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A hundred and sixty years in Benicia

A walking tour of downtown reveals a few things
by Steve McKee on April 23, 2009

While at City Hall on some random piece of business I came across a pamphlet about a downtown historical walking tour of Benicia so I took a copy and shared it with my wife. I had a plan. We could do the walking tour. And since this year marks our twentieth year of living in Benicia, it would be a perfect way to give the town its due. Luckily my wife is willing to go along with most of my schemes.

The tour turned out to be entertaining with many new insights gained and our sense of pride as Benicians enhanced. It’s self-guiding, so you’ve got to be willing to look like a tourist standing there on the sidewalk with map in hand, reading and looking. We were okay with that and decided to just have fun with it.

Melody and I began at site number one, the Train Depot, as if we were new arrivals, fresh off the train, which itself was fresh off the ferry. For many decades Benicia had train tracks that ended right over the water, aiming at the Contra Costa hills in the distance. There’s something strangely cool about that. Two very long and very wide boats regularly carried trains between Benicia and Port Costa. They were the largest train ferries in the world. I suspect it was a comfort for townsfolk to see the behemoths at work on the water keeping their little city connected with the world.

Next was the site of Jack London’s favorite drinking hole, Jurgensen Saloon, now literally a hole because the building was moved several blocks north and restored within the past decade. The rather forlorn East “A” Street remains, a bit of asphalt hardly recognizable as a street.

The train station and the wharves must have made the base of First Street quite a focal point for the city, bringing in people and goods. There were even buildings that were constructed on pilings over the water so that they could be located near this hub. Back in the days before any freeways or shopping centers, Benicia quickly trailed off to empty hills punctuated by the occasional cemetery or armory building. First Street couldn’t help but be a natural magnet for the life of the city.

A metal sign in front of the Van Pfister Adobe told the story of how the guy from Sutter’s Mill just had to blab about the gold nuggets in his pocket that he and his buddies had just found on the American River. You see, there was another guy in the Adobe boasting about the recent discovery of coal at Mt Diablo and, well, how is our Sutter’s Mill guy going to sit still for that? The rest is history – really major history. (Such a big thing to happen in such a little building. One car garages are bigger than this building.) This dilapidated structure has a steel frame outer-building surrounding it for protection, along with tarps stretched tight, ensuring that your view of the Adobe will be blocked. So you peer through the cracks where the tarps end. At least this way you sort of feel like you’re stealing a peak at something special, I suppose.

The Fischer-Hanlon house on West “G” Street next to the Capitol Building was moved to its site from elsewhere. Joseph Fischer had it placed on the lot backwards because it suited him better. By my own count, a whopping ten out of the twenty-five buildings listed on the walking tour were moved to their site, either from elsewhere in town or shipped by boat in pieces from thousands of miles away. Creating a city by moving houses and buildings around was quite a Benicia thing. It’s still happening today at the boatyard.

In our walkabout mode Melody and I gave everything its due and paused often to admire and comment on things. In addition to the notes in the pamphlet, there are also many plaques placed here and there all over downtown, each with something to say. Pony express stop was here. The first protestant church in California was there. There was a nice guy who lived in this city and did some good and here’s his name. Rotarians planted these trees. This little park here was improved on this date and here are the names of the city council members at that time (as if that’s an important thing to list.)

We agreed that we would do the whole tour and not skip something just because we had seen it many times before. We walked down the West “K” Street sidewalk and checked out the Ridell-Fish house (nice color scheme) and then over to the Frisbie-Walsh house on East “L” (shipped round the Horn) and then back down to the St. Paul’s Episcopal church (with its exquisite wood ceiling made by actual master boat builders), always finding something new to admire. Back on First Street we treated ourselves to a sit-down snack. Hey, it’s tough duty paying homage to a city!

No structure was mentioned in our pamphlet that was built more recently than 1909, so an emphasis on the Victorian era was created by the tour. In my head I was in Benicia of the 1890’s (or so) with barber shops and livery stables. I imagined the sound of horse hooves clomping down streets, could see boys dressed like Tom Sawyer headed down to the water, women wearing bustles, men wearing vests and bowlers. At least that was my take on visualizing things.

What required no vague imagining were the buildings. They remain largely the same as they were a hundred years ago, at least the ones we were examining. They’re real – hyper-real compared to my imagined background details – with shadows that moved across their windows in 1886 exactly like the shadows I was seeing in 2009. There was timelessness here. And that’s what I liked the most, the idea that we share these buildings with the Benicians of old. These are our buildings for our lives just like they were their buildings for theirs. Just like one hundred years from now when these buildings will be in the lives of generations of Benicians not yet born.

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From → Architalk, Benicia

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