa properties. After Semple’s death in 1854, the remaining Benicia properties that were in Robert Semple’s name became the property of his wife, who in turn sold them.

Part six: A partnership unravels

IN 1886, HISTORIAN Hubert Howe Bancroft wrote these words about the beginning of Benicia:

“Mariano Vallejo’s chief motive was to increase the value of his remaining lands, by promoting the settlement of the northern frontier and he was willing to dispose of his interest in the proposed town. The earliest original record that I have found is a letter of May 4, 1847, in which Robert Semple writes of Thomas Larkin’s desire to buy the General’s (Vallejo’s) interest, and expresses his approval if the change suits Vallejo. Semple states he is closing up his business and will move his newspaper to Francisca by August at latest.

“Accordingly, on May 18th at Sonoma, Semple deeded back his half of the property to Vallejo. The next day, the 19th, Vallejo deeded his whole property, reserving the right to some town lots, to Semple and Larkin for a nominal consideration of $100.

“Semple transferred his newspaper in May, not to Francisca but to San Francisco, and the Californian issues of May 29th and June 5th contained notices of the proposed town, sale of lots, establishment of a ferry, etc. Meanwhile Semple had gone in person to Francisca to start his ferry and have the town site surveyed by Jasper O’Farrell.

“Doubtless the city founders had counted on deriving an advantage from the resemblance of the name Francisca to San Francisco, against Yerba Buena, a name little known in the outside world. But the dwellers on the peninsula, as we have seen, had checkmated them by refusing in January to permit Yerba Buena to supplant officially the original name. Accordingly the speculators deemed it wise to yield Semple writes on June 12th from ‘Benicia,’ and after a parting wail in the Californian of the 12th, the change to Benicia is announced in the issue of the 19th.

“In his letter of the 12th to Larkin, Semple says the plan is completed and the lots are numbered several have been selected by men who propose to build. On June 29th articles of agreement were signed at San Francisco by Semple and Larkin. Lots of even number were to belong to Larkin and odd numbers to Semple wharves and all privileges equally divided each to sell or convey his interest without interference by the other each donates 4 squares for public uses each gives a lot for ferries, and 4 lots in 100 for town use. Semple returned at once to the strait and in July Larkin contracted with H.A. Green of Sonoma for lumber, and with Samuel Brown to build 2 two-story wooden houses for $600 and 2 miles of land at the Cotate Rancho.

“The doctor was full of enthusiasm, was delighted at the success of vessels in reaching his port, and had no doubt that Benicia was to be the Pacific metropolis in spite of the lies told at the villages of S.F. and Sonoma. His great trouble was Larkin’s lukewarmness in the cause. It required the most persistent urging to induce L. even to visit the place late in the autumn. That a man in his senses should look out for a few dimes at Monterey and neglect interests worth millions of dollars at Benicia seemed to Semple incomprehensible.

“The doctor’s marriage that Christmas to Maj. Cooper’s daughter did not dampen his zeal. At the end of December, 28 citizens petitioned the governor for a new district to be set off from Sonoma under an alcalde and on Jan. 3, 1848, the governor granted the petition, appointing Stephen Cooper alcalde, and on the same day (!) consulting Alcalde Boggs at Sonoma as to the desirability of the proposed change.

“The boundaries of the Benicia District were: from mouth of Napa River up that stream to head of tide-water, east to top of ridge dividing Napa from Sacramento valleys, northwards along that ridge to northern boundary of Sonoma district, east to Sacramento River, and down that river and Suisun Bay to point of beginning.

“Early in 1848, E.H. Von Pfister began to act as Larkin’s agent. But in May came the gold fever to interrupt for a time Benicia’s progress toward greatness. On May 19th, Semple wrote that in three days not more than two men would be left on the same day Von Pfister announced that in two months his trade had been only $50, and that he was going to the Sacramento, leaving Larkin’s business in charge of Cooper and now H.A. Green came at last to work on long-delayed houses, actually completing one of them!

“Semple remained, for his ferry and transportation business became immensely profitable. The doctor promptly realized that the discovery of gold, notwithstanding its temporary effects, was to be the making of Benicia and a death-blow to its rival, San Francisco. All that was needed was to establish a wholesale house, obtain for ships the privilege of discharging their cargoes, if not of paying duties, at the strait, and induce one or two prominent shippers to make use of the privilege.

