Benicia, California, “City of the Straights”

Benicia CA Pier

Photo Credit: A photo of the Benicia pier with the dilapidated boat house and boat. Photo taken by me :-).

“‘Benicia, the memorable ‘city of the Straits’…” (as quoted in Thompson, par. 9)

Back when I first conceived my historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, I knew location would be an important factor. One of the major themes of my series is the contrast between my protagonist, Adele Gossling, a modern “New Woman” and the Victorian ideals of the older generation in the new town where she comes to live after her father dies. To do that, I wanted to create a location that had several characteristics:

  • A town that wasn’t too central but also not too rural so as to be completely out of touch with the social and political changes of the day.
  • Close enough to San Francisco and Sacramento since my characters have ties to both cities.
  • Near a body of water, my own personal quirk but also because I knew I wanted my town to be in the San Francisco Bay Area and you can’t exactly get away from water!

Even though the town was to be fictional, I wasn’t averse to doing some research of the area between San Francisco and Sacramento to get some inspiration. If you’ve been reading my more recent Friday Inspiration posts in my reading group, you’re already aware that I found that inspiration in a little coastal town called Benicia.

Although I lived in the Bay Area for about five years, I hadn’t heard of Benicia. Since one of the joys of writing is to discover new places, I put on my future to-do list to visit the little town the next time I was in the area.

I made this promise to myself four or five years ago but it’s only earlier this month when I visited my brother in San Francisco on my way back from a long trip abroad that I was able to fulfill it. What I discovered and how I see those discoveries shaping my series (if they indeed will) is a subject for future blog posts on my new history and mystery blog, Mother Time Musings but since one of the topics I love writing about in this blog is creative inspiration, I wanted to share a little bit about my visit and my impressions of the place.

My brother and sister-in-law and I drove down to Benicia on a beautiful Saturday where the horizon was unusually clear for the Bay Area. We drove off the 780 onto East Second Street, a serene residential area with lovely small houses and lots of grass and trees. We then turned onto Military Way, the main thoroughfare of the town. Right on the corner was Benicia’s City Park with its rolling grass and wood-coned playground (called the Playground of Dreams) and picnic areas and, what I loved best, an octagon gazebo painted white with old-fashioned trim.

We were all charmed by this right off and then we hit Military Way, the main street and Benicia’s historical downtown. One thing that impressed me so much about this little town was the pride the residents take in its historical heritage, so much so that the visitor’s center (housed in what used to be the train depot until cars usurped train travel in the 1940’s) has free guides to the historical district. The guide shows you the buildings on the main street that have historical significance and tells a bit about each. It’s an easy walking tour, as signs posted outside each building contain corresponding numbers to the guide so you always know what you’re looking at and the story behind each building.

It’s no wonder residents are so proud of the town’s history, as Benicia does indeed have some colorful points of interest in its past. The town represents the kind of ingenuity and opportunity that characterizes the settling of the West, both in its conception and its role in the California Gold Rush of 1849. Rumor has it the gold rush began in Benicia when a chance encounter with a man named Bennett dropped by the general store, the gathering place for gossip and conversation, and exposed the discovery of gold in California. As these 1926 books describe:

“[Bennett] displayed to the little group of Benicians about four ounces in small pieces, such as had first been discovered when the water was turned on to run the mill. A profound impression was made on the little group by the sight of the yellow metal… [In about] two weeks… a score of wagons [were] waiting to be ferried across from Martinez. The pioneers of the state had heard of the new El Dorado and the gold rush of “the days of ’49” had begun.” (Hunt and Gunn, par. 8)

But the gold rush isn’t Benicia’s only claim to fame. The town was, for a short while in 1853, the state capital when Vallejo proved insufficient. The town even built a city hall for that purpose. Alas, this civic pride was short-lived, as the capital moved to Sacramento the following year. Ian Thompson, in his article for the Daily Republic, gives the reason for this, one that sounds rather absurd to us today but might be typical of the get-up-and-go attitude of the Wild West in the 19th century: “[L]awmakers quickly changed their minds [about making Benicia the state capital] when 100 people coming to the [congresional] session couldn’t find lodgings and had to sleep in saloons.” (par. 10).

I can’t quite say yet how the real-life Benicia will further inspire my series’ fictional town of Arrojo, but I can say I made note of a few places that I know will be of use to me. The train depot is the first and obvious one since train travel was central to Victorian life. The landmark station in Benicia is situated at what used to be the entrance to the town and supported by train tracks and the bay on one side. The pier has a pleasant walkway across from which you can see the hills. And one end of the pier has an abandoned and dilapidated boathouse and boat that intrigued me.

Works Cited

Hunt, Marguerite and Harry Lawrence Gunn. “History of Benicia, CA.” Rays Place, 2009. 1926 (original copyright). Web. 28 November 2018.

Thompson, Ian. “Benicia history dates to mid 1800s and state’s gold rush.” Daily Republic. McNaughton Newspapers, Inc., 2018. 30 August 2015. Web. 28 November 2018

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