THE CITY OF BENICIA.
As has been told elsewhere, the town had its inception in the vision of Dr. Robert Semple, who, while a member
of the Bear Flag expedition which took Gen. M. G. Vallejo prisoner, saw the barren lands on the northern shore
of Carquinez Strait, and realized the potential possibilities of a city there. His enthusiasm communicated itself
to General Vallejo and the five miles of land in the Suscol grant ceded and bestowed freely and spontaneously on
Semple and Thomas O. Larkin were described as follows: "Beginning at a stone marked `R. S.' and running N.
76 degrees W. to a corner or angle five English miles; from thence in the direction S. 14 degrees W. to an angle
one mile, a little more or less; thence following the sinuosities of the bay, of the straits, to the place where
the measurement commenced, which, altogether, makes an extent of five English miles; following the turn of the
bay, the sinuosities of the land according to the measurement of plan above referred to." The conditions of
the gift were as follows: First: The grantees were to bind themselves to found a city to be named Francesca or
Benicia, to divide the land into lots to be disposed of by sale, and establish ferry boats on the Strait of Carquinez.
Second: As soon as the city should contain one hundred families, a magistrate or municipal authority should be
named. The ferry boat, together with the landing places, should belong to the town, and their products be used
for the establishment of public schools. Third: Until such hundred families were established the ferry boats and
landings belonged to Robert Semple. The deed was executed on May 19, 1847, by Lilburn W. Boggs, Alcalde of the
District of Sonoma.
When the validity of the Suscol grant was attacked, the titles to this land had to be adjusted in the same manner
as was done with those throughout the entire district. The first survey of the town was made by Jasper O'Farrell
and Lieutenant Warner and the first settler so far as any records show was William I. Tustun, a Virginian, who,
coming to the West, had settled at Sonoma. Hearing that a new town was to be built, Tustun with his wife and child,
a boy of four years, decided to cast his fortunes with it. When the little party arrived, however, they found nothing
but the surveyor's stakes, for the surveying party had already taken its departure. There was nothing to do but
camp as best they could, and so they remained for a few days until the arrival of Doctor Semple on the brig, Bodega,
bringing with him a cargo of lumber with which to start building the new town. Tustun immediately purchased two
lots from Semple, dug a well and started work on his adobe building.
A few adobe buildings, standing here and there in California, bear testimony to the enduring qualities of the "adobes."
Especially is this true in regard to the old missions, some of which, built as long as one hundred and fifty years
ago, are still in a state of good preservation. One of the early historians gives the following description of
the adobes, built by the first Spanish priests and adopted from necessity by the California pioneers:
"Its construction was beautiful in extreme simplicity. The walls were fashioned with large sun dried bricks,
made of that black loam known to settlers in the Golden State as adobe soil, mixed with straw, with no particularity
as to species, measuring about eighteen inches square and three in thickness; these were cemented with mud, plastered
within with the same substance, and whitewashed when finished. The rafters and joists were of rough timber, with
the bark simply peeled off and placed in the requisite position, while the residences of the wealthier classes
were roofed with tiles of a convex shape, placed so that the one should overlap the other and thus make a watershed
or, later, with shingles, the poor contenting themselves with a thatch of tule, fastened down with thongs of bullock
hide. The former modes of covering were expensive, the Pena family, it is said, having given a man a considerable
piece of land for shingling their home and none but the opulent could afford the luxury of tiles. When completed,
however, these mud dwellings will stand the brunt and wear and tear of many decades as can be evidenced by the
number which are still occupied in out of the way corners of the country."
The adobe house built by Tustun was not yet completed when the second house in Benicia was started by Doctor Semple.
It was a one story and attic dwelling, occupied by the doctor upon its completion, and was long the center of activities
in the town. The third house, an adobe, was built by Benjamin McDonald and was first occupied as a store by Capt.