“Scores of traders came to Benicia from the mines, anxious to buy there and avoid the dangers and delays of a trip to San Francisco. If Larkin would only see his opportunity! But the Monterey capitalist was apathetic, blind to his opportunities, as his partner thought. Exhortations, entreaties, and even threats seem to have had but little effect on him. Semple from July to December tried to make him understand that he was years behind the times, that he was by no means the ‘live go-ahead Yankee’ for whom Semple thought he had exchanged Vallejo, that he must wake up.

“On July 31st he threatened if Larkin did not come and go to work by Aug. 20th, to having nothing more to do with him. In December his indignation knew no bounds, when he learned that Larkin was thinking of erecting a row of buildings in Yerba Buena! This he declared the hardest blow yet aimed at Benicia, worse than all the lies that had been told, since it showed that the chief owner had no confidence in the new town. ‘For God’s sake, name a price at which you will sell out,’ he writes, and offered $25,000 for Larkin’s interest. Of actual progress in the last half of 1848 we have no definite information but Bethuel Phelps finally became a partner with Semple and Larkin and several years elapsed, as we shall see, before Benicia’s dreams of metropolitan greatness came to an end.”

Part seven: U.S. moves in Gen. Vallejo stands ground

THIS STATUE of Chief Solano, the county's namesake, stands in front of the county government building in Fairfield. Carey Mathews photo

UNITED STATES ARMED FORCES entered California as early as 1845 with the Fremont Expedition. With the onset of the Mexican War in 1846, U.S. Navy and Army troops occupied the territory and established bases of operation. One such base was the Presidio of San Francisco and from there, Army and Navy officials searched the area of the San Francisco Bay for appropriate locations for other bases.

The city of San Francisco was thought to be incapable of sustaining a large Army site because of the high price of land and the vulnerability of the peninsula to invasion. The site at Benicia was decided upon as early as 1847 because of its free land and strategic location on the Carquinez Strait, which linked the Bay to the California interior.

While cavalry and infantry units populated the land at “Benicia Point” as early as 1847, Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Silas E. Casey of the 2nd U.S. Infantry became the founder and first commandant of the Army outpost when he founded “the post at Point near Benicia” on April 30, 1849. At the same time, a quartermaster depot was established and wooden quarters for both infantry and cavalry units were constructed.

From the very beginning, the cavalry post, quartermaster depot, and arsenal were not a part of the city of Benicia. The land was purchased directly from Vallejo, Semple, Larkin, and Bethuel Phelps and appears as a “Military Reservation” on the first survey. During the 116 years they co-existed, the city never made an attempt to incorporate the Arsenal property into the city boundaries. That issue would have to be resolved when the Arsenal closed in the mid-1960s.

The Benicia Arsenal was formally established between April 19 and April 25, 1851, by Brevet Captain Charles P. Stone. The infantry barracks, quartermaster depot, and arsenal would share the same location but operate semi-independently until 1924, when they were united under one command by General John Pershing.

Lacking adequate funding and considering the poor quality of bricks in California at the time, to construct the Arsenal Capt. Stone elected to use local sandstone quarried on the Arsenal grounds and redwood transported by ship from the Marin headlands. Over the next nine years, a guardhouse, two warehouses, a hospital, five magazines, a wharf, and a fortress-like warehouse were constructed of locally quarried sandstone.

One of the reasons for the lack of funding from Washington, Stone discovered, was concern on the part of the War Department that the title to the Arsenal property was not secure. Title to the land occupied by the barracks and arsenal was recorded in phases:

1. Deed from Robert Semple and wife and others (Larkin), dated April 16, 1849, and recorded July 5, 1949, in book C, pages 295-296, of records by L.W. Boggs, Alcade for Sonoma. Also recorded in Benicia, November 19, 1849, in book A, pages 460-461, of the records of Solano County.

2. Deed of release from Mariano G. Vallejo, dated December 27, 1854, not recorded.

3. Deed of release from Thomas O. Larkin, dated December 30, 1854, and recorded January 24, 1855 in book I, page 347, of the deed records of Solano County.

4. Deed of release from Bethuel Phelps, dated January 20, 1855, and recorded January 20, 1855 in book H, pages 340-341, of the records of Solano County.

