Benicia is a waterside city in Solano County, California, United States. It served as the state capital for nearly thirteen months from 1853 to 1854. The population was 26,997 at the 2010 census. The city is located in the San Francisco Bay Area along the north bank of the Carquinez Strait. Benicia is just east of Vallejo and across the strait from Martinez. Elizabeth Patterson has served as Mayor of Benicia since 2007.
The town can be divided into four areas: the East Side (east of First Street), the West Side (west of First Street), Southampton (the newer suburban neighborhoods north of Interstate 780), and the industrial park. Most of the town's older homes are on the east and west sides. Southampton contains primarily single family housing developments and condominiums, most of which were built between 1970 and 2000. The East Side includes the Benicia Arsenal, a former United States Army armory, which was bought by the city and is now used for a variety of purposes, most notably as live-work spaces for artists. The Arsenal is home to several historic (ca. 1860) landmark buildings such as The Clock Tower, the Camel Barn, and the Jefferson Street Mansion. The industrial park lies to the northeast of the residential areas of the city, and includes the Valero oil refinery. The Benicia State Recreation Area is on the far west edge of the city.
The main retail area in Benicia is First Street, which attracts out-of-town antique and boutique shoppers and those seeking small-town, historic charm. In 1987 Benicia was selected to participate in the California Main Street Program.
Connections to Benicia include Interstate 680 from Martinez to the south and Cordelia Junction (Fairfield) to the north, and Interstate 780, Columbus Parkway, and other local roads from Vallejo to the west. Amtrak also runs past the city north towards Sacramento, but the nearest train station lies in Martinez across the Carquinez Strait. Railroad tracks carrying Amtrak and Union Pacific Railroad lines cross the strait alongside the Benicia–Martinez Bridge.
The City of Benicia was founded on May 19, 1847, by Dr. Robert Semple, and Thomas O. Larkin and Comandante General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, on land sold to them by General Vallejo in December 1846. It was named for the General's wife, Francisca Benicia Carillo de Vallejo. The General intended that the city be named "Francisca" after his wife, but this name was dropped when the former city of "Yerba Buena" changed its name to "San Francisco". So Sra. Vallejo's second given name was used instead. In his memoirs, William Tecumseh Sherman contended that Benicia was "the best natural site for a commercial city" in the region.
Benicia was the third site selected to serve as the California state capital, and its newly constructed city hall was California's capitol from February 11, 1853, to February 25, 1854. Soon after the legislature was moved to the courthouse in Sacramento, which has remained the state capital ever since. The restored capitol building is part of the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park, and is the only building remaining of the state's early capital buildings, which were in San Jose and Vallejo. Benicia was also the county seat of Solano County until 1858, when that was moved to Fairfield.
The original campus of Mills College was founded in Benicia in 1852 as the Young Ladies Seminary, and was the first women's college west of the Rockies. Before moving to Oakland in 1871, it was located on West I Street, just north of First Street.
On June 5, 1889, the legendary prize fight between James J. Corbett and Joe Choynski was held on a barge off the coast of Benicia. The match lasted 28 rounds, and is now commemorated by a plaque near Southampton Bay.
From 1860-1861, Benicia was indirectly involved in the Pony Express. When riders missed their connection with a steamer in Sacramento, they would continue on to Benicia and cross over to Martinez via the ferry. One of the earliest companies in California, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, established a major shipyard in Benicia in the 19th century. Benicia became an important wheat storage and shipping site. It was also the site of the United States Army's Benicia Arsenal.
In 1879, the Central Pacific Railroad re-routed the Sacramento-Oakland portion of its transcontinental line, establishing a major railroad ferry across the Carquinez Strait from Benicia to Port Costa. The world's largest ferry, the Solano, later joined by the even larger Contra Costa, carried entire trains across the Carquinez Strait from Benicia to Port Costa, from whence they continued on to the Oakland Pier.
In 1901, the world's first long-distance powerline crossing over Carquinez Strait was built. After California's wheat output dropped in the early 20th Century and especially after the Southern Pacific (which took over the operations of the Central Pacific) constructed a railroad bridge at Martinez in 1930 to replace the ferry crossing, Benicia declined until the economic boom of World War II, which doubled the population to about 7,000 residents.
Two developments in the early 1960s would completely change Benicia: The closing of the Benicia Arsenal in 1960–64, and the completion of the Benicia–Martinez Bridge in 1962. The closing of the Arsenal removed Benicia's traditional economic base, but allowed city leaders to create an industrial park on Arsenal land which eventually provided more revenue for the city than the Army had. The completion of the Benicia-Martinez Bridge made it possible for the city to become a suburb of San Francisco and Oakland, and suburban development in the Benicia hills began in the late 1960s.
On December 20, 1968, near the Benicia water pumping station on Lake Herman Road, the Zodiac Killer made his debut by killing Vallejo natives David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen as they rested, or "necked", in Faraday's car. Near the same area on July 4 of the following year, the killer struck again, killing Darlene Elizabeth Ferrin and injuring Michael Mageau at the Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo, immediately next to Benicia.
Northeast of the town's residential areas an oil refinery was built and completed in 1969 by Humble Oil (later Exxon Corporation). The refinery was later bought by Valero Energy Corporation, a San Antonio-based oil company, in 2000.
Between 1970 and 1995, the population of Benicia grew steadily at a rate of about 1,000 people per year, and the city changed from a poor, blue-collar town of 7,000 to a white-collar bedroom suburb of 28,000.