E. H. Von Pfister, who arrived there in the fall of 1847. He was a New Yorker, who had been engaged in trading
on the coast, and when he reached Benicia after a cruise to Honolulu he brought a stock of goods which he placed
on sale in the new building, which was 25 by 40, quite large enough to accommodate the inhabitants of the town
by day or night. By this time a number of additional families had arrived in Benicia, and among these was a Major
Cooper. His daughter, Miss Frances Cooper, became the bride of Doctor Semple on Christmas Day, 1847, the ceremony
being performed by Ex-Governor L. W. Boggs, then alcalde of Sonoma. This was the first marriage in the new town
and it was fitting that it should be that of its founder. The bachelor guests determined to attend in clothing
worthy of the occasion and so, finding in the stock of Captain Von-Pfister a dozen white linen pants and an equal
number of blue cloth dress coats, lavishly trimmed with brass buttons, they donned them and marched in a body to
the home of the bride. Probably no other bride of Benicia has ever had such a uniformed group of attendants. Those
participating where: Landy Alford, William Bryant, David A. Davis, Benjamin Forbush, Charles S. Hand, Edward Higgins,
F. S. Holland, Henry Matthews, Benjamin McDonald, William Russell, George Stevens and William Watson. In the Recollections
of a Pioneer by the late S. J. Gray of Benicia one finds the following description of the affair:
"These twelve good and true men, having first imbibed some good 'old rye,' the generous beverage of that day,
which the Captain had first brought out by the decanter, but, as that did not suffice, then by the bucketful, and
being thus fortified in the inner man against the overpowering bashfulness that is generally experienced when faultlessly
attired in store clothes, marched in procession up to Major Copper's mansion, and were ushered into the august
presence of the bridal party, and it is doubtful if ever on any similar occasion heartier congratulations were
extended or reciprocated than on this."
The second marriage in Benicia was that of Mr. Benjamin McDonald and a daughter of Landy Alford, which took place
in January, 1848. By this time Major Cooper had been appointed alcalde by General Mason and he performed the ceremony.
It was in April of that year that the men of Benicia, who usually congregated at Von Pfister's store, were gathered
there discussing the future of the county under the new ownership, for the treaty at Guadalupe Hildago had been
signed two months previous and the country had become a part of the United States. Coal mines were then considered
the big things, and the men speculated on the good fortune which would come to them should one be discovered in
the vicinity. A stranger, by the name of Bennett, spoke up and said that something better than a coal mine had
been discovered where he was working. Bennett had been engaged with John W. Marshall at Coloma in building a mill
for General Sutter, and was then on his way to Monterey, taking with him some specimens of gold to have them tested,
as there was no acid for this purpose available at any nearer point. He displayed to the little group of Benicians
about four ounces in small pieces, such as had first been discovered when the water was turned on to run the mill.
A profound impression was made on the little group by the sight of the yellow metal but Semple, who was always
noted for having opinions of his own and adhering to them, regardless of those of others, declared that he would
rather see a coal mine than all the gold that California would ever produce. The next day Bennett continued on
his journey and in less than a week his story was verified by a party of Mormons who came along, bringing more
specimens and announcing that gold was to be found in large quantities in the vicinity of Sutter's mill. Sam Brannan
had made a trip to the place to verify the rumors and upon his return induced Von Pfister to go into partnership
with him and establish a store at what would soon be a new mining camp. This they did, Von Pfister loading his
stock of goods on Semple's ferry boat and sailing up the river to Sacramento, then known as the "embarcadero."
It was two weeks before the boat returned to Benicia and by that time there were a score of wagons waiting to be
ferried across from Martinez. The pioneers of the state had heard of the new El Dorado and the gold rush of "the
days of '49" had begun. Pfister remained in business with Brannan at Sutter's Fort for several months, but
finally sold out his interest in the firm when a brother, who had just arrived from Honolulu to join him at Benicia,
was murdered. Efforts to locate the murderer kept him a wanderer for a year or more when he returned to Benicia
and again engaged in business, remaining there for the rest of his life.
The natural effect of the gold discovery on Benicia, as on all other settlements of California, was to take the
male population away from it to hunt for wealth, leaving the women to remain behind and care for the children.