In addition, an act of the California Legislature approved on March 9, 1897, ceded the title to land below the high-water line to the Army to be used in trust as long as the Arsenal occupied the land.

Title to land was the key battle of 19th century California — that, and water. With the end of the Mexican War that had been deliberately provoked by President Polk to gain what would become the southwestern United States, Mexico and the U.S. finalized the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo — part of which was a clause recognizing legitimate land claims in the former Mexican lands. Congress established a land commission to judge the legitimacy of each claim, and Mariano Vallejo’s Rancho Suscol became Land case 318ND.

Vallejo petitioned the Land Commission in San Francisco by submitting certified and translated copies of the following documents:

2. A colonization grant to Vallejo dated March 15, 1843, signed by Governor Micheltorena and countersigned by Francisco Arce as secretary ad interim.

3. Another grant dated June 19, 1844, showing that Vallejo had requested the purchase of the tract for the sum of $5,000, that the governor had sold it to him for that sum and received payment, and declaring him to be the owner of the land without restriction. This paper also purported to be signed and countersigned by Micheltorena and Arce.

4. A certificate, dated December 26, 1845, and signed by Pio Pico as governor and attested by Jose Maria Covarrubias, setting forth that both above-mentioned grants had been approved by the Departmental Assembly on September 26, 1845.

5. A letter dated March 16, 1843, addressed to Colonel D. Guadalupe Vallejo, military commandant of the line from Santa Juez to Sonoma and signed by Micheltorena and sealed with the seal of the Departmental Government. This letter purported to document that the Rancho Nacional Suscol was transferred from the Mexican government to Vallejo in trade for goods and silver.

6. Letters and documents supporting the claim and documenting that Vallejo was using the land.

Historic Preservation in Benicia

Historic Preservation is an approach to conserving structures and sites that represent a physical connection with people and events from our past. In addition to serving as visible reminders of our historical and cultural heritage, historic buildings contribute to Benicia&rsquos unique character identity. This uniqueness strengthens the local economy by preserving property values, attracting tourists and encouraging investment in Benicia.

Much of Benicia&rsquos history was influenced by its location along the Carquinez Strait, where the rivers of the Central Valley flow into the San Francisco Bay. This location allowed the City to be shaped by the transcontinental railway and the international shipping trade. Benicia&rsquos main historic industries&mdashtanneries, canneries, and shipyards&mdash were located right along the waterfront. Ultimately, the waterfront and transportation activity molded Benicia&rsquos social, commercial, and military history.

The City of Benicia values its local history and is home to two historic districts: the Downtown Historic District and Arsenal Historic District. The local recognition of Benicia&rsquos place in State and National history began over fifty years ago with the establishment of a downtown historic preservation district in 1969, and is now embodied in various aspects of the City&rsquos government and culture. In addition to the Benicia General Plan, the City has adopted various documents to inform and guide the community in protection of our historic resources:

Please review the links below to learn more about the City's historic preservation program.

Benicia Arsenal

The Benicia Arsenal (1851–1964) and Benicia Barracks (1852–66) were part of a large military reservation located next to Suisun Bay in Benicia, California. For over 100 years, the arsenal was the primary US Army Ordnance facility for the West Coast of the United States.

In 1847 a 252-acre (102 ha) parcel of land adjoining the Benicia city limits on the east was acquired for a military reserve. First occupation of the post was on April 9, 1849, when two companies of the 2nd Infantry Regiment set up camp to establish Benicia Barracks, which also housed the 3rd Artillery Regiment. In 1851, after the urging of General Persifor F. Smith, the first Ordnance Supply Depot in the West was established in Benicia. In 1852 it was designated Benicia Arsenal. Notable military personnel who were stationed there during this time include Ulysses Grant, Edward Ord, and Joseph Hooker, among others.

The grounds of the Benicia Arsenal are also famous for stabling one of the elements of the Army's Camel Corps. The short-lived Camel Corps was disbanded in 1863, but the Camel Barns, built in 1855, remain and are now the Benicia Historical Museum.

