Historic California State Capitol Building.
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 from the hours of 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday to Sunday. The Capitol is closed on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, as well as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Admission is $3 adults (age 17 and older), $2 children (age 16 and under). Tour arrangements may be made by contacting the Park staff at (707) 745-3385, and it is also available for weddings, receptions, and meetings. 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. Museum hours are 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. 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.
Historic 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, 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 building 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. The interior has intricate inlaid parquet flooring and elegant scrollwork and woodwork. Funds were raised for much-needed renovations and Phase 1 of the rehabilitation was completed in the Spring of 2009, which includes handicap access, a new roof, interior, and some exterior repairs.
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 St. Nick visits. The Victorian Garden at the Fischer-Hanlon House features heirloom varieties of trees and flowers, including a wisteria plant over 100 years old. The House is open, subject to availability - call ahead for tour dates and times.
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.
Historic Arsenal Park
with it's 1876 brick and sandstone "Blacksmith Shop" . plus two additional brick and standstone structures and other buildings were constructed between 1876 and the 1930's. Used extensively by the military begining before the civil war and lasting into the 1960's before it was abandoned by the military, and converted to art studios, small business and retail in the 1970's.
Historic Arsenal Park continues today to house many of the original artists that came to Benicia in the 70's, plus new artists, small business, retail and an outstanding wedding and event venue:
A Town that Can't Keep a Secret: In 1848, Charles Bennett, a carpenter who worked at Sutter's Mill, and a companion, stopped at a hotel on their way to Monterey. They entered the store in the midst of a discussion about how lucky the man who discovered coal in California would be. Bennett boasted: "Coal! I've got something here that will beat coal and make this the greatest country in the world!" He then spilled out on the counter approximately four ounces of gold nuggets. With the secret out, Benicia quickly emptied of all able-bodied men.One of California's "Wandering Capitals": Benicia served as the state capital for nearly 13 months from 1853 to 1854 (Monterey, San Jose and Vallejo also took turns until the seat of California government finally settled in Sacramento). Ulysses S. Grant's Stay in Jail: At the close of the War with Mexico, Lt. William Tecumseh Sherman was Adjutant to Col. Richard Barnes. Upon Sherman's retirement in 1853, his replacement at the Benicia Arsenal was none other than Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant, who ended up spending 30 days in the Arsenal Guardhouse for being drunk on duty and firing his cannons at the Martinez shoreline.Helping Keep the "Express" in Pony Express: From 1860-1861, Benicia was involved in the Pony Express. When riders missed their connection with a steamer in Sacramento, they would continue on to Benicia and cross over to Martinez via the ferry. Army's Short-lived Experiment with Camels: The Camel Barns Complex, part of the Benicia Historical Museum, derives its name from Benicia's contribution to U.S. Military history. In the 1850s and 1860s, the US Army experimented using camels, imported from the Mideast, as pack animals. After the advent of the Civil War, the experiment was abandoned and the animals were shipped to Benicia for auction.Ferries Carrying Trains: In 1879, the Central Pacific Railroad established a major railroad ferry across the Carquinez Strait from Benicia to Port Costa. The world's largest ferry, the Solano, later joined by the even larger Contra Costa, carried entire trains across the Carquinez Strait from Benicia to Port Costa up until the 1930s.From Arsenal to Artists Community: In 1850, the military reservation known as "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. Now it's home to some of the Bay Area's most noted artists and craftpersons. Once Home to a Pulitzer Prize Winner: In 1905, the father of seven-year-old Stephen Vincent Benet took over as commanding officer at the Benicia Arsenal, serving until 1911. At the age of about ten, Stephen was sent away to boarding school. Later, he became a well-known poet, novelist and short story writer. He is best known for his book-length narrative poem of the American Civil War, John Brown's Body, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. His son, Thomas Benet, is a member of the Benicia Historical Society.