Some towns fade with unfulfilled dreams. Luckily, Benicia is not one of them. While no longer California’s state capital, the original capital building, now a State Historic Park, provides a rare look back into Benicia and California’s history. While no longer a major military outpost, Benicia’s contribution to 19th century military history is well exhibited at the Historical Museum at the Camel Barns. And, while no longer an international port, Benicia’s former industrial section now houses a thriving arts and crafts community.
Add to this a charming waterfront community along the Carquinez Strait; an Old Town Main Street packed with antique stores, specialty shops and inviting restaurants; and lovely city parks, and you’ll find Benicia an ideal spot for a getaway adventure.
Robert Semple and Thomas Larkin founded the town of Benicia in 1847, on five acres sold to them by General Vallejo for $100. Vallejo stipulated that they name the town after his wife, Francisca Maria Felipa Benicia de Vallejo. Benicia’s role in California history seems to be in inverse proportion to its small size: California’s first incorporated city, third state capital, a stop on the Pony Express’ overland route to San Francisco, a way station for miners during California’s Gold Rush, and home to a huge federal arsenal from the Civil War through to the Korean War.
Location, location, location! Integral to Benicia’s history and present day appeal is its setting along the Carquinez Strait. Cooling breezes off the water temper the heat of the valley. Your eyes are drawn by the expansive strait and by scenic views of the shoreline and bluffs beyond. Benicia utilizes its assets to the fullest. There are many paths along the shoreline from the marina and west toward the state recreation area, with many opportunities for stops at peaceful benches and small neighborhood parks. You can walk out to the well utilized public fishing pier or east toward the marina, wandering among docked pleasure craft and well-maintained and landscaped residences.
So—history, shopping, great eats, and scenic outdoor recreation—probably more than can be appreciated in just one visit.
A good place to start is at the Historic Downtown District, on First Street. The Chamber of Commerce and Benicia Main Street have free brochures of things to do, including historic walking tours, which point out significant buildings of Victorian and California architecture, each identified by an attractive, numbered curbside marker.
At the foot of First Street stands the nicely restored Southern Pacific Train Depot, the official entrance to the city and the center of Benicia’s once thriving international commerce trade. Up the street, the Union Hotel once housed Ulysses S. Grant and Tecumseh Sherman. Today it operates a well-known restaurant and bar. Further along, the brightly painted, 1879 City Hotel entices you in with classic antiques.
The handsome, classically designed building at 115 West G St. is California’s only surviving pre-Sacramento capital. Built over a three-month period from materials salvaged from ships abandoned in the San Francisco Bay, it is a fine example of mid-19th century craftsmanship. Carefully restored with period furnishings and artifacts, this State Historic Park offers a look back at early legislative matters of state while its small size reminds us that California in 1853 was not the state it is today. The Senate and Assembly Rooms are fully equipped with original desks and all the accouterments necessary for a gentleman of that period: inkwell, candle, formal hat, walking stick, newspaper and spittoon. It’s easy to imagine debates taking place and bills being passed within these rooms.
At St. Paul’s Church, you can see the nautical influence of the Norwegian shipbuilders who worked on the building, especially in the ceiling, which resembles an inverted ship’s hull.
At the top of First St. is the Benicia City Park. With its mature shade trees, expansive green lawns, picnic facilities and Playground of Dreams, this park is an ideal setting to rest your feet, burn off energy or get married in the Victorian gazebo.
Along the length of First Street you’ll pass many interesting shops specializing in antiques, collectibles, and present-day arts and crafts, all inviting you to come in and look around. Coffee houses, cafes and restaurants offer pretty much anything you feel like eating. One place you can’t go wrong is the First Street Café, an Old Town landmark. The offerings are contemporary and fresh and the baking is not to be missed, so be sure to leave room to sample a berry crisp or fresh fruit pie.
To get a complete picture of Benicia’s role in California history, it’s important to leave First Street and drive over to the present day Industrial Park where Benicia’s military history is displayed. The Benicia Arsenal was the first in California, established in 1851. Many of the original buildings serve as current businesses; large warehouse spaces house glassblowers, potters and painters, worth a return visit in December for the arsenal open studios.
With two-foot thick sandstone walls and an American Seth Thomas clock, the clocktower still appears formidable. Long thin slots for rifle fire attest to its ability to protect the arsenal that was stored within. Close by, surrounded by lawns and mature trees, stands the 20-room Commandant’s Mansion. Though closed to the public, it’s still easy to imagine important military decisions being made in the library over cigars and brandy while Benicia’s elite wined and dined.
Camels in Benicia? In a United States Army experiment, camels were to be used to transport military supplies. The beginning of the Civil War ended that idea and the camels were sent back to Benicia. Today, the camels are gone but the historical museum at the camel barns remains as testament to Benicia’s role. Built in 1853, of handcrafted sandstone walls, a tin roof and a redwood ceiling, the top floor of this original ammunition warehouse is now home to a varied, eclectic collection.
For a small town, Benicia had its hand in many pots: the Transcontinental Railroad, the Pony Express, the Gold Rush, and the Civil War. All are represented in exhibits and photographs at this charming museum whose spirit exceeds its physical space.
There’s no better way to end the day than with a late afternoon walk at the Benicia State Recreation Area. Covering 720 acres of undeveloped shoreline, this park offers roads and trails for walkers and bicyclists, benches for nature observers, picnic facilities and popular fishing spots. The marshland, grassy hillsides and rocky beaches are ideal spots for viewing resident and migrating shorebirds. A shaded picnic table overlooking marshland rich in native grasses, reeds and cattails in a tapestry of autumn colors, with the waters of the strait before your eyes, provides one more reason to plan a return visit to Benicia. Not even close to a fading violet—still glowing strong.