The Benicia Arsenal was a staging area during the Civil War for Union troops from the West, and the installation remained a garrisoned post until 1898 when troops were assigned to duty in the Philippines during the Spanish–American War. From 1911 to 1913, the arsenal was commanded by Colden Ruggles, who later served as the Army's Chief of Ordnance. [4] During World War I, the Benicia Arsenal gave ordnance support to all large Army installations in the Western States as well as supplying Ordnance material to American expeditionary forces in Siberia. Italian Service Units of the 4th, 4th and 50th Italian Quartermaster Service Company worked at the Arsenal during World War 2. [5]

In the 24 hours following the Pearl Harbor bombing, 125 separate truck convoys were loaded and dispatched from the Benicia Arsenal, leaving its stock of ammunition, small arms, and high explosives completely exhausted. Throughout the war, the arsenal supplied ports with weapons, artillery, parts, supplies, and tools. In addition, the arsenal overhauled 14,343 pairs of binoculars, manufactured 180,000 small items for tanks and weapons, and repaired approximately 70,000 watches. However, the arsenal is most famous for supplying munitions to Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle for the first bombing raid on Tokyo on April 18, 1942, launched from the USS Hornet.

Prior to 1940, the arsenal employed 85 civilian employees by October 1942, the payroll had reached 4,545. The labor shortage in 1944 forced the arsenal commander to put 250 Italian and 400 German prisoners of war to work, alongside 150 juveniles from the California Youth Authority. Women comprised nearly half the civilian employee force. During the Korean War, the number of civilians reached an all-time high of 6,700 workers.

The Benicia Arsenal was deactivated in 1963, and the facility was closed in 1964. The arsenal has been redeveloped as work and sales space for artists and artisans.

Medal of Honor recipient John H. Foley is buried in the arsenal's cemetery.

  1. ^"National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. March 15, 2006.
  2. ^
  3. "Benicia Arsenal". Office of Historic Preservation, California State Parks . Retrieved 2012-10-15 .
  4. ^
  5. "Benicia Barracks". Office of Historic Preservation, California State Parks . Retrieved 2012-10-15 .
  6. ^
  7. Thayer, Bill (May 5, 2015). "Colden L'H Ruggles in Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the United States Military Academy, Volumes III-VIII". Bill Thayer's Web Site. Chicago, IL: Bill Thayer . Retrieved August 8, 2020 .
  8. ^, Prisoner of War Camps and Italian Service Units in California
  • "Benicia Arsenal". World War II in the San Francisco Bay Area. National Park Service . Retrieved 2007-03-22 .
  • Hart, Herbert M., Colonel, USMC (ret.) (1964). "Historic California Posts: The Posts at Benicia". California State Military Museum . Retrieved 2007-03-27 .

This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the National Park Service.

Brendan Riley’s Solano Chronicles: Unusual History of Benicia’s Camel Barns

The U.S. Army’s experiment in using camels to haul supplies in the 1850s and 1860s has been described in scores, if not hundreds, of research papers, government reports, newspaper columns, books and even a couple of movies. The offbeat venture got off to a good start but was all but over in 1864 when nearly half of the ungainly pack animals were auctioned off at the Army’s Benicia Arsenal.

In November 1863 the Army ordered its 37 camels in Southern California to be herded to the arsenal, on the Carquinez Strait just north of San Francisco. The camels arrived in January 1864, and were corralled behind two still-standing storehouses — now part of the Benicia Historical Museum’s camel barn complex. An auction was held on Feb. 26 and Samuel McLeneghan, who had worked for the Army as a camel teamster, was the highest bidder, paying $1,945 for the “ships of the desert.”

McLeneghan used some of the camels to haul freight in Nevada where silver mines were booming, and sold others to farmers, miners and a circus owner. Some also went to frontiersman and Army veteran Edward Fitzgerald Beale, who seven years earlier had led a military expedition that brought 25 camels about 1,200 miles from Texas to California.

A 1990 photo shows a camel from Marine World in Vallejo borrowed for an event at the Benicia camel barns. Benicia (Historical Museum photo)

McLeneghan didn’t leave for Nevada Territory until late April 1864, as winter let up in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Following the February auction, he had stabled 10 camels near Sacramento, and old newspaper stories state that many curious residents came to see his “strange beasts.” Sensing opportunity, he organized a well-publicized “grand dromedary race” that drew about 1,600 spectators on April 8. That was followed by another race in Marysville — and both were fiascos. The Marysville event ended with McLeneghan getting thrown off his seven-foot-tall camel as it chased a mule around an oval track.

