Just over the Carquinez Bridge from here, is the rather anachronic town of Benicia. The Straits separate us from Solano County and the town. It has a small but interesting main street, called First Street. The waterfront along the Straits is beautiful, when not fogged or smogged in. There is enough shopping and dining to spend a half a day here without too much problem. Here the top ten reasons to visit Benicia from their website:
- Distinctive shops with one-of-a-kind items
- Art, art and more art
- An up-close look at California history
- Big-city dining experiences with small-town charm
- Spa services galore to relax and rejuvenate
- Gorgeous wedding sites
- Outdoor recreation along the beautiful waterfront
- Entertaining night life
- Year-round, family oriented events
- Convenient location, ample parking
Benicia was named for the wife of General Mariano Vallejo, Mexico’s last Comandante General of the Free State of Alta California. But mostly Benicia is famous for being the state capital for thirteen months from 1853 to 1854. The other claim to fame here is that future President Ulysses S. Grant was imprisoned here while he was a soldier. Lt. William Tecumseh Sherman’s replacement was Lt. Grant. He ended up spending thirty days in the Arsenal Guardhouse for being drunk and firing his cannons at the Martinez shoreline!.
Another strange story here involves camels, not the cigarette brand. The Army, in their infinite wisdom, experimented using camels, imported from the Middle East, as pack animals. After the Civil War, this experiment was abandoned, and the camels shipped to Benicia for auction. The Straits were also the site of a train ferry established by the Central Pacific Railroad in 1879. A perhaps more enjoyable claim to fame is that Benicia was the home of a Pulitzer Prize Winner, Stephen Vincent Benet, no relation to Jon Benet Ramsey. His father was the commanding officer at the Benicia Arsenal, but sent young Stephen away to boarding school. Stephen later became a well-known poet, novelist, and short story writer. He won his Pulitzer for a book length poem of the American Civil War, John Brown’s Body.
Mostly, I have always thought of Benicia as the quintessential artsy fartsy town, basically the Sausalito of the East Bay. There must be about a hundred known artists in the town, covering all media from glass art, prints, photographs, paintings, and mixed media. Glass studios in particular stand out, although I doubt if any Dale Chihulys live here. Like most bay area towns, they have art and jazz festivals, along with their most famous event, the Benicia Peddler’s Fair. Starting small in 1963, the Fair now boasts over 300 vendors and merchants.
The waterfront has been known to inspire Jack London with its share of salty, nautical characters, living and working along the area. He immortalized the area in his “John Barleycorn” and “Tales of the Fish Patrol”. Despite the characters and their ghosts, the waterfront does have great views, picnic areas, and hiking trails. The Strait in front of the waterfront connects Suisun Bay with San Pablo Bay, which is the northern extension of San Francisco Bay (for those of you in Europe, South America, Asia, and Australia).
The mayor of Benicia is Elizabeth Patterson since 2007. It is still a small town of about 35,000, despite several new housing developments in the area. Of course, the bridge connecting us to Benicia has a toll of $4.00, making the cost of a commute rather pricey each month. The largest employer is Valero Petroleum. Other big events were the closing of the Benicia Arsenal in 1960-64, and where the Zodiac Killer made his debut by killing a couple in 1968.
I seem to recall the famous Union Hotel Restaurant and Bar on First Street. I have dined there, but never stayed there since it is haunted, according to the experts. They say it is a young man and young woman who are the ghosts here. Guests have heard her crying. He is mostly seen in the bar. What else is new?
I actually like the more casual First Street Cafe for breakfast or a light lunch. I stay away from Benicia after dark. Call me suspicious, superstitious, or cautious. Although I saw a neat little watering hole on the main drag.