The Benicia Historical Museum offers intriguing glimpses into the rich past of a city situated on the Carquinez Strait, a story that runs parallel, in many respects, to the history of nearby San Francisco.
By design, the museum’s connecting spaces highlight different eras of Benicia’s last 160 years. One finds something new to see around every corner.
Flags Over Benicia
Visitors enter the main museum on the second floor of Building #9, one of two structures known as Camel Barns. To the right, the first display shows the flags that have flown over California. The usual suspects are present: Spain, Russia, and the Bear Flag state flag along with the banner of one sovereign state less well-known in California history: For 37 days, the English flag flew over California.
In the next space, a life-size grass hut replicates the traditional housing of the area’s first people, whose numbers may have exceeded 70,000. Photos and interpretive information describe the lives of indigenous people including Chief Solano. Photos and facts about Solano’s close friend General Vallejo are displayed together with an image of Vallejo’s brunette wife, Dona Benicia. Listed here are the names of General Vallejo and Dona Benicia’s 16 children.
In 1849, the US Army arrived in Benicia to establish the Benicia Barracks, the first Army Post on the Pacific Coast, later named the Benicia Arsenal. Charles P. Stone and his men arrived with a load of explosive black powder.
In a curious case of a name being predictive of his work, Officer Stone ordered stone be quarried from the site and oversaw the construction of a collection of ginger-colored stone buildings. When the Civil War broke out, Stone became the first officer to volunteer for service to the Union Army. Later in his life, Stone coordinated construction of the base of the Statue of Liberty.
Among the other notables who served at the Benicia Arsenal was a future United States President, Ulysses S. Grant. He once got sent to the brig in Benicia for the unauthorized firing of cannonballs across the water toward Martinez.
Camels in Benicia
About midway through a museum tour, nestled among exhibits on shipbuilding and other early industries, a showcase features the Benicia Arsenal’s unique camel history.
“Where are the camels?” is the number one question visitors ask at the Benicia Historical Museum according to volunteer curator Beverly Phelps.
The US Army used camels imported from the Mideast as pack animals between Texas and California during the 1850’s and early 1860’s. Thirty-five camels swayed into the Arsenal in 1863, after trekking overland from southern California. The animals spent the winter of 1863 to 64 in Benicia, living in the two enormous stone warehouses, and generally annoying their keepers with spitting, hissing and moaning. Soldiers dubbed the buildings the Camel Barns. The camels were auctioned away in February 1864 to a single bidder for about $1500.00.
The Benicia Arsenal continued serving the country through two world wars and the Korean conflict, closing in 1964. The City of Benicia now owns the land and buildings.
The Victorian Period
Round a corner and one finds a room with Victorian era furnishings that replicate a parlor in one of Benicia’s homes on the upper end of First Street at the end of the 19th century.
On the lower end of First Street in those years, budding author Jack London roamed Benicia and the Carquinez Straits, working as an oyster pirate at fifteen and a deputy with the fish patrolmen by sixteen. He created a Huck Finn-type character in the first-person narrator of the Tales of the Fish Patrol, a collection of stories, mostly set in Benicia.
Rumor has that London routinely staggered in and out of Jürgenson’s Saloon, and one night, either drunk or suicidal, he swam out into the Carquinez Strait, got swept up by current, and was rescued by a Greek fisherman near Crockett after drifting several miles. In the foreword to Jack London’s book Tales of the Fish Patrol, Jerry George states that based on London’s story “Demetrio’s Cantos” we can safely assume that some part of the rumor is true.
Contemporary author and Benicia resident Donnell Rubray brings to life Jack London and 1890’s Benicia in Emma and the Oyster Pirates, a work of historical fiction with the scenes and characters based on real people.
