Benicia Capitol State Historic Park

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Benicia the Boom Town

"That Benicia was the best natural site for a commercial city I am satisfied, and had half the money and half the labor been bestowed upon it that has been spent on San Francisco, we should this day have a city of palaces on the Carquinez Straits."

From the Memoirs of General William T. Sherman

"Great sale of city lots - The streets are 80 feet wide, alleys 20 feet wide. Lost 50 yards front and 40 yards back. The whole city comprises five square miles. In front of the city is a commodious bay, large enough for 200 ships to ride at anchor, safe from any wind."

From The Californian, Monterey, 1846

The City of Benicia was founded in 1847 by Robert Semple, the towering giant of a man (six feet eight to seven feet tall by various accounts) who was a leader of the Bear Flag Revolt and other important California enterprises after 1845. Born to a prominent, politically active Kentucky family, Semple was widely known for his strong opinions and for his boundless optimism, enthusiasm, and vigor. Trained as a printer, dentist, lawyer, M.D., and riverboat pilot, he possessed an amazingly diverse background that was of great value in early-day California.

Semple's fascination with the land where Benicia now exists as the site for an important new city began in 1846 when he transported a prisoner of the Bear Flag Party, General Mariano Vallejo, from Sonoma to Sutter's Fort.

Semple was impressed by the site's potential, and learned that Vallejo held title to the area under a Mexican land grant. Within a year Semple was part owner with Vallejoof five square miles surrounding the site of the prospective city. He purchased the land for $100 from General Vallejo with the stipulation that the new town be named after his wife, Francisca Maria Felipa Benicia Carillo de Vallejo. As of May 17, 1847, Thomas O. Larkin, one of California's leading citizens and financiers, also became a partner in the venture.

Soon the new city was being promoted energetically. Advertisements appeared in California's first regularly printed newspaper, The Californian, which Semple created, published, and for a time even printed. Semple also established and personally operated a ferry service between Benicia and Martinez. He also spent a great deal of time and energy encouraging merchants, land speculators, builders, shipping companies, and even the U.S. Army and Navy to select Benicia as their home base in California.


By 1850 the rapidly growing town (population 1,000) was incorporated and named the Solano County seat. The U. S. Army established Benicia Arsenal in March 1849, and in 1850 the Pacific Mail Steamship Company decided to establish its major west coast depot and repair shop at Benicia.

A campaign was also launched in 1849 to locate the state capital at Benicia, but the Legislature failed to designate a permanent location at that time and ended up in temporary quarters in San Jose. Later, as town bid against town for the honor and advantage of becoming the state capital, the Legislature moved from San Jose to Vallejo to Sacramento and back again to Vallejo. But by January 1853, when the fourth session of the Legislature convened in the large wooden statehouse Mariano Vallejo had built in the town that still bears his name, the time had finally come for Benicia.

"The healthiness of the location of Benicia has passed into a familiar proverb, and she has now at hand abundant materials for the construction of permanent structures of brick and stone..."

From the California Gazette, October 4, 1851

The debate was complex, prolonged, and sometimes heated, but on February 4, 1853, a resolution was passed by the Legislature calling for removal of the capital to Benicia, where the city fathers and other ambitious pioneer-promoters had managed to construct a handsome two-story, red-brick "city hall". For the moment, it seemed that Robert Semple's dream city was about to become a reality.

"This is one of the finest public buildings in the State, and as it stands in a commanding position, presents a most imposing appearance from the bays and Straits of Carquinez. . . the hall is connected with the steamboat landing by a fine new plank sidewalk leading through the main street of the town, and by all the principal hotels, Post Office and stores . . ."

From The Placer Times and Transcript, December 30, 1852

Ironically, however, Semplehimself was no longer fully able to enjoy the prospect. His health broken by typhoid fever, stress, and overexertion, Semplewas forced to decline the nomination for governor in 1852 and to give up some of his other partially fulfilled dreams. After serving with distinction as president of the California Constitutional Convention in Monterey in 1849, he might very well have gone on to the governors' chair, and it is interesting to speculate the impact "Governor" Semple might have had on the destiny of Benicia, the ever-so-promising "City-of-the-Straits."

Instead of rising to greater prominence along with Benicia, however, Robert Semple left the city in 1852 and went into cattle ranching in the Sacramento Valley with his nephew, Will S. Green of Williams. On October 25, 1854, Sempledied in quiet obscurity after a prolonged illness. He was buried on his ranch, Rancho Alamo, a few miles west of Colusa.


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