Benicia's Intriguing History
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.
Here are some captivating facts from Benicia's annals:
- Almost "Francisca": Benicia was named in honor of the wife of General Mariano Vallejo, Francisca Maria Felipa Benicia Carillo de Vallejo. General Vallejo was Mexico's last Comandante General of the Free State of Alta California. He had intended that the city be named "Francisca," but this name was dropped when the former city of "Yerba Buena" changed its name to "San Francisco."
- 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. A popular myth is that Grant 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.
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