The Historic District
The Benicia Arsenal Historic District is on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places. President Abraham Lincoln issued the order that established the Arsenal military installation in Benicia, to support the Union at the onset of the Civil War. The historic district has four sub-districts: A, B, C, and D.
District C, also known as Jefferson Ridge, is the heart of the Benicia Arsenal Historic District and contains the nation’s most impressive ensemble of mid-19th century military architecture still largely intact as built over 150 years ago. The buildings and open spaces here form a harmonious, formal military unit, strategically located on a ridgeline overlooking the Carquinez Strait, the “highway” of the Sierra Gold Rush trade. District C includes the mansions of Officers’ Row.
It’s no accident that the National Register designation is for an entire district and not just for individual buildings. Meticulously planned by the Army, District C’s layout is a prime example of military site design, with careful thought given to the scale and placement of buildings and the sight lines between them.
In addition to its National Register listing, the Benicia Arsenal is included in the National Park Service’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta National Heritage Area —the first National Heritage Area in California.
Private property in the most critical part of the Benicia Arsenal Historic District—Jefferson Ridge—is currently proposed for development. Under new state laws, some construction could even be approved and built with no public review, no environmental review, and no assessment of impacts on historic resources.
If approved and built, this new construction will destroy the district’s historic integrity, and the district will lose its National Register designation. This irreplaceable asset will be lost to the city, the country, and future generations.
Help us preserve this authentic historic treasure as a park for all to enjoy!
The stately grounds of Jefferson Ridge and Officers’ Row are a critical feature of the National Register-listed Benicia Arsenal Historic District. These open spaces—virtually unchanged and intact for over 150 years—include an assembly area, carefully designed spaces and sight lines between historic buildings, and magnificent views of the Carquinez Strait, Mt. Diablo, and beyond. Together, the buildings and landscape evoke a much earlier time in the Arsenal’s history, which spans two centuries.
In the assembly area between the Commanding Officer’s Quarters and the Lieutenant’s Quarters, an 80-foot-tall pole once flew an American flag large enough to be seen for miles up and down the Carquinez Strait.
The natural landscape setting of Officers’ Row was a place where officers could entertain guests and relax with their families. The space between the Commanding Officer’s Quarters and the Clocktower featured lush planting, a circular pool, and a welcoming fountain. The south side of the Commanding Officer’s Quarters was lined with palm trees, bushes, and flowers. Visitors could stroll along a "