At this time Benicia was reduced to some fourteen or fifteen families. Towards the end of the year Semple realized
that the discovery of gold meant more to the country than he had anticipated, more, in fact, to Benicia, and that
his city, on the direct route of those traveling to the gold mines, had opportunity knocking at her door. Even
sooner than he had dreamt of when he visioned a city beautiful while taking General Vallejo to Fort Sutter with
the Bear Flag expedition was his dream to come true. Immigration to the state was bound to follow the gold discovery
and as this was mostly by water, Benicia offered the opportunity for a great seaport. In the winter of 1848-49
he entered into a contract with Bethuel Phelps for the erection of buildings. Some time later there is a record
of his entering into a co-partnership with William Robinson, John S. Bradford and L. B. Mizner under the firm name
of Semple, Robinson and Co., for the transaction of a general merchandise business. The Chilean bark "Confederation"
with a cargo of East India goods was purchased and arrived at Benicia in March, 1849, where she was moored alongside
of the bank to be used as a landing place. A large number of boxes of tobacco, of which there was then so much
on the market that it was practically valueless, were laid down as an approach to the bark. Business prospered
and within a couple of years a substantial two story warehouse had been erected by the firm. Subsequently the partnership
was dissolved. Bradford, who was elected a member of the first Senate of California, finally returned to his home
in Illinois, and became mayor of Springfield.
A four mule stage running between Benicia and Sacramento, connecting at the former with a sloop for San Francisco,
was started in September, 1849, by Mizner and S. J. Nurse, but within a couple of months boats from the East coast
were carrying the prospectors up the river to Sacramento and the stage line was discontinued. Nurse moved to Denverton
in 1854. Mizner attained prominence as a lawyer in San Francisco, but eventually returned to Benicia and today
Benicia residents, pointing out men who have made history in California and who were educated in their city, recall
Lansing and Wilson Mizner, his sons, Claus Spreckles, Fred Sharon, Chief Justice Joseph McKenna and others of equal
note in the annals of the state and nation.
The winter of 1849-1850 saw a large number of stores and dwellings erected by Bethuel Phelps. Lumber ranged in
price from $300 to $600 a thousand and carpenters' wages from $16 to $20 per day. The demand for houses was greater
than the supply. Dr. W. F. Peabody during this period opened and conducted the first hospital of the town. The
first side wheeler ever built in California was brought to Benicia in 1849 aboard the ship "Leonore."
It was framed in the East, put together in Benicia and given the name of "New England." Unfortunately
her machinery was so weak that she was never a success. The "Linda," the "Edward Everett" and
the "Phoenix" were other ships built at Benicia during this period and which made a few trips up the
Sacramento River. But when the "Hartford" and "McKimm" were started on the freight and passenger
run between Sacramento and San Francisco, via Benicia, the smaller vessels were taken off. "The Senator,"
said to have earned a million dollars in a few years, succeeded the Hartford and McKimm. The rate was $30 from
San Francisco to Sacramento; $15 from Benicia to the latter city.
An amusing story is told of Doctor Semple's attempt at shipbuilding, illustrative of his adherence to his own opinion
in all things. Believing that steamboating was to become an increasingly profitable business, he decided to construct
a vessel along lines of his own. So far as the hull was concerned the plan worked out all right, but in the matter
of engines the trouble arose. Unable to get two of the same kind of make, he purchased two which were entirely
dissimilar, one, in fact, being twice the size of the other. To overcome the difference in power was an easy matter,
he declared simply a question of gearing. Remonstrance, argument, ridicule from his friends were of no avail. The
results were to be expected. On his first trip the boat moved in an uncertain circle, the constant tendency being
to return to the starting point. With much difficulty she finally reached Colusa, but this was her first and last
Semple's name is entitled to go down in history as the first real estate booster of California, as is shown by
the ads which he ran in the "Californian," but he made one great mistake, common with many of the land
owners of late generations. He held his holdings too high. So convinced was he that Benicia, by virtue of her geographical
location, could not help become a great city that he and Larkin, with others who were associated with them, failed
to put a reasonable price on their lots. This was particularly so in 1851, when, if they had sold at a fair figure,
they might have secured much of the business of San Francisco. The fire of May 4, 1851, had destroyed most of the
business section of that city and her merchants were discouraged with continued misfortunes. A delegation visited
Benicia, to see what inducement she had to offer them. But they received so little encouragement that they abandoned
the idea of settling there.
