Benicia – one of the most historical cities in California
The Bay Area city of Benicia’s rich history – as a former state capitol, a busy seaport, the first Army ordnance supply depot on the Pacific Coast and an inspiration for some of Jack London’s literary works – is a treasure trove for history buffs and families wanting to learn more about national and California history.
The city of Benicia was founded on May 19, 1847 by Dr. Robert Semple and Thomas O. Larkin, with the help of Comandante General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. It was named for the General’s wife, Francisca Benicia Carillo de Vallejo. The General intended to name the city “Francisca,” but dropped the idea when the former city of “Yerba Buena” changed its name to “San Francisco.” So Señora Vallejo’s second given name was used instead.
Site of Legislative, Military and Maritime Adventures
Just a few years after its founding, Benicia was the third site selected to serve as the California state capital, and its newly constructed city hall was California’s capitol from February 11, 1853 to February 25, 1854. Soon after, the legislature was moved to the courthouse in Sacramento, which has remained the state capital ever since. The restored capitol building is part of the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park.
Military operations played a significant role in Benicia’s history from 1849 to 1964, and many reminders of its martial past remain. Most prominent is the Benicia Arsenal, east of East Military and mostly south of I-780. In 1849, Benicia’s founders gave 345 acres of land near the Carquinez Strait to the army. One year later, the Arsenal became the first ordnance supply depot on the West Coast, supplying equipment and munitions for conflicts from the Civil War through the Korean War. It was appointed by none other than Abraham Lincoln as a “military reservation.”
The city’s military history is highlighted at the Benicia Historical Museum at the Camel Barns. The name, Camel Barns Complex, comes from one of Benicia’s many contributions to U.S military history. In the 1850s and 1860s, the U.S. Army experimented with using camels as pack animals. After the Civil War started, the experiment was abandoned and the remaining camels were shipped to the Benicia Arsenal, where they were auctioned to the public. It’s one of the many quirky chapters in Benicia’s past that makes it so intriguing.
Benicia’s proximity to the water sparked development of ship building and fishing industries that were an integral part of the city’s early, colorful history. Its location along the Carquinez Strait attracted the shipyard of Matthew Turner, the well-known shipbuilder who moved from San Francisco to Benicia in 1882. He launched more sailing vessels than any other man in America – 228 in 33 years – and 154 of them were built in Benicia.
Another of Benicia’s colorful mariners was renowned author Jack London. As a teenager, London lived in Benicia and worked as an oyster pirate. Later, he was an officer on the Fish Patrol. The patrol’s role was to catch people engaging in illegal activities on the water, such as pirating oysters! London, according to local historians, was known to tie up his boat, Razzle Dazzle, at the end of Benicia’s First Street. London would write about these and other Benicia adventures in his short story collection “Tales of the Fish Patrol” and the nonfiction work “John Barleycorn.”
Another writer, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Vincent Benet, spent several years in Benicia starting in 1905, when his father became commanding officer at the Arsenal. Stephen’s son, Thomas Benet, is a member of the Benicia Historical Society.
Benicia’s Intriguing Museums
Benicia boasts four museums where visitors can discover artifacts and hear stories about Benicia’s colorful past:
- Benicia Capitol State Historic Park, 115 West G Street, (707) 745-3385. Benicia was the site of California’s third seat of government and served as the state capitol for 13 months in 1853 and 1854. With its large white columns, the historic building is a downtown anchor. Inside, the building has been restored with an eye toward authenticity, as if awaiting the return of the 19th-century state legislators. Call for more information on tour availability and hours of operation.
- Fischer-Hanlon House, 137 West G Street, (707) 745-3385. Part of the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park, the house was originally a hotel on another site in town. Joseph and Catherine Fischer moved and remodeled the building for their home in 1856. The house has been meticulously restored and features period furnishings, including some that are original. Call for more information on tour availability and hours of operation.
- Benicia Historical Museum at the Camel Barns, 2060 Camel Road, (707) 745-5435. The museum houses a variety of exhibits and displays recounting the history of both the city of Benicia and the U.S. Army Arsenal. Call for more information on tour availability and hours of operation.
- Benicia Fire Museum, 900 East Second Street, (707) 745-1688. This museum contains many treasures of fire service equipment, including the “Phoenix,” an 1820s double decker hand-pumper that required 45 men to operate. Call for more information on tour availability and hours of operation.
Benicia offers additional resources for those interested in exploring historical sites in downtown Benicia:
- “Historic Downtown Benicia Walking Tour” brochure: This guide to 24 historical points of interest in downtown Benicia, produced by the Benicia Historical Society, is available at the offices of Benicia Main Street, the Benicia Historical Museum, and the Benicia Chamber of Commerce.
- Docent-led historic homes tour: The Benicia Historical Society sponsors a historic homes tour nearly every year on the Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend in May.
- “This Place has History!” QR code tours: Visitors can look for the small, yellow plaques on poles near historic sites around Benicia, and use a QR code reader on their smart phones to get instant information about that location. The same details are available for mobile devices at m.HistoricalBenicia.org.
History Around Every Corner
Benicia’s past is filled with fascinating events, people and places of local, state and national significance that often sound more like fanciful legend than historical fact. Fortunately, much of this heritage has been preserved through carefully curated museums, restored landmarks and published accounts, so visitors and residents can enjoy a fascinating look back at Benicia’s days of yore. For more details on Benicia’s history, go to VisitBenicia.org/history.
For more information about visiting Benicia, please go to VisitBenicia.org. People can also become a fan of the Facebook page at facebook.com/visitbenicia for special deals, insider tips and up-to-the-minute news about this very special getaway.