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’s 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
Docent-led tours take place at 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. on the first Saturday, first and third Sunday, and third Thursday of the month. Adult group tours may be arranged from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursdays through Sundays. Contact Park staff for group tour date and rate (707) 745-3385.
Benicia Fire Museum The museum houses many treasures of fire service equipment and hundreds of related items, including the "Phoenix," an 1820's double decker hand-pumper requiring 45 men to operate--one of the first fire engines to arrive in California in 1847. It remained in service for 74 years, but in 1921 was replaced by a state of the art steam engine. The Benicia Volunteer Firemen, Inc. was founded in 1847 and is the oldest continuous volunteer fire service in California. Joining the Fire Department became the ultimate for young men in Benicia. They vied amongst themselves for acceptance by the firemen, because only the most able and deft were allowed to handle the pumper. The Benicia Fire Museum was founded in 1981, thanks to the efforts of the Benicia Volunteer Firemen and the Benicia Fire Department. The museum is open the first three Sundays of the month from 1-4 p.m. Special tours are frequently conducted for groups, schools, and even individuals - call 707-745-1688. Admission is free but donations are gratefully accepted. If you have an interest in the fire service or in volunteering at the museum, please call the above number or attend their monthly meeting which is held at the museum, 900 East Second Street, the first Wednesday of each month at 7 p.m.