In 1850, came the Pacific Mail Steamship Company with its fleet of side wheelers and Benicia was made a port of
entry. This company had been organized before the discovery of gold in California. On March 3, 1847, an act of
Congress was passed, authorizing the Secretary of the Navy to advertise for bids to carry the United States mails
by one line of steamers between New York and Chagres and by another line between Panama and a point on the west
coast of the continent. On October 6, 1848, the California, the first steamer for the Pacific Coast run, sailed
from New York and was followed in the two succeeding months by the Oregon and the Panama. The California had sailed
before the news of the gold discovery had reached New York and had taken no passengers but when she arrived at
Panama, January 30, 1849, she encountered a rush of fifteen hundred gold seekers clamorous for passage. The ship
had accommodations for only one hundred but four hundred managed to hide themselves away. The price of tickets
rose to a fabulous sum, one thousand dollars, it is said, being paid for a steerage passage. In the early fifties
the charges for fares were practically prohibitive to men of small means. The one time customhouse established
in Benicia with the coming of the Pacific Mail is part of the old Jurgeson corner, made famous in later days as
one of the "hang-outs" of Jack London, the author, during his tramp life. Repair and supply shops were
opened by the company and an era of great prosperity set in for the town. A few of the residents of Benicia can
recall tales of the Montana, the Dakota, the Wyoming and other high side wheelers which came to the port in those
days, and old records show that many a time there were from fifty to sixty ships anchored off the town. Seventy
years later passengers going through Benicia on the Overland route to their San Francisco destination, looked with
wonder on the thirty six Shipping Board vessels, ranging from 8,000 to 11,500 tons, anchored in Southampton Bay
at the edge of town. For when, after the close of the World war, the Government sought harbors for sheltering the
Class A vessels which were being released from trade, Benicia was one of those selected. Side by side, connected
by a gang plank, these vessels were anchored in Southampton Bay, a fleet a mile in length and representing the
outlay of $72,000,000.
This bay, it may be said in passing, derived its name from the store ship Southampton which entered Carquinez Strait
under command of Commander T. A. C. Jones, U. S. N., in 1847, and was the first government ship to navigate its
waters. Commander Jones was enthusiastic over the place, and many of the vessels of his fleet were brought up to
Southampton and anchored in these fresh waters. Among those which visited Benicia at that period were the Ohio,
the Savannah, the Preble, Congress and Vandalia.
But it was the establishing of the Government Arsenal and Barracks at Benicia that really made the town. The government
had been looking about for some time for a headquarters for troops on the bay of San Francisco and Gen. Percifer
F. Smith was detailed to make an investigation and report. On April 6, 1849, he reported against San Francisco,
declaring that the city was cut off from the mainland by a long strip around the southern arm of the bay; that
its climate was not good and that enemy troops might easily land on the beach charges which made the San Franciscans
of those days wrathy even as they are ridiculous when viewed in the present age. But having disposed of San Francisco
as a candidate for the army headquarters, Smith sailed up to Benicia, on the government steamer Edith. And again
Doctor Semple's booster spirit was in evidence. So well did he paint the advantages of his town that the army officer
went no farther. He reported to the War Department that Benicia was the one and only place for troop headquarters
and the Arsenal and barracks were accordingly established in 1851, on that portion of the town site bordering on
Suisun Bay. The original arsenal building stands today and is as fine a specimen of masonry as can be found in
California. Built of sandstone bricks, it had narrow slit windows, as it was originally intended as a fort. In
1912, when full of ammunition, it was the scene of one of the most spectacular fires ever witnessed on the coast,
the explosions of powder sending red hot mattocks through the air for a distance of a couple of hundred yards.
When the building was reconstructed by the government it was cut down from four stories to two. After the acquisition
of the land for the Arsenal the first commanding officer sent there was Colonel Silas Casey, and his first official
dwelling was the old French ship, Julie, which was sent up with stores and building materials and anchored close
to shore. Aboard this vessel he and his family lived for five months until buildings could be erected. Some of
the men who later became famous in the history of the nation saw service at the Benicia Arsenal. President Grant,
then a lieutenant, was in command of a company stationed at the barracks, say old timers of Benicia, and William
Sherman, then a young engineer and later the famous general, was also there at one time. Tradition has it that
his surveys took him up the channel to Suisun and also through the Sacramento River and that Sherman Island, opposite
the town of Antioch, was named for him.