The Army’s 44 remaining camels, at Camp Verde, Texas, were auctioned off for $1,364 on March 4, 1866, to Bethel Coopwood, a San Antonio lawyer. Like McLeneghan, he sold some to a circus — for $3,745. He used his profits and the remaining camels to start a freight and mail business from San Antonio to Mexico City.

While the Army’s experiment had ended, camels didn’t disappear from the landscape in the West and Southwest. Besides those in use in private enterprise or in circuses or zoos, others had been turned loose in the desert where they roamed for years, astonishing travelers who spotted them. The last of the Army’s original camels, named Topsy, reportedly died in April 1934, at the Griffith Park zoo in Los Angeles, at age 80. That’s double the average age of camels, but zoo staffers said Topsy benefited from good care.

An Army Historical Foundation account states that in the 1830s America’s westward expansion was being hampered by harsh terrain and weather, especially in the southwest. The use of camels as pack animals was recommended by Army Lt. George Crosman, who stated in an 1836 report that camels could carry loads of up to 900 pounds, go without water for long stretches and cover 30 to 40 miles a day over rough land.

The report was ignored, but in 1847 Crosman, now an Army major, urged Maj. Henry Wayne of the Army’s quartermaster department to try again. Wayne pitched the idea to the War Department and Congress, and caught the attention of then-Sen. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. Davis, also encouraged by Edward Beale, tried for several years to get a skeptical Congress to approve funding for camels, and finally succeeded in getting $30,000 after being appointed secretary of the War Department by President Franklin Pierce. In May 1855 he appointed Maj. Wayne to head to the Middle East on a borrowed Navy ship, the USS Supply, and return with camels.

The camel-shopping took several months, with stops in Malta, Greece, Turkey and Egypt. Finally, in May 1856 the Supply unloaded 34 camels at Indianola, Texas, and was soon headed back to the Mediterranean. The ship returned in January 1857 with 41 more single-humped dromedaries and Arabians and double-humped Bactrians.

In addition to the camels, the Army also brought back several expert camel handlers, the best known being Smyrna native Hadji Ali. Nicknamed “Hi Jolly” by his American counterparts who had difficulty pronouncing his name, Hadji Ali worked with camels for many years, first for the Army and later for private entrepreneurs.

Maj. Wayne, moving the first load of camels to Camp Verde, Texas, stopped in the town of Victoria. There, local resident Mary Shirkey gathered some fleece shorn from the camels and knit a pair of socks for President Pierce, who reciprocated by sending her an engraved silver goblet. The socks are long gone, but the goblet reportedly is still in the hands of Shirkey descendants.

The camels worked out well on two surveying expeditions, including a four-month trek in 1857 that ended at Fort Tejon, about 75 miles northwest of Los Angeles. The surveyed route was first known as the 35th Parallel Wagon Road. Now it’s part of celebrated Route 66. A second survey in 1858 extended from Fort Smith, Ark., to the Colorado River and took nearly a year to complete. But two other tests in Southern California in 1860 and 1861 were failures, and the advent of the Civil War effectively halted any further experiments. Among various factors contributing to the unraveling of the Army’s experiment was the reluctance to continue a project associated with Jefferson Davis, who in 1861 had become the president of the Confederacy.

Confederate troops occupied Camp Verde in early 1861 and the camels at that location were finally recovered at the end of the war in 1865 and sold at auction a year later. The herd based at Fort Tejon was transferred from post to post in Southern California in the same time frame but saw little use. Finally, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered them to be sold. That led to the Benicia Arsenal auction in 1864.

Sacramento (1869-Now)

Current California State Capitol

The construction of the state Capitol began on September 24, 1860. The first work was excavation of the basement wall near M and 11th streets. The cornerstone, laid at the northeast corner of the building, was placed on May 15, 1861. Because the hill that the Capitol sits on had not been formed at the time, the cornerstone is now located approximately six feet underground. Most of the granite for the construction was mined from a quarry on the American River in Folsom on the grounds of the state prison. According to the State Capitol Museum, as construction continued through the first floor, the source of granite was changed from Folsom to Penryn (seven miles north of Folsom). On the exterior of the building, the darker granite is from the Folsom area the lighter is from Penryn.

