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At the corner of West X and 15th Street – PART 2

The Benicia that might have been
by Steve McKee on January 26, 2011

In the Capitol Building on West G Street you can see the original city map from 1847 showing how the streets were originally envisioned for the city of Benicia. Only slightly faded with time, it is a glimpse into the unbridled optimism of the city’s founders Robert Semple and Thomas Larkin for a place that was then just empty fields with some marshy creeks along a coastline. Over the rolling hills and even out into the water they planned a vast array of city blocks with wide streets.

Less than a third of these planned streets came into being. Almost none of the imagined city squares and parks depicted on the map got built quite in the configuration originally shown. The City Cemetery is an exception which exists today exactly as the big rectangle up on the hill where it was designated on the original map, occupying the equivalent of four city blocks, even as it is surrounded now by modern curved streets and cul-de-sacs.

The 1847 map shows the lettered streets continuing a full six blocks beyond the Cemetery. I scanned the map for the furthest extension of the imagined city and there it was in the upper left corner.

West X and West Fifteenth Street.

It sounded so cool that I had to say it out loud to my wife. “Just think,” I added. “That spot exists somewhere out there, even if it doesn’t have such a cool sounding name.” I wanted to figure out where it was.

Out of curiosity, and because I still keep a functioning drawing-board even after switching to computer drafting, I took a modern city map, measured the streets and drew the missing grid of streets over the hills of Benicia. It turns out that the intersection of Fifteenth and X Streets would have existed well up in the Southampton hills, right about where Hastings Drive intersects with Cambridge Drive. Not such an exotic location, I suppose. But the idea that this spot was intended to be on the grid of lettered and numbered streets gave that location new interest in my mind. A person would have to drive thirty blocks to get there from downtown. It would have made for some really steep streets leading up the hills to that part of town. And you can be certain they would have put the streets wherever the grid called for them, no matter how steep it got, because that’s what they did back in that era. Just try riding your bike up West Thirteenth Street by the High School to see what I mean.

In San Francisco they have hills so steep that the streets finally give way to pedestrian stairs (such as in Pacific Heights) or the street zigs tightly back and forth to compensate for the steepness (such as the famous “crooked” section of Lombard Street.) That was typical nineteenth century urban planning for you. Though a grid seems like it would be dull and monotonous, it can actually create variety and interest in hill towns.

In the recently written “Benicia Historic Context Statement” you can read a quote from a visitor who passed through Benicia in 1860 and observed that “Even yet miles from town, one may see stakes marking streets, where not a building is in sight.”  He goes on to make fun of Benicia’s unspectacular prospects, despite a decade of a gold rush having transpired.

When I read that, I couldn’t help but fill in details in my mind to make the scene all the more real. I pictured the wood stakes to be old and sun-bleached while the Benicia breeze whistled and the grasses waved on the hillside. It made for a sort of haiku image of desolation and unmet hope. You can’t win ‘em all.

After the gold rush began, Benicia founders Semple and Larkin did their best to secure greatness for the new city’s future. The results were up and down. Thanks to $2500 of “lobby” money the state capital was relocated to Benicia in an impressive two story brick building that had taken just three months to construct and was said to be the most impressive edifice in all the west at the time. Speculators in town buzzed with hope. Wooden sidewalks were added in the area around the Capitol and building boomed. But then the state government moved back to Sacramento after just one session in Benicia because the city lacked sufficient facilities, and the building boom sagged.

An attempt followed to try to make Benicia the seat of county government, but this honor was also lost, this time to Fairfield when it was decided that the county’s rural character would be better met in Fairfield. Being the seat for county government would have made for such realities today as certain storefronts open twenty-four hours glowing with neon signs advertising “Always Open Bail Bonds.” Not the worst thing, I suppose, but for those of us who have grown accustomed to our small town patina, these scenarios may seem a little too “Pottersville” and not enough “Bedford Falls.”

Perhaps in an alternate universe there is a Benicia that remains the capital of California and is right now bustling with traffic, especially on the streets near the large Capitol Building (which would have been built somewhere in town to replace the old brick building probably sometime in the 1870’s or 80’s and would no doubt have a grand dome and rows of Corinthian columns and take up at least two city blocks with its grounds and all.) Surely there would be some sort of widened avenue approaching the Capitol lined with trees with the dome at its terminus. The neoclassic dome would look quite lovely as seen from the hills with the shimmering waters of the straits beyond. Such a city as this would have made Robert Semple proud. In that universe the idea of an underachieving small-town Benicia would seem somehow wrong. But we don’t live in that universe – those of us who sought out life in small town Benicia – we live in this one, choosing this Mayberry-esque town with modest cottages and homes lining quiet two lane streets – streets that were originally laid out to be expanded to four lane boulevards if things had gone differently.

And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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From → Architalk, Benicia

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