The Arsenal's part in the social life of Benicia, and, in fact, of the state, for Benicia was the gathering place
of the elite in those days began with the assignment of Colonel Julian McAllister who commanded the post twice
first from 1857 to 1864 and also from 1857 to 1886. He was a brother of Ward McAllister, leader of the New York
"four hundred," and of Hall McAllister, prominent member of the San Francisco bar. The government had
just erected a handsome mansion of brick and stone and McAllister, then a captain, was the first commandant to
occupy it. Around this centered the festivities of the place. Hardly had his family taken possession of the quarters
when his niece, Miss Grayson, was married to Lieutenant Knox. Special steamers from San Francisco brought the guests
to the affair.
Those who remember the early days at Benicia, and there are but few of these old timers left now, tell how the
return of a company from the Indian campaigns was always heralded about the town and how the small boys gathered
around the soldiers, listening to their stories until they were almost scared to death. There was one officer,
Colonel Guy Henry, who was particularly good at making the tales harrowing, to whom the boys listened with delight
even while they shook in their boots. Colonel William A. Marye was in charge of troops at the barracks at the time
of the Civil war, and on one occasion it was reported to him that southern sympathizers were to gather at the Solano
House, then the most fashionable hotel in the state. He turned out a couple of companies of soldiers, surrounded
the house and practically placed every one under arrest. The report however, proved without foundation. H. Hall
McAllister, a nephew of Colonel William McAllister, who spent much of his boyhood at the Arsenal, has the following
to say in Robert H. McGill's "Story of Benicia:"
"The great muster of the troops during the Modoc war took place at the old barracks. Colonel Canby, a great
Indian campaigner, was in command. The Colonel was later assassinated by Captain Jack of the Modoc, who invited
him to a parley under a flag of truce. Captain Jack, Scarfaced Charlie and Scousin Jim were captured some time
later on, convicted of the murder and hanged at Fort Klamath.
"While my uncle was commandant of the Arsenal the officers were victimized by a clever swindler, who made
them the butt of the jokers for many a day. Had the swindler been as clever with his table manners as he was with
his gift of gab, he probably would have got by. When he appeared at the Arsenal he gave the name of Zach Chandler
and claimed to be a brother of the Secretary of War. He presented forged papers, stating that he was connected
with the Government secret service, and on the strength of these he was allowed to make a thorough inspection of
all buildings and was received by officers in their homes. Finally Colonel McAllister arranged a dinner in his
honor at the commandant's quarters. All of the officers and their wives and many of the prominent citizens of Benicia
were invited. Things were going along beautifully with Chandler until the Colonel noticed that he ate more food
with his knife than with his fork and that in many other respects his behavior was not according to the best regulations.
The Colonel excused himself long enough to send a wire to Washington. The next day he was advised that the fellow
was an impostor and was ordered to arrest him. In the meantime, Chandler was on his way, but he was caught later
in San Francisco.
Benicia residents remember when the Arsenal was the home of the first great prize fighter of this country, John
C. Heenan, known as "The Benicia Boy." He grew up and developed his muscles in the old blacksmith shop
at the Arsenal, swinging the hugh sledge hammers. From California he went to New York, winning every fight in which
he engaged, and finally met the great English fighter, Tom Sayers, in the ring in England. The battle is probably
the most famous in the history of the English prize ring. It took place at Farnborough on April 17, 1860, and lasted
two hours and six minutes, thirty seven rounds being fought. After Sayers' arm had been injured the crowd pressed
into the ring and the referee declared the fight a draw.
Benicia was one of the first two cities incorporated under the first legislature of the State of California, March
27, 1850. The other city was Monterey, incorporated on the same day. At the same session Benicia was named the
county seat of Solano, retaining that honor until 1858. Under the charter of 1850, which was amended in 1851 and
1854, finally being repealed in 1859, its mayors were:
Captain James Kearney, from May, 1850 to May, 1851.
Doctor W. F. Peabody, from May, 1851 to May, 1852.
Captain D. N. Fraser, from May, 1852, to May 1853.
Captain Alexander Riddell, from May, 1853, to May, 1854.
Charles French, from May, 1854, to November, 1855.
W. S. Wells, acting from November, 1855, to May, 1856.
J. M. Neville, from May, 1856, to May, 1857.
T. B. Storer, from May, 1857, to May, 1858.
Charles Alison, from May, 1858, to May, 1859.
Following the administration of Alison, the new charter vested the city government in a board of trustees.
