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Smokestack Benicia – PART 3

the forgotten industrial city
by Steve McKee on March 2, 2011

 It must have been quite a sight to see fifty or more boats fishing commercially for salmon off the Benicia shore, as was common in the early 1880’s before they overfished that waterway and screwed it up. According to one observer, the entire fleet usually numbered three times that amount! Since most of the salmon in California needed to pass through the Carquinez Straits to get to their home rivers, it was easy for these boats to haul them in like crazy. Right on shore were large cannery buildings to process the catch. All very convenient in a Benicia sort of way, a city that owed much of its 19th century brio and vitality to the fact that it had a deep water channel directly adjacent to the shoreline.

To this advantageous geographical mix was added the arrival of train tracks in 1879 – made possible by the use of two jaw-droppingly huge train ferries that ran between Port Costa and Benicia and created a shortcut that shaved sixty miles off the original 1869 train route – and this was the catalyst for yet more industries to locate in Benicia. This rejuvenated the city, which had been limping along ever since getting passed over as the permanent state capital a quarter century before. Benicia happily turned itself into a factory town, with large buildings along the shoreline, mostly on the west side, and a very active wharf area at the base of First Street.

These big factory buildings were a huge part of Benicia’s essence that is easy to forget now that most of the evidence is gone. There remains the large empty building of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company on the east side of town, currently unused and foreboding and deemed unsafe ever since a fire damaged key beams in 2006. By its appearance it’s not an easy building to love – that is until you learn of its crucial role in history. It was built in 1850 – Benicia’s infancy – decades before the train came through town, and was the first industrial building in all the west, with the ability to manufacture metal machine parts and even steamship boilers.

Pacific Mail Steamship Building

Industries like cowhide tanning, cement manufacture, ship building, a milk creamery, fish canning, flour processing (and more) transformed Benicia into a real working town complete with belching smoke stacks and strong smells and clouds of flies that accompanied shipments of the unprocessed cowhides.

These strong industrial images of Benicia as “California’s Manchester” are right out of the “Benicia Historic Context Statement,” the newly written history of the city that I am once again using for anecdotes to create this column (making this column the last of a series of three based on this theme, in case you wanted to know.) Just about everybody who reads the Context Statement finds it to be an interesting and worthwhile read. It’s available online. Just Google the keywords.

Most of the workers in these factories were men emigrated from Europe to live in crowded hotels and boarding houses. Those who did well could then afford a small house somewhere in town, modest and often bedecked with some amount of Queen Anne filigree. Those who did better could afford to build bigger homes, and pockets of these upscale neighborhoods were created near where the Riddel-Fish house and the Crooks Mansion are now.

Happily, the Benicia breeze carried most of the smokestack discharge eastward making it someone else’s problem. Turnabout occurred in 1913 when particles from highly toxic air pollutants from a Rodeo smelting plant (in which metals are burned) accumulated in Benicia soil and killed livestock and grapevines.

Labor unrest and a major strike occurred in 1902 that resulted in one of the tanneries bringing in strikebreakers under armed guard and tempers flaring and a Benicia citizen being killed by gunfire. Populations of Portuguese, Greek and Italian workers were introduced to Benicia at this time when the tannery imported them from Chicago to take over the jobs of the strikers.

A year later, in an unrelated story, the number of saloons was restricted to fifteen, though the actual number in place was twenty-three (this in a city with a small fraction of its current population) thus requiring that no new licenses could be issued until the number dropped.

There was little to cheer about in Benicia when the train bridge was built across the straits causing the trains to forever bypass the downtown area. The bridge was completed in 1930 – just in time for the second whammy of the Great Depression, making the thirties a not-so-great decade for city-by-the-straits. What saved the day for Benicia’s economy was the arrival of the second World War. The Benicia Arsenal had been in place just about since “day one” in the city’s history, and would become the definitive hub for supplying the war effort for the United States in the 1940’s. Suddenly Benicia was extremely active again with housing needed for all the new Arsenal workers. The city made itself over to squeeze people in wherever possible. For example, the house I bought for myself in 1989 on West K Street still had a tiny detached garage that had been converted to a very minimal living space during the war.

Two decades later when the Arsenal closed forever it was a dark day, one many current Benicians have visceral memories about. Some people were virtually giving away their houses, just as long as the new resident would take over the payments.

Now we find ourselves in an era with an economy not dependent on the train or a multitude of factories, unless we count all the small businesses in the industrial park or the Valero Refinery. Benicia still has smoke stacks; they’ve just been moved to a far edge of town. They’re taller now, but the emissions are a lot safer. The foot of First Street is decidedly calmer these days. It’s a good place to walk a dog. Fishermen still turn out in droves to get the salmon when they are running, especially on the First Street jetty formerly used by the big train ferries, just like they’ll be doing another hundred years from now, and a hundred years after that.

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