Visit Benicia for history, antiques and art
Benicia is so near yet so far, just 90 minutes from Santa Rosa, but eons back in chronological time.
You’ll know something is different when you discover that street parking is still free. The town is quieter and less crowded than most and is bike- and dog-friendly. Yet it is progressive. City officials are proud to say that they have their first all-female police patrol.
Founded in 1847 by General Vallejo and originally named “Francisca” for his bride, Benicia was the state capital for a short time in 1853.
A good way to get a feel for Benicia is by walking Main Street, actually First Street in the town’s downtown area. Beginning at Military West and running for 11 blocks, it is lined with leafy trees that sprout romantic lights at night and ends at the Carquinez Strait waterfront, a popular place to watch the sunset where you can sometimes spot sea lions.
On this walk, you’ll pass a plethora of antiques shops, including Blue Goose Antiques, which specializes in primitives; Charlie’s Attic, which displays vintage and collectibles; and The Steffen Collection, where you’ll find lovely collections of aprons, teacups and Lucite bracelets.
Former state capital
This town is also known for its glass-blowing studios. Lindsay Art Glass is located on F Street, just off First Street. You’ll see a mind-blowing selection of colorful blown glass in front. Keep walking back and you’ll find a sale area, followed by the studio that is often open to visitors. For a fee you can sometimes blow your own glass ornament.
Smack in the middle of town, Benicia Capitol State Historic Park presents an interesting story. Because there were no building codes at the time and plenty of people needed work, the two-story, red-brick Greek Revival building was built in less than five months and served as California’s third state capitol from Feb. 4, 1853, to Feb. 25, 1854. Most building materials are local, and historic information, artifacts and period furniture await the perusal of visitors inside.
In the first floor Senate Chambers, each desk is topped by a hat. Senators placed their hats right-side up if they planned to vote yea on an item being discussed, or down if they planned to vote nay.
Legislators operated during the heat of the Gold Rush, and hundreds of bills were passed, including one that allowed women to own property. It is claimed that but for a voting technicality, the town would still be the state capital. After being used as a schoolhouse, a jailhouse, a firehouse and even a roller-skating rink, the capitol building was restored and opened in 1958 as a state historic park. Living history events occasionally bring it all to life.
Next door is the 1858 federal-style Victorian Fischer-Hanlon House, a renovated Gold Rush-era hotel that also has served as a house of prostitution and a family home. It is reputed to have a ghost. Donated to the state in 1966, it holds an impressive collection of original period furniture and accessories, including an 1864 Box Steinway piano made in New York and brought here by ship.
The kitchen features an ornate wood-burning stove and a linoleum floor that resembles an oriental rug. A carriage house and three-hole outhouse are behind, along with a garden that holds a century-old wisteria. Tours are sometimes available.
Down at the end of First Street, by the beach fronting the Carquinez Strait, Benicia’s Main Street operates inside the well-maintained building that once was the town’s Southern Pacific Train Depot. Train and passengers used it to board what was at the time “the largest ferry in the world” to be transported across to Port Costa. Now this shop dispenses visitor information and displays town memorabilia in addition to purveying Benicia logo merchandise and local art.
Gold Rush camels
You’ll have to get back in your car and drive 1.7 miles east of town to see the fabled camel barns. They are located within one of the 1850s sandstone warehouses on a former military compound that now houses the Benicia Historical Museum.
A camel corps serving as military pack animals brought the animals here to be auctioned in 1864, housing them outside in pens but storing their food and equipment inside.
Many of the camels wound up in Gold Rush country and were eventually released in the Mojave Desert. A few won parts in the 1939 movie “Gunga Din,” and some descendants remain still in the desert.
The museum land was originally owned by the Patwin Indian tribe, then became a ranch that was owned for a time by General Vallejo. He sold it to the U.S. Army, which in 1964 sold it to the City of Benicia.
As might be expected, a museum displays lots of camel artifacts along with an elaborate Dolores Webb dollhouse complete with LED lighting, the Benicia history quilt and ceramic tile murals by Guillermo Wagner Granizo. More of his tiles are seen embedded in the sidewalk along First Street. A children’s activity area is equipped with games and coloring pages.
Behind the museum, an 1857 powder magazine can be toured by reservation only. It was constructed with bricks carved by Italian artisans from rock quarried on the site, and contains original floors and carvings. German POWs wrote on the walls during World War II. For many years, the magazine was used to store civil defense materials.
Another warehouse building in back features an interior designed to look like a 19th-century industrial wharf, with a small model train display and an operating mine model.
On the way back to town, stop at Arts Benicia for gallery shows that change regularly.
It’s a concentrated community of artists who live where they work, in vintage buildings in the historic Lower Arsenal District. Though their studio/homes are usually closed to visitors, they are open during Open Studios events held on the first weekend of May and December.