The Erstwhile Seat of Power

Gail has a very nice blown glass perfume bottle from Nourot Glass Studio in Benicia. The only problem with this thing is that the stopper broke off in the top of the bottle, making it a little tough to put perfume in or get perfume out. We had been thinking about getting it fixed. On a shakedown ride last year before our credit card tour from San Francisco to Laguna Beach, we stopped at Nourot and the friendly staff said “Oh sure…we fix those things all the time. Just bring it in.” Now was the time…and we would visit a bunch of Historical Markers along the way, too.

We didn’t have a huge amount of time on Sunday, May 16, so we tossed the tandem on the roof of the car and drove to Benicia, rather than riding up there via the newly-opened bike path on the Benicia-Martinez Bridge. Our general plan was to park at Nourot, ride to Fairfield to visit a landmark, ride back to Benicia and visit some other landmarks, and then drop the perfume bottle off at Nourot. A good plan on most days. This was not one of those days.

The ride from Benicia to Fairfield is pretty nice. We passed through the Conoco/Phillips refinery in Benicia (which I thought was most excellent but Gail found horrifying) and the rode between the hills to the south and Suisun Bay to the north along a frontage road next to the famous “Luther E. Gibson Freeway” (i.e., Interstate 680). For those that haven’t had the unique opportunity to drive a VW Bus or other types of boxes on wheels, the Luther Gibson Freeway was a source of fear and loathing when driving from the Bay Area to Tahoe, given the howling cross-winds along that stretch of road.

Along the way you get to see the so-called “Mothball Fleet,” which is a bunch of ships from WWII and the Korean War that are anchored in the Carquinez Straits, supposedly at the ready in case the USSR, Bulgaria, France, or some other enemy came steaming into San Francisco Bay looking for trouble. Thankfully, over the next few years, the most decrepit of these rusting hulks, which are environmental nightmares, are being removed and dismantled. However, from our tandem, the ships look surreal, a ghost of a long-past time of big navy and big military in the SF Bay.

From this road you can also see the wetlands of Suisun Bay. During periods of bird migration, this place is just lousy with birds taking a breather before continuing on to their final destinations. We could see some birds in the distance but not as many as one might see at different times of the year.

When we reached Fairfield, we finally decided to consult the directions to the Rockville Stone Chapel (Landmark #779). We found that this joint was all the way across Fairfield, so it took us a while to wind through the suburban street grid and pop out the other side of town into the farmland to the west. However, this was all worth it, because the chapel is just beautiful. The cornerstone of the chapel, erected by pioneers of Methodist Episcopal Church South with volunteer labor and donated funds, was laid October 3, 1856 on a site supplied by Landy and Sarah Alford, and the chapel was dedicated February 1857. By 1929, the chapel had deteriorated and the church deeded it to Rockville Public Cemetery District as a pioneer monument. It was restored in 1940.

What a beautiful place! The stonework is great, the setting (away from the road, surrounded by large trees) is lovely, and there was a Historical Landmark marker, too! It also made me proud to be a card-carrying member of the Democratic Party, since the chapel was reconstructed by the Federal Works Agency of the Work Projects Administration (part of Roosevelt’s New Deal). If you happen to be in Fairfield (perhaps visiting the Budweiser brewery), you should stop over. It is worth the effort.

We now had to retrace our route back to Benicia, since that was the real star of the day, landmark-wise (there are no less than 9 Historical Landmarks in Benicia, which gives it about one landmark for each 3,000 residents, which is much higher on a per-capita basis than any other city in California). After a fine lunch at Subway in Fairfield, we got back on Lopes Road and headed toward Benicia. There was a great tailwind as we left Fairfield, which made me think that we would be in Benicia in no time. WRONG! Once we got about halfway to Benicia, that friendly tailwind turned into a screaming headwind. Even with our powerful stoker, it was slow going all the way to the Benicia city limits. Once we got down in the wind shadow of the refinery, the riding got easier.

After we climbed the last hill, Gail and I had a collective brain freeze. Which way to we go? Over toward the bridge on the bicycle path or down the hill? Sitting here typing, it is obvious that we should have continued down the hill, since that was where we came from about 2 hours before. Sitting on the “captain’s seat” of the tandem, the decision wasn’t so clear. So, we headed down the bicycle path, which appeared to be going in the proper direction (i.e., down the hill) until it made a sharp left turn and went UNDER the freeway (i.e., away from Benicia). The bicycle path was pretty narrow, so turning the tandem around took some doing. When we did it, we noticed that we were between the roadways for the old and new bridges. This presented a great contrast in engineering between the old steel bridge, which looked like it was built from an Erector Set, and the new, sleek, modern span to the north.

We got turned around and finally made it back into town, where we found the Benicia Arsenal (Historical Landmark #176). Captain Charles P. Stone, with 21 enlisted men, established Benicia Arsenal as an ordnance depot in 1851. The first building, a small wooden powder magazine, was erected in September 1851. Between 1853 and 1863, Congress authorized $550,000 to be spent on the establishment, and some 15 stone and frame buildings were constructed. The arsenal was first called “California Ordnance Depot,” then “Benicia Arsenal Depot,” and finally, in the spring of 1852, “Benicia Arsenal.” It played an important role in crises such as the Indian wars. Some of its original buildings are in use today. Descendants of the men who established Benicia Arsenal are still living in Benicia and other parts of California.

