And now to reminisce: Back in early 2011, I was still living in Northern California. My girlfriend Angie and I enjoyed taking road trips (an activity not really possible on Maui), and one weekend we drove from Sacramento to Benicia, in East Bay. She’d been there, but I never had.
We had a great time, and not long after we returned I discovered a new print magazine called California Northern. It published just twice a year, but it was filled with great writing about the upper half of the state. The magazine had a section called Notes From The Field, which were short dispatches from various places around Northern California. Enjoying Benicia so much, I wrote up a short essay on our trip and submitted it, even though they didn’t pay for such features (I also apparently wrote it very early in our relationship, because in it I keep referring to Angie as Angela).
Anyway, they loved it, and published it in their third issue (though the magazine didn’t pay for such features, I have to say that it was probably one of the most heavily edited stories I’ve ever had published anyway).
The magazine as since gone on hiatus (they apparently stopped at Issue 6) and they never really posted stories online, but here’s the Benicia piece:
BENICIA, SOLANO COUNTY
Eight years or so had passed since my girlfriend, Angela, last visited the small town of Benicia, located on the shore of the Carquinez Strait–which empties into the northeastern part of San Francisco Bay–just a couple of hours from our Sacramento home. I had barely heard of it, but she said it was quaint, and a nice place to look at the bay and pop into an antique store or two, so we made a day of it. Though it lacks the bohemian feel of other seaside artistic towns, today Benicia is predominantly known for its glassblowers and its otter-filled wetlands. We found ourselves more drawn to Benicia’s historical roots, though. It used to house a massive military arsenal and a pre-Civil War corps of camel-mounted cavalry. And, oddly enough, it was once California’s state capital.
Since 1849, five cities have served as the home of the California Legislature, and Benicia filled the role from February 1853 to February 1854. In fact, the Benicia capitol building is the only pre-Sacramento seat of government still standing. It’s a cramped, two-story affair, with imposing columns, brick walls, creaky wooden stairs, and a $3 admission charge. The building is open to the public every day, though with the perpetual budget crisis in the contemporary capital, you never know when that might end. After she claimed to know no more than we did, the park ranger at the door eventually conceded that she had heard the building might soon be open only on the weekends.
Like the town that surrounds it, the Benicia capitol building is cozy but chilly in the winter. The town was mostly empty on the Sunday we visited because it was still a bit too cold to check out the wetlands, but Angela said it really fills up in the spring and summer months. The capitol was also mostly devoid of visitors, which made for a fairly quick tour of the first floor Senate and second floor Assembly chambers. We spent just enough time in each to notice that many of the hats placed on the members’ desks for voting (right side up is yea, upside down is nay, I think) still had their original labels on the brims. These remnants made a poster placed on one assemblyman’s desk all the more chilling–it advertised an exhibition of the severed head of Joaquin Murrieta, a hated (or loved) bandit of the Gold Rush, who was also sometimes known as the Robin Hood of El Dorado.
We continued our exploring, and soon found the Benicia Fire Museum (the town boasts the state’s oldest continuous fire service) was up and running–blind luck, since it’s only open for three hours a few Sundays a month. There, we saw two 1960s vintage fire trucks, an old net for jumpers, an more fire extinguishers, helmets, and fire hydrants than we’d previously imagined could fit into one building. The docent told us that jumpers’ nets are seldom used now that ladders can generally reach as high as the seventh floor. Also, so many jumpers simply bounced off the nets and into the attending firefighters that they caused nearly as many injuries as they prevented.
Benicia seems proud of its history, the well-maintained buildings as well as the detritus. Indeed, Angela found the rusting crane and half-sunk barges on the waterfront more photo-worthy than the capitol building. And the old Southern Pacific railroad depot makes a fine modern visitor’s center, even if the associated tracks that used to run out to a ferry now simply jut out into the bay. According to a photocopied handbill that I picked up at the capitol building, Benicia is a place of firsts. California’s first chamber of commerce was here, as well as its first Protestant church, public school, girl’s school, cast bell, newspaper (the Californian, first published on August 15, 1846), and Anglo cemetery. It was also a place of romance, being the site of the first truly legendary California love affair, between Concepcion Arguello and Nikolai Rezanov. (It didn’t work out, though apparently not because he was forty-two and she was only fifteen.) In any case, Angela and I tested Benicia’s modern capability by making out in the old capitol building’s empty assembly gallery, and found it very much alive.
-reprinted from California Northern Magazine, Summer/Fall 2011
Photos: Angie Thompson