By Douglas Love, Chairman, California History Board
Thirty four miles northeast of San Francisco lies the town of Benicia. Now a bedroom community for those who work in Contra Costa, Alameda and San Francisco counties, this was once not the case. In the early history of our state, Benicia was a major port, an important military outpost and even the capital of California. A forty five minute drive east on Interstate 80 and then on Interstate 780 will bring you to this town which was once so important and still holds a few remnants of that time.
On September 9, 1850, the Senate of the United States approved the Compromise of 1850 which, among other provisions admitted California to the United States as the thirty first state. When the news reached California later in the month, celebrations broke out throughout the state. The Constitution for the new state had been drafted in Monterey, the former Spanish and Mexican capital of Alta California. In the Constitution of 1849, San Jose was named the state capital. The first and second sessions of the state legislature met in a 40 by 60 two story adobe hotel. For the third session of the legislature, the capital was moved to Vallejo in 1852. The new capital city was a shambles and there was neither adequate meeting space, housing nor any other amenities for the government. When the legislature reconvened for the fourth session in 1853, there was hardly any improvement. The nearby city of Benicia had a newly built City Hall and a convenient port; so on February 4, the Legislature passed a bill to move to Benicia and began business in the New City Hall on February 11, 1853.
Today, the new City Hall in Benicia is now known as the Benicia Capitol Building and it is the only preSacramento Capitol Building standing. It has been preserved as a monument to our state’s early history. The Capitol Building is located at 115 West G Street, on the corner of 1 Benicia. It is open Thursdays from Noon until 4:00 p.m. and Friday through Sunday 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. The two story building is furnished with replica and authentic period furnishings. The columns of the building were mad of masts salvaged from abandoned Gold Rush sailing ships and the building had room for offices and committee rooms. Next to the Capitol Building is the FischerHanlon House, one of the oldest houses in Benicia. It is furnished as an upper middle class house would have been in the 1850’s through 1968 when it was acquired by the state. It is open for guided tours on the weekends. There is also a carriage house with several horse drawn vehicles and many period tools. A few of the most important laws which were passed while the Legislature met in Benicia were the bills establishing the California Department of Education, the establishment of the first State Hospital near Stockton and the bill establishing a board of prison commissioners and authorizing the construction of San Quentin State Prison. The Legislature met in Benicia for its fifth session in 1854 and then moved to Sacramento in February of 1854.
After its use as the Capitol building the Benicia State Capitol was used as the Solano County Court House, an Episcopal Church, Benicia Grammar School and a wing was added to house the Benicia Fire Department. The building also served as Benicia’s Public Library. The building was acquired by the California Division of Parks and Beaches in 1951 and restored to its 1853 appearance. A special session of the California Legislature met in the building in 1976 for the Bicentennial of the United States.
Also in Benicia is the Benicia State Recreation Area just off the Columbus Parkway exit on Interstate 780. The Recreation Area offers hiking, biking and waking trails with spectacular views of the Carquinez Straits and there is shore fishing at Dillon Point. After visiting the Benicia Capitol, you may want to wander down 1 pick up a bite to eat. My personal favorites are First Street Café, 440 1 Sailor Jack’s, named for Jack London who spent time in Benicia, at 123 1 If you are hot, there is Double Rainbow Ice Cream, 560 1 looking for adult beverages, you might wish to try the bar in the Union Hotel, 401 1 7467847. The bar in the Union Hotel came around Cape Horn on a sailing ship and is a thing to behold. Just off 1 Built in 1847, the remains of the Adobe are one of the oldest structures in town.
Besides historical sites, Benicia is home to a thriving artist community and there are several galleries and shops along 1 st Street. If you like art glass you may wish to drop in to the Lindsey Art Glass Studio at 109 E F Street, on the corner of 1st Street (7077481336) or Nourot Glass Studio, 675 E H Street. (7077451463)
This is just a smattering of the activities that are available in Benicia and this article is dedicated to the memory of Brother John Galvin of Benicia Parlor who would have gladly told you much, much more about his and my home town.