Mrs. Martha Fisher Quinn, a lifelong resident of Benicia, recalls hearing her mother tell of the days of splendor
following the gold rush. She is a daughter of Joseph Fisher, who came to Benicia in 1849, and opened a market there,
and the niece of Captain Von Pfister, the third settler. Her aunt, Mrs. Sheridan, was a belle of San Francisco,
but moved to Benicia in the '50s and her wedding to Captain Von Pfister was marked by a week's "open house"
and such entertaining as was the marvel of the town. Many a time, she declares, she has heard of her uncle having
traded his merchandise for a bottle of gold dust, and she recalls a velvet dress, of her mother's, long preserved
as an heirloom in the family, for which Mrs. Fisher paid $20 a yard to S. C. Gray, who was one of the merchants.
Curtains at $20 a piece were also bought from him by Mrs. Fisher and long used by the family.
Meanwhile Benicia had been laying the foundation for the place she was later to take as the educational center
of California. She enjoys the distinction of having been the site of the first Protestant Church established in
this state, and for the first school for girls, opened under the auspices of Protestant churches. The former, a
Presbyterian Church, was opened by the Reverend S. Woodbridge in April, 1849, flourished until 1861 and was finally
closed a few years later for lack of support. The school was known as the Young Ladies Seminary and was opened
in the summer of 1852. Mrs. S. A. Lord was the first principal, being succeeded by Mrs. J. M. Hudson the second
year. The third year it became the property of Miss Mary Atkins, whose fame as an educator became state wide. In
1866, Miss Atkins, who later became the wife of the Honorable John Lynch, Surveyor General for the State of Louisiana,
sold the institution to the Reverend C. T. and Mrs. Mills. Thus was Mills College first brought into existence,
for it was at Benicia that the school was conducted under the name of the Young Ladies Seminary until 1871, when
Mr. and Mrs. Mills moved to Oakland, where it has since been maintained as one of the fashionable and highest educational
institutions for girls in California.
The Rev. Charles Pope purchased the school in 1871, conducting it until 1873, when it became the property of Miss
Mary Snell and her sisters who later conducted Snell's Seminary of Oakland. Its final owner was J. Piody. Within
its walls were educated some of the most prominent society girls of California. Tradition has it that the sister
of the great tragedian Barrett, of Booth and Barrett fame, was at one time a boarder there and that Ella Wheeler
Wilcox was also educated at this once famous institution, but of this there is no authentic record. Among those
who attended this school when it was the property of Miss Atkins was Emma Wickson, who became Emma Nevada, world
famous opera singer. Mrs. William H. Crocker, and her sister, later the Princess Poniatowski, were her classmates.
In 1853, St. Catherine's Academy was opened at Benicia, being moved there from Monterey, where the Dominican Sisters
had established the first convent in California. Through the efforts of Rt. Rev. Joseph Sadoc Alemany, O. P., archbishop
of San Francisco, Sister Marie Goemare, the first mother provincial of the order, had come from Europe, making
the trip around the Horn, and had founded the order at Monterey, in 1850, being joined there by Sister Mary Frances
and Sister Mary Louise, of the East. In the convent at Benicia today hangs a picture of the little adobe building
at Monterey which first housed these daughters of St. Dominic, whose school was to become one of those for which
Benicia was so noted. The brick building in Benicia was erected in 1860, and the long corridor leading to the beautiful
chapel, which replaced the original one some years ago, is worn by the footsteps of hundreds of girls who have
been educated there.
A modest little cross in the cemetery of the convent, bears the inscription, "Sister Maria Dominica (Concepcion
De Arguella), First Native Daughter to become a Dominican." To the lover of California it speaks volumes,
for Concepcion De Arguella's story is one of the tragedies of love in the early California days. The daughter of
Jose De Arguella, commandant of the Presidio of San Francisco, she was wooed and won by Count Rezanov when that
envoy of the Czar came from Siberia to obtain supplies for the men of his expedition and, incidentally, to effect
by diplomacy a further footing for his country on the shores of the Pacific. But he was of the Greek Catholic Church,
she of the Roman Catholic. A dispensation from the Czar was necessary and when Rezanov sailed his little sixteen
year old sweetheart was left in the assurance that it would not be long before he returned, for his wooing had
been ardent and sincere. Bret Harte has immortalized the love of this couple in the poem of her name. For years
she waited, heedless of the wooing of the gay Spanish cavaliers who would have courted her and won her; waited
without word from her missing lover, who had fallen from his horse and perished from privation while crossing Siberia.