The marker sits in the middle of a lawn area in front the main building of the Benicia Arsenal. We were unable to go inside of the structures (they are used today as commercial buildings). However, the exterior was quite attractive, having Spanish tile roofs, whitewashed walls, and very nice architectural details over the main entryway. It took us a bit to find this place (even though we had ridden past it earlier in the day) since the address is somewhat misleading. We are glad that we finally did stop and look it over.

Our next stop was the Site of Former Benicia Barracks (Historical Landmark #177). Benicia Barracks, established on April 30, 1849 and organized by Brevet Lt. Col. Silas Casey, 2nd U.S. Infantry, was the U.S. Army headquarters for the Department of the Pacific from 1851-1857. Also known as the “Post near Benicia,” it remained a garrison installation until 1898. The post hospital, built in 1856, is the only remaining structure associated with the original Barracks. The Barracks became part of the Benicia Arsenal, which closed in 1964.

From the map of our route, it looked like this place was up the hill from downtown Benicia. Google Maps now has an interesting feature that gives the best bicycle route to a destination. Although I don’t know the decision criteria used to determine the “best” route, it appears that the route selected by Google Maps involved either the longest route or the route with the lowest average grade for climbing. We wound around the streets overlooking Benicia and the Carquinez Straits, making lefts and rights, until we reached the top of the hill. When we found the location for the Barracks, it hit us: we had just ridden past this place on our route back from Fairfield! We would have had to climb a fence and avoid some armed National Guardsmen to get to this location, but it would have saved some climbing. I plan to notify Google about this option.

We looked all over Francesca Terrace Park, which is the location of the Barracks. No luck on finding a marker. Then, we saw what might have been a mounting for a marker at one time. Upon closer inspection, we saw that the marker had been ripped out of the mounting. Gail speculated that this was done in order to sell the scrap metal. I thought that the more likely scenario was a history buff trying to complement his collection of California state memorabilia. In either case, there wasn’t anything to see except for a bunch of families having picnics in a relatively beat looking park. Not the finest Historical Landmark we ever saw…

We flew down the hill to downtown Benicia. Here we faced a tough choice: do we explore the Historical Landmarks in the downtown area (of which there are many) or do we ride toward Vallejo and see the most remote of them and work our way back? When faced with a choice of more or less riding, I know where I fall, so Gail gave in and off we went to the Turner/Robertson Shipyard 1883-1918 (Historical Landmark #973).

We pedaled northwest along the shore of the Carquinez Straights and finally arrived at the Landmark. What is the big deal about this place?  In 1852, Matthew Turner of San Francisco relocated his shipyard to Benicia. Turner, the most prodigious shipbuilder in North America, constructed 228 vessels, 169 of which were launched here. In 1913, the shipyard was purchased by James Robertson, who operated it until 1918. The yard sways, and the Whaler Stamboul, used as a shipyard work platform, are visible at low tide. There isn’t much left of the place, other than some pilings in the shallows. However, one can just imagine the activity that took place here, launching ships into the somewhat protected waters in a natural bay. There were a bunch of guys fishing when we rolled in. They seemed none too concerned about us and our bicycle, as it was late in the day. The views from the Landmark are great: you can see the Carquinez Bridge (aka the Alfred Zampa Memorial Bridge), which links Crockett and Vallejo. You can also see Port Costa across the Straight. If you are in Benicia, it is worth the short trip to the outskirts of town to see this place. If you hurry, you can also see an insane-looking home remodeling project that is just a few blocks from the Landmark.

Next on the list was the Historical Landmark that I had known about before we started this adventure. Benicia had been one of the cities that had been California’s capital in the early days of the state. Why exactly Benicia got picked for this honor is not clear. However, as a friend of mine says, “The facts are the facts,” and those are the facts. We rode back into downtown to find the Benicia Capitol (Historical Landmark #153). Erected in 1852, ostensibly as Benicia’s City Hall, this historic building was one of the four locations of the “Capitol on Wheels” from February 4, 1851 to February 25, 1854. It was deeded to the State in 1951. We got to the Capitol sort of late and, as a result, the park ranger was not available to give a tour. Since we had several other places to visit (as well as heading back to Nourot), we decided to take a pass on the admissions (a reasonable $3 per person), with the goal of coming back later. The Capitol has been refurbished and, from the entry hall, it appears to be very interesting.

As noted above, you can’t swing your purse in Benicia without hitting some sort of landmark. Right next door to the Benicia Capitol is the Fischer-Hanlon House (Historical Landmark #880). In 1849, Joseph Fischer, a Swiss immigrant, came to Benicia. After joining a butcher partnership, Fischer purchased this lot on July 1, 1858 and move the house, reputed to be an old hotel, onto it. The building, an outstanding example of East Coast Federalist styling, illustrates architectural diffusion during the Gold Rush.

This house looks so out-of-place in Benicia. It looks like someone picked up a house from Boston and plopped it onto the lot. However, that isn’t the only thing that sets this place off. It also has an extensive garden of cacti and succulents. Why they decided to have such a garden, I have no idea, but it is very cool to see these plants essentially on the shore of the Carquinez Straights. The building itself was closed, so we didn’t get to go inside. However, from the look of it, one could spend some time poking around in it.

At that point, we still had a long list of Landmarks to visit, it was getting late, and we needed food. So, we called it a day and headed back to Nourot to get the car, give them the perfume bottle, and find some food. We would have to wait for another time to visit the rest of the Landmarks.

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