Imagine yourself strolling the same streets that civil war soldiers walked over 150 years ago. Nestled among the Carquinez Strait and rolling hills, Benicia is home to multiple historical landmarks, and was selected by none other than Abraham Lincoln as a “military reservation.”
Today the Benicia Arsenal includes the Benicia Historical Museum at the Camel Barns and is on the esteemed National Register of Historic Places. The museum is made up of three large buildings which house all the incredible artifacts and displays that tell the story of those who lived in California pre-statehood. This important archeological collection has revealed many important findings about the culture, and what was accomplished during that time. It was before the gold rush, before the railroad was complete, and before settlers moved in on the Native Americans. One of the structures at the museum, the Powder Magazine, is one of the few remaining buildings that display the art of the French stonemasons of the time. It was built to house black keg powder, and to protect the nearby people and buildings. This particular building was designed to implode if something set off the highly volatile contents.
History buffs will find a treasure trove of fascinating stories surrounding the Benicia Arsenal. The Arsenal was a staging area for Union troops from the West during the Civil War, a major ammunition supplier during World War I, and much more.
What’s the significance of camels at the Arsenal? In the 1850s the US Government bought a herd of camels in hopes of using them in the American Southwest. The camels didn’t work out very well, partially, it is said, because of their temperament. Many of the buildings at the Arsenal, including the original camel barns, still stand almost exactly as they did back then.
Between 1853 and 1863, Congress appropriated enough money to make the Arsenal one of the largest military posts on the West Coast. There are many spectacular buildings in the Arsenal, such as the Camel Barns, Clocktower, Commanding Officer’s Quarters, Blacksmith Shop, Lieutenant’s Quarters, and the Guard House. One soldier who was in Benicia for a short time was a certain lieutenant who later became a general, then President of the United States — Ulysses S. Grant. The museum is a must-see for anyone who’d like to know more about this critical time in American history. For more information about the museum and Benicia’s Arsenal history, please visit beniciahistoricalmuseum.org/arsenal-history.
Benicia Historical Museum’s Executive Director, Elizabeth d’Huart, believes the arsenal complex looks exactly as it did back in the 1800s. “One evening I was standing outside the museum and everything melted. It was as if I went back in time and was seeing the complex as the soldiers saw it. I feel privileged to share that space in my mind with those of the past,” said d’Huart. “Benicia is the perfect expression of an early California town.”
On November 13 at 1 p.m., the museum will unveil a new permanent exhibit titled “Benicia Arsenal in War and Peace”. The exhibit will feature a 20-foot timeline of the first Western District pre-statehood military base from its beginnings in the 1850s, including the closure of the base in 1964, and continuing through the activities of our current local National Guard. The timeline will display a coveted collection of medals, badges, crests, flags, and authentically painted Benicia Arsenal toy soldiers. And author Dr. Blaine Lamb will be on-site as a guest speaker to promote his biography, “The Extraordinary Life of Charles Pomeroy Stone – Soldier, Surveyor, Pasha, Engineer”.
Beginning November 25, the annual Christmas Tree Lot fundraiser kicks off. Freshly cut trees of all sizes and shapes will be available for sale to benefit the Benicia Historical Museum and Genesis House.
Kids won’t want to miss their chance to color or write a letter to Santa, which will be delivered to the North Pole by the museum’s own carousel camel, Cally. Free museum passes and candy canes will available, and everyone is encouraged to visit the museum’s special tree decorated with camel ornaments.
For those looking for a little entertainment, the popular “Men of Worth” musicians James Keigher and Donnie Macdonald return to the museum to perform a special Christmas concert on Saturday, December 3rd at 8 p.m., doors open at 7 p.m. No host bar. Tickets $25.
Looking for a unique site for your event?
There are some beautiful event sites available for rent at the museum. The Captain Charles P. Stone Hall and Spenger Memorial Garden are beautiful locations for private parties. The mild climate, rich history, and ample parking make Benicia Historical Museum the perfect spot for weddings, concerts, and other special events.