By Douglas Love, Chairman California History Board
Tucked in an alley, off of First Street in Benicia, next to a sports bar, stand the remains of a building with a prominent role in the history of California. It is covered by an open shed and tarps. Nearby is a small plaque explaining why the building is important and a couple of benches. It is the Von Pfister adobe.
Founded by Robert Semple in 1847, Benicia was named after General Mariano G. Vallejo’s wife, Dona Francisca Benicia Carillo de Vallejo. The Von Pfister Adobe was the third building erected in what would become the City of Benicia. In 1847 the building was built by William McDonald for Robert Semple. In March of 1847, Semple met Captain Edward Von Pfister, who was going to open a general store in San Jose, in Yerba Buena, and convinced him to visit the site of the nascent town of Benicia. After a four day voyage by whaleboat, Von Pfister arrived in Benicia. Von Pfister then travelled to Hawaii to gather goods for his new business venture. In September or October, Semple leased the 40 foot by 18 foot building to Von Pfister to be used as a general store and hotel. On November 5, 1847, “Von Pfister’s Store” recorded its first sale.
The building served the town as a store, occasional boarding house and gathering place for a number of years. It was covered in clapboards and eventually a newer and bigger building was built next to it. By the 1970’s, the building was collapsing and a metal roof was erected over it. On June 24, 2015, the remains of the building were added to the National Register of Historic Places. It currently awaits reconstruction and restoration.
So, why this building? There are hundreds if not thousands of historic buildings in California. Well, it was in this building that Charles Bennett let slip the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill slip on February 15, 1848. Bennett had been dispatched by Sutter to Monterey to confirm Sutter’s title to the land in and around Coloma. When Bennett reached Benicia, he stopped in Von Pfister’s Store to rest and wait for the ferry to take him across the Carquinez Straits. It was in this little adobe that Bennett heard some other men describe how coal had been discovered near the foot of Mt. Diablo and that the coal would mean that California would become very important to the United States. Bennett reportedly replied, “Coal! I have something here which will beat coal and make this the greatest country in the world!” He then showed the men gathered at Von Pfister’s the sample of gold he had with him. From Benicia, Bennett travelled to San Francisco, where Sam Brannan ran through the streets crying “Gold! Gold from Sutter’s Mill!” and then onto Monterey where he was unable to secure Sutter’s claim to the land.
So, this building, off of First Street in Benicia, is the place where the secret of John Marshall’s and John Sutter’s discovery of gold was first made public. The news of this discovery sparked a huge migration to California of adventure seekers, prospectors, farmers, businessmen and hucksters, all looking to “strike it rich” in California.
GETTING THERE: The Von Pister Adobe is located at the end of Von Pfister Alley in Benicia. From 414 Mason Street take I-80 East toward Sacramento.Take Exit 30A onto I-780 toward Benicia/Martinez. Take Exit 3B onto Military West. Turn right onto First Street and then turn right onto Von Pfister Alley. It is located behind Rookie’s Sports Bar between C and D streets.