Children, those of our brothers and those of the Indians, claimed her attention, and as a member of the Third Order
of St. Francis, she labored among them near the Mission of Santa Barbara, winning many of the latter to Christianity.
With the establishment of the Dominican Convent, she became a nun at the age of sixty. At St. Catherine's in Benicia
she passed the last few years of her life, her death occurring there on December 23, 1857. Two days later she was
laid to rest in the convent cemetery. She was born on February 19, 1791, and a copy of her baptismal record, written
in Spanish and framed at St. Catherine's, shows that she was baptized by Father Pedro Camlon on February 26, of
that year. No character in early California history has been more widely written of by novelists and poets than
Sister Maria Dominica.
So much for the romance of the institution. As for its educational value throughout the '60s, '70s and early '80s
it was the mother house of the Dominican Sisters and in its roll of graduates may be found the names of many of
the girls who were later to become leaders in every sphere in the state. In 1877, no less than one hundred boarders
were accommodated there in addition to the day pupils. In 1887, when the bay cities were attracting general attention
as educational localities, the mother house of the order was moved to San Rafael, where a college is now conducted.
At St. Catherine's now there are about sixty boarders, not a few of these children of South American families of
prominence who are sent there to be educated in the English language as well as in other studies.
In 1867, the College of St. Augustine was founded and incorporated in 1868, being the outgrowth of the school for
boys established in 1853, by the Rev. Charles M. Blake. In 1855 it had passed into the hands of C. J. Flatt, who
disposed of it to the Pacific Coast Mission. Three years after the founding of the institution under the name of
the College of St. Augustine, with the Rt. Rev. J. H. D. Wingfield as rector, a school for young ladies, "St.
Mary of the Pacific," was also built at Benicia by the same organization. For years these two institutions
flourished and residents of Benicia today can tell of the times when the pupils from the various schools were to
be seen out walking regularly in charge of their instructors; when one would hear the steady tramp of the cadets
from St. Augustine, clad in their natty uniforms of gray with red trimming; when Saturday was the great spending
day among the pupils, and there was not one of them who did not increase the revenue of the town with the money
that was laid out for candy. Gertrude Horn, later Gertrude Atherton, was a pupil at St. Mary's, say some of the
Benicia residents who remember those days, while St. Augustine turned out men of prominence and some of California's
greatest leaders. More than a score of years after their founding, St. Augustine and St. Mary of the Pacific closed
their doors. The health of Bishop Wingfield, who had remained in charge of them for the entire period, had failed,
and with decreased patronage it was decided best to cease operation of the two schools. Several years later the
contents of the buildings were sold at public auction and several of the structures of St. Augustine, which had
occupied sixty acres, were bought by Benicians and moved to other sections of the town where they were remodeled
and have since been used as dwellings. When the doors of St. Mary's were opened it was found that time and moths
had done their work only too well, and much of the furniture and carpets were in tatters.
St. Dominic's Monastery and College, which had been founded at Monterey in 1852, by Rev. Father S. Vilarrasa, was
moved to Benicia in 1854. St. Dominic's Church was erected in 1851, and the building in which Dominican students
were educated for the priesthood was erected close by, being used for this purpose until a new and larger structure
was found necessary in 1887, when Rev. Father Thomas Dyson was prior. The present church was dedicated March 16,
1890, having been finished during the priorate of Father Reginald Newell. Some years ago the college was moved
It was in 1879, that the transcontinental railroad built into Benicia, and the car ferry boat Solano, the largest
in the world, was put on the run to Port Costa, affording opportunity for the travelers to reach Oakland and San
Francisco by this additional route. The first trip of the Solano was made on November 24, 1879, and there are Benicia
residents who declare that when they saw her coming up the Strait of Carquinez they thought the whole City of San
Francisco was coming to their doors, so huge did she appear. The construction of this route, via Benicia, cut off
sixty miles between Sacramento and San Francisco, and the Solano, on her arrival, was greeted by the entire town.