The offices of the governor and secretary of state opened for the first time on November 26, 1869. The gold-plated ball at the top of the cupola (240 feet above street level) was signed by the secretary of state on October 30, 1871. Construction finally finished in 1874. The rotunda was open to the public until about 1877, when Thomas Beck ordered it closed because of graffiti and “obscene and improper writing.”

Even at the turn of the century, the state Legislature was beginning to outgrow its home. In 1899, Secretary of State C.F. Curry authorized the conversion of the Capitol attic (until then used for storage) into a new fourth floor that would be used for office space. This space is occupied by committee rooms and the offices of the President pro Tem of the State Senate.

This work lessened the pressure to expand and further construction was delayed until the addition of the Capitol Annex in the 1940s. The groundbreaking for the Annex took place on June 3, 1949. The Apse, which had been home to the State Library for 80 years, was demolished in July and August, with the new structure quickly rising in its place. The Annex was completed, and the hallways connecting it to the “New Capitol” were opened at the end of 1951. Earl Warren became the first to occupy the new governor’s office on October 29, 1951.

The 2001 Truck Attack

On the evening of January 16, 2001, the south side of the State Capitol was severely damaged when a semitrailer smashed into a committee room. Shortly after 9 p.m., long-distance truck driver Mike Bowers took the downtown exit from Highway 99. At 9:22 p.m., the semi sped through a red light at N Street and, hopping the three-inch curb that rings Capitol Park, up the South Lawn and crashed into the South Portico. The fuel tanks burst into flames, starting a four-alarm fire that would burn for a half hour, filling the Capitol with smoke. Although most of the damage from the fire itself was contained to the area around the South Portico and Room 113, there was massive water and smoke damage to the southern half of the Capitol (including the Senate Chambers and Historic Governor’s Office). The restoration would eventually total $15 million.

Benicia deserves a closer look as history and art haven

1 of 15 Originally constructed as a city hall, the Benicia Capitol was used as the California State House for portions of the fourth and fifth legislative sessions, from Feb. 9, 1853, to Feb. 25, 1854. Spud Hilton/The Chronicle Show More Show Less

2 of 15 The "Benicia Bench," by artist Robert Arneson, sits on the East Fifth Street side of the Benicia Marina. Locals like to send visitors to find the cryptic message the artist left on the underside. Spud Hilton/The Chronicle Show More Show Less

4 of 15 The palm-lined waterfront along First Street at Benicia Point is a popular stretch in the evening for strolling, biking and walking pets. Spud Hilton Show More Show Less

5 of 15 Next to the statehouse at Benicia Capitol State Historic Park is a birdhouse-size version of the same building. Spud Hilton/The Chronicle Show More Show Less

7 of 15 The one-time Souther Pacific Train Depot, now home to the Benicia Main Street Program, marks what was the main entrance and exit for ferry and train passengers in the early 20th century. Entire trains would stop here and be loaded onto ferries bound for Port Costa. Spud Hilton/The Chronicle Show More Show Less

8 of 15 The old Arsenal and barracks, designated as a military reservation by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, has become a concentration of live-work spaces for artists and home to Arts Benicia. Spud Hilton/The Chronicle Show More Show Less

10 of 15 The palm-lined waterfront along First Street at Benicia Point is a popular stretch in the evening for strolling, biking and walking pets. Spud Hilton Show More Show Less

11 of 15 The Benicia State Recreation Area follows the Carquinez Strait shoreline and helps protect the Southhampton Bay Wetland Natural Preserve, a fragile salt marsh. Spud Hilton/The Chronicle Show More Show Less

13 of 15 Glass artist David L. Lindsay puts the finishing touches on an ornament at his Lindsay Art Glass studio in downtown Benicia. The city's growing arts community includes several glass studios, and visitors have the opportunity to make their own creations. Spud Hilton Show More Show Less

It&rsquos reasonable to assume a city that once was the capital of California would be more, well, noticeable.

Once a dominant crossroads both geographically and historically, this town at a bend in the crooked strait between Vallejo and the delta is easy to overlook today because the main road doesn&rsquot so much cross Benicia&rsquos heart as bypass it. (About all you notice from Highway 780 is the former military arsenal and an oil refinery, neither of which offers a visually compelling reason to take your foot off the gas.)