In the author’s note following the last chapter, Rubray states, “In the early 1890’s Benicia was a town of opposites. Near the strait, at the foot of its First Street saloons, ‘houses of ill repute,’ tanneries, canneries, a train station and busy docks, thrived. At the upper end of town—about ‘F’ Street—churches, private schools and fashionable shops formed a separate neighborhood. Though men often moved between Benicia’s two halves, women rarely did.” Hence, Emma’s adventure is traversing these two worlds.
Tales of the Fish Patrol and Emma and the Oyster Pirates are among the many books on local and California history and other items available in the Benicia Historical Museum gift shop.
Freedom is a Hard Bought Thing
After touring the displays that depict Benicia’s past in chronological order, one reaches the changing exhibit space. The current show celebrates the 150th anniversary of the 1863 signing of the Emancipation Proclamation with “Freedom is a Hard Bought Thing.” It has been extended through February 2013 in connection with black history month according to Museum Executive Director Elizabeth d’Huart. The name comes from Benicia resident Stephen Benet’s book, Freedom is a Hard Bought Thing, a 1940 Pulitzer Prize winner.
African-American slaves came to Benicia with white men during the Gold Rush period. When the city served as California’s Capitol from 1853 to 1854, records reveal that debates among legislators frequently involved the slavery issue.
The exhibit features many examples of African-Americans’ role in Benicia history. One man that came to Benicia as a slave during this time was Adam Willis. At the direction of his “owner,” Willis traveled back east to bring the man’s wife and children to Benicia. Willis did all that, and, on his return, received his freedom papers in Benicia.
During the school year, more than 500 young people get to experience life as it was lived in 1850 in the museum’s hands-on education program for school children. Museum President Carol Scott, a retired public school teacher says, “We do time travel.” She tells the children, “You’re living in 1850.” During their highly interactive day at the museum, children do laundry by hand, make adobe bricks, and pass buckets in a fire brigade.
Many volunteers help make the experience possible. Bill Scott, Carol’s husband, guides the brick-making fun. Kids stir mud, straw, sand, and water in large tubs, and then place the slop in wood molds. Between the kids’ visits, one can find Bill hard at work building an adobe wall behind the museum with the dried bricks made by young visitors.
The museum charges seven dollars per student for the program or just over $200.00 for a class of thirty to defray expenses. May an individual give the museum a targeted donation to help a classroom attend the program? “Yes, of course,” says Carol. “That would be wonderful.”
Camel Lore Lives On
The notion of camels in Benicia lives on, due in no small part to their reappearance in the city. After an absence of well over a hundred years, camels were hauled to Benicia from Nevada. For six consecutive years, the Benicia Historical Museum sponsored camel races right on First Street.
Jockeys, sponsored by First Street merchants, rode the camels. Crowds lined the street; vendors sold food and hawked goods. The races are no longer taking place, but live on among the town’s legends. The races began in the 1990’s, ended in early years of this century, and remain part of Benicia’s rich history.
Experience it for yourself
The Benicia Historical Museum’s main exhibit hall in Building #9, better known as the Camel Barn, is open to the public Wednesday-Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. at 2060 Camel Road in Benicia. Visitors may reach the museum by taking Military West into the historic Benicia Arsenal and following the signs toward the museum.
The admission fees are $5.00 for adults, $3.00 for seniors and students, and $2.00 for children ages 6 to 12; children five and under are free.
Museum docents are typically on hand to provide informal tours and answer questions. Docents receive initial training by Benicia author Jim Lessenger whose most recent work is Commanding Officer’s Quarters of the Benicia Arsenal.
Guided tours are available to groups by reservation and may be arranged by contacting the museum at 707-745-5435 and www.beniciahistoricalmuseum.org.
Kristine Mietzner lives in Benicia with her golden retriever Max. She serves on the board of Benicia Literary Arts and works as a field supervisor for the Touro University Graduate School of Education. Her work has appeared in the Contra Costa Times, the Benicia Herald, and the online travel magazine, Your Life is a Trip. Her previously published work is posted at www.redroom.com/member/kristine-mietzner. She can be reached at email@example.com.