A detachment of troops from the Benicia Arsenal, under Col. Julian McAllister, was on hand, and a salute of twenty
six guns was fired, according to the newspaper accounts given at that time. As for the people, they greeted her
with wild cheers. Prominent among those who made the trip up on her from San Francisco were Charles Crocker, A.
N. Towne, Col. E. P. Fellows, C. Fred Crocker, T. H. Goodman, Arthur Brown, S. S. Montague, J. H. Strowbridge,
Hon. L. B. Mizner, Lansing Mizner, and others. The people of Benicia were invited to inspect her and, in fact,
special trips were made to Port Costa in order that all might participate in the gala event. The Solano, which
is still used by the Southern Pacific Company, on this run, on which the Contra Costa is also necessary now on
account of constantly increasing travel, is 425 feet long, 116 feet beam, with a tonnage of 3,542. She was operated
by two crews and when she was placed on the Benicia-Port Costa run it meant the addition of a number of residents
to the town.
Benicia had even then become a city of tanneries. The Pioneer was established in the late '60s, by J. R. Brown
and Thomas McKay, Alexander Chisholm later becoming a member of the firm. Brown's tannery, opened by one of the
original partners of the Pioneer, and the Shaw Tannery were also prominently identified with the history of Benicia's
industries. In 1879, Kullman Sal Company, under the name of the Benicia Tannery, established their plant there
and this is one of the leading industries of Benicia, and the largest tannery west of the Rockies, while it also
operates two plants in other sections of the state.
Another industrial boost to Benicia occurred in 1881, when the Baker and Hamilton Company moved there, operating
under the name of the Benicia Agricultural Works. As the Sweepstake Plow Company, it had been located at San Leandro
for about six years previous. It took over the old Pacific Mail dock and its first superintendent was Frank Hill.
David Quinn, one of the men who came to Benicia with this industry, recounts his recollection of the night they
landed, and the wharf, so badly in need of repairs, over which they made their way to the town. The main business
portion of Benicia at that time was built on "Bottle Hill", much nearer the government arsenal than the
present main street. T. McEneany subsequently became the owner of the Benicia Agricultural Works, which he now
operates in Berkeley, California, under the name of the Solano Iron Works, while the original plant is run at Benicia
by the Yuba Manufacturing Company and employs a large force.
Shipyards were also among the town's chief assets in the '80s and '90s. Chief of these was the Mathew Turner yards,
opened in 1882, which, under various ownerships turned out over 240 vessels during its existence. Under the name
of the Benicia Shipbuilding Corporation it operated to capacity during the World war. The Delaney Shipyard was
known for its barges and smaller vessels in the early days, but shipyards in Benicia are now a thing of the past.
Other industries which are of importance in Benicia at the present time are the G. W. Hume Packing Company, opened
in 1864, which employs about 350 people; the Western Creamery Company, and the Rex Spray Company, which furnishes
sprays to California, Oregon, Arizona and Nevada.
Several of the old buildings which were famous in the palmy days of Benicia are still standing, among these the
Solano Hotel, at one time the gathering place of the social elite, but now only a lodging house. Time was when
the Solano maintained its own stables, and good ones they were, for the accommodation of its patrons who desired
saddle horses, and it is told that many a riding party rode gaily through the doors of its once famous bars and
ordered the drinks for the crowd. Indeed, this hotel was once the finest of the state.
Another of the old landmarks is the once famous mansion, overlooking the city from its site near St. Catherine's
Convent, which was long known as "Hastings' Folly". It was built by D. N. Hastings, who settled first
in the town in 1852, and who erected it years later when there was something of a social rivalry between him and
Lansing B. Mizner, one of Doctor Semple's first partners, and later United States minister to South America. Although
his family was' comparatively small, it boasted twenty bedrooms, and everything else in the house was on the same
So much for Benicia's past, at present it is a town of 2,700 population with deep water and rail terminal and is
reaching out for more factories, for it has much to offer them. Her city government is vested in a council of five,
those holding office in 1925 being W. L. Crooks, Grant Allen, Enos C. Dana, James Barkley and Frank McCormick.
The former, chosen by his associate for the office, presides as mayor.
In schools and churches it is unexcelled by any town of its size and has just built a new high school for which
bonds in the sum of $160,000 were voted.