Those who take the exit, however, find themselves in a walkable water front city with a gazebo -in-the-park small-town vibe, a burgeoning arts community, a low-key wetlands preserve and a surprising historical timeline that crosses paths with the Pony Express, the Gold Rush, the Transcontinental Railroad and Jack London&rsquos drinking habits.

Oh yeah, and it was the state capital for about a year.

Despite offering enough diversions for a laid-back weekend on the water, Benicia has a comparatively small share of tourists, which means you&rsquore not fighting crowds. Sometimes &ldquooverlooked&rdquo is a good thing.

Why now? There are seasons when the weather is generally better or when there are more events, although the town is worth visiting year-round. (Dress in layers: The same Carquinez Strait breeze that can keep the city cool in the afternoon can be bone-chilling at night.)

Backstory: Because of its location on the Carquinez Strait, Benicia has been a popular ferry stop, steamer port and general waypoint for travelers and supplies moving between San Francisco and Sacramento (and beyond), from Gold Rush times through the first half of the 20th century. San Francisco-bound Pony Express riders ferried from here when they missed the boat in Sacramento, and when the Transcontinental Railroad arrived, entire trains were loaded onto massive barges and ferried to Port Costa (which explains the former Southern Pacific Depot a few feet from the water).

The town also was shaped by the Benicia Arsenal and Benicia Barracks, the military munitions base that stored weapons and explosives from the Civil War through the Korean War and that was decommissioned in the 1960s. Today the property is home to about 100 artists and crafters in live-work studios and galleries, making the town an arts magnet.

Checking in: The Shorelight Inn has eight large suites, a dining room and a lounge, but still feels like a cozy bed and breakfast. It sits at water&rsquos edge at the end of West E Street, with easy access to the waterfront biking-walking path. The Union Hotel on First Street, built in 1880, has 12 rooms, a dining room, a bar and, supposedly, ghosts.

Dining: Lucca Bar & Grill bills itself as &ldquoa neighborhood bar,&rdquo but is the most contemporary restaurant in town, with a chic dining room and &ldquogastro-pub style&rdquo cuisine that seems to draw as many residents as visitors. (Specialties include bacon-wrapped meat loaf and a dish colorfully titled &ldquoChicken Under a Brick.&rdquo)

Spend your day: After waffles or the house-made corned beef hash at First Street Cafe, stop by the Chamber of Commerce (601 First St.) for the walking tour map for Historic Downtown Benicia, then stroll and browse up one side of First Street and down the other. Even without the map, there are historical markers for most of the important buildings, which you can scan and read about with a smartphone. The map helps: A striking number of historically significant structures in downtown are not at their original site, including a portion of the Jurgensen Old Corner Saloon (now in the 500 block of First Street), a favored hangout of author Jack London that provided material for his autobiographical novel &ldquoJohn Barleycorn.&rdquo

In downtown, leave time to visit Benicia Capitol State Historic Park at West G Street. Said to be the oldest original California statehouse still standing, the building housed lawmakers between Feb. 9, 1853, and Feb. 25, 1854, before the state government was moved to Sacramento. (The interior pillars in the Assembly and Senate chambers were carved from the masts of ships abandoned in San Francisco Bay during the Gold Rush.)

Most of the artist studios at the Benicia Arsenal and Benicia Barracks (known simply as the Arsenal) are open only during special Arts Benicia events, although an increasing number of shops and galleries have year-round hours. Bike or drive out to the Arsenal to see who&rsquos around and to explore the base, then follow the road under the highway to the Benicia Historical Museum (at the old Camel Barns). If you prefer your art more hands-on, Lindsay Art Glass downtown &mdash one of three glass studios in Benicia &mdash sometimes offers to walk you through sculpting your own glass ornament.

In the afternoon, bike or drive out to the Benicia State Recreation Area, a 447-acre park with trails and picnic spots that includes (and forms a buffer around) the Southhampton Bay Wetland Natural Preserve, a fragile salt marsh popular with migratory birds. The park is a handy, serene spot to relax on the grass in the late afternoon &mdash and, possibly, to forget that Martinez&rsquos refinery jungle is just across the water.

