Benicia’s waterfront a stunning inspiration
Benicia’s scenic waterfront location has captured the hearts of sailors, soldiers, merchants, and artists, who have been inspired by the storied, strategic waterway. Situated along the north side of the Carquinez Strait, the city rests at the crossroads between San Pablo Bay – the northernmost extension of San Francisco Bay – and Suisun Bay.
The Carquinez Strait is an eight-mile channel between Vallejo and Martinez through which 4.5 trillion gallons of water pass each year between the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Pacific Ocean. It provides a way for oceangoing vessels to link with the inland river traffic of the Sacramento Delta. Benicia is an important port of entry because it has the advantage of deep water at the shore, where seagoing vessels can offload cargo directly to land.
A legacy of ship building and commercial fishing
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. In 1850, the Pacific Steamship Company chose Benicia over San Francisco to be its Pacific Coast depot. Company shipwrights made repairs to the great paddle wheelers of its line that carried mail and freight between California and the Isthmus of Panama.
These skilled craftsmen also helped build the historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Benicia, with a ceiling reminiscent of an inverted ship’s hull. The church continues to operate today as a place of worship, and as one of Benicia’s many beautifully preserved and intriguing historical sites.
Benicia also 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 were built in Benicia.
Famed author Jack London, who spent time fishing in the Carquinez Strait, memorialized the Mathew Turner Shipyard in a passage from his book, John Barleycorn: “Below the town of Benicia, where the Solano wharf projects, the Straits widen out into what bay-farers call the ‘Bight of Turner’s Shipyard.’ I was in the shore-tide that swept under the Solano wharf and on into the bight.”
The site of the shipyard is now marked by the 30-acre Matthew Turner Shipyard Park at the foot of West 12th Street, which contains remnants of the yard’s building ways (keel blocks) and a concrete pad that probably once held a capstan for hauling ships onto the ways. The wreck of the Stamboul, a whaler sunk to be used as a work platform, is visible at low tide.
Some of the Biggest Ferries Ever
In 1879, the Central Pacific Railroad re-routed the Sacramento-Oakland portion of its transcontinental line, establishing a major railroad ferry across the Carquinez Strait from Benicia to Port Costa. The world’s largest ferry at the time, the Solano, later joined by the even larger Contra Costa, carried entire trains across the Carquinez Strait from Benicia to Port Costa.
In 1916, Benicia also earned the distinction of establishing the first auto ferry boat in the world, the Charles Van Damme. Ferries would continue taking people and cars from Benicia to Martinez and San Francisco until 1962, when the Benicia-Martinez Bridge opened.
To view relics from Benicia’s maritime past, including its heyday as a fishing and ship building center, people can check out the industrial exhibit at the Benicia Historical Museum, 2060 Camel Road in the historic Benicia Arsenal.
Still Popular with Boaters Today
Recreational mariners still set sail for the Benicia Marina. Visiting boaters can dock at the full-service marina, spend the day strolling First Street just a block away, and enjoy a meal at one of the many downtown restaurants, or at the Benicia Yacht Club (as a guest of a Yacht Club member). The Yacht Club has a clubhouse at the marina.
The Yacht Club also sponsors a number of popular events, including Opening Day on the Strait in April, the Jazz Cup Race the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, and the Lighted Boat Parade in December. Annually, sailboat racing at BYC begins in early April, and continues each Thursday evening through September with a few exceptions. The Yacht Club is also involved in youth sailing and boating safety education.
The Alvarez West Ninth Street Park (at West K Street) is a favorite for families and boaters. The park includes a public boat launch, playground, small beach and three kayak/canoe put-ins.
Fishing enthusiasts will enjoy a visit to Benicia Bait & Tackle (509 Claverie Way at West J Street), a local landmark for anglers and a great place to buy the latest gear or hear the inside scoop on where the fish are biting.
The spectacular scenery with beauty in every direction is one reason artists are drawn to Benicia. Hundreds of resident artists create works in a variety of media and styles. For art lovers visiting Benicia, there are galleries throughout town, many art-related events during the year (including Benicia Artists’ Open Studios weekend and Benicia Art Walk), as well as a variety of ways to connect with artists such as Arts Benicia, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting visual arts.
Hiking or walking along the waterfront
If you just prefer to hike along the waterfront, Benicia State Recreation Area offers stunning views of the water: The area includes 438 acres of land with 2½ miles of paths set aside for cyclists, runners, walkers, equestrians and roller skaters. Its trails roll through marshy, grassy hillsides and along rocky beaches adjacent to the narrowest portion of the Carquinez Strait.
Benicia is also part of three spectacular, regional trails. The Bay Area Ridge Trail is open to hikers, cyclists and equestrians along ridgelines overlooking the bay. The route travels mostly level trails. The San Francisco Bay Trail winds its way through Benicia along the Carquinez Strait. The newest addition to Benicia’s trail system is the San Francisco Bay Area Water Trail, an effort to link nine Bay Area counties with a network of launch and landing sites (trailheads) designed for human-powered boats and beach-able sail craft. Coming soon, Benicia will be on the proposed Great California Delta Trail linking the San Francisco Bay Trail to the Sacramento River Parkway Trail.
For those who would rather explore downtown, Benicia’s waterfront – which encompasses the First Street Promenade, Benicia Point Pier and First Street Green – creates a beautiful and ever-changing backdrop.
Along with a variety of restaurants, there are also many unique shops that make Benicia a favorite shopping destination. While strolling this scenic, historic area, imagine a time when robust maritime commerce filled the waterfront with bustling activity and a bit of intrigue, and experience the lure that has captivated so many for so long.
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.