The park closes at sunset, so make your way back to downtown and the palm-lined promenade at the end of First Street, a prime spot for watching the sunset over the strait &mdash or for getting the same view and a cocktail from the lounge at Sailor Jack&rsquos.

Don&rsquot miss: Turnbull Park on the marina isn&rsquot large, but it is home to Robert Arneson&rsquos comical &ldquoBenicia Bench,&rdquo a bronze art piece &mdash and actual bench &mdash that depicts a surfboard and a duck atop the artist&rsquos head. (Arneson left a mysterious message on the underside of the board, but you&rsquoll have to find it yourself.)

Don&rsquot bother: The Von Pfister Adobe, a onetime general store and saloon said to be where a worker from Sutter&rsquos Mill first bragged about gold being discovered in 1848, isn&rsquot visible. While awaiting restoration, the structure is behind a fence and covered with tarps.

Word to the wise: Longtime residents are more likely to say &ldquoBUH-nish-ah&rdquo than &ldquobeh-NEE-shah.&rdquo

Illustrated report tells long history of Benicia

BENICIA — After months of fine-tuning, this historic town”s ready to move forward with a new plan to preserve its past.

The city has released the final draft of a nearly 200-page, illustrated report that tells the history of Benicia from the days of Native American inhabitants through the 1960s.

The study also recommends ways to ensure that new development, remodeling and renovations fit the history of their neighborhoods.

Viewed by city officials as an important step in Benicia”s ongoing preservation efforts, the report also lists steps for figuring out which buildings may qualify as historic resources as time goes on.

“Some buildings may be significant for their architecture. Others … for their association with historic events or persons,” historian and report author Jonathan Lammers said.

“But unless you have some good background information, it”s really hard to make that determination,” Lammers added.

The City Council will hold a hearing Tuesday to receive public testimony and consider acceptance of the report.

The document, formally called “The Benicia Historic Context Statement,” provides a resource for staff and property owners to determine what kinds of developments and renovations fit in with the story that a neighborhood tells.

“That”s where historic context statement”s come in,” Lammers said. “They help the reader understand what aspects of geography, history and culture helped shape the built environment, and what kinds of property types are associated with that development.”

For example, historians say an important part of Benicia”s early days was the development of industrial plants along the Carquinez Strait. Also significant was the railroad ferry that operated near the foot of First Street — once the largest operation of its kind in the world.

Today, the railroad and almost all the industrial plants are gone.

But the houses where the workers lived and the stores where they shopped still are there, “and are significant for their association with this intense period of industrial development,” Lammers said.

The report also offers a guide for determining a property”s “historic integrity.”

This refers to the characteristics, such as the materials, workmanship and design, that a property must retain to be considered a good representation of its time of origin.

“For example, a little 1890s worker”s cottage that has all of its original details, such as windows and doors and wood siding, would be said to have historic integrity,” Lammers said. “But if that cottage had a big two-story addition and had been covered over with stucco, it would no longer be able to demonstrate its association with its historic context.”

Because almost all buildings undergo some changes over time, the report describes what kinds of changes are tolerable, and which are not, from a historic point of view. These “integrity thresholds” can then be used by interested parties to determine whether buildings qualify for historic status, such as placement on a local historic register.

To some, the best part about the report is that it doesn”t read like a textbook. It was written for residents as much as it was for planners.

“What I think is great about it is it”s very readable,” Benicia Historic Preservation Review Commissioner Toni Haughey said. “It”s not dry. It gives you the history of Benicia from the very beginning, when the Patwin Indians were here.”

A $25,000 State Historic Preservation Office grant funded the effort. The city pitched in with manpower to accomplishment the study.

Benicia already has taken steps to preserve its past. The city has adopted a historic preservation ordinance, established a preservation commission and designated historic districts.

But information gathered in historic surveys of the last four decades hasn”t always been consistent. As a result, it wasn”t always clear why some buildings were added to the local historic register and others were left out.

To the extent that past preservation efforts have been incomplete, the report is party designed to help unify previous work, as well as provide a framework for answering questions that come up in the future.

“I”m also hoping the historic context statement is just as useful in helping residents of Benicia understand why their town looks the way it does,” Lammers said. “The town has a fascinating history, and the more people learn about it, the more likely they are to try and preserve the buildings that remain.”

Watch the video: Timeline of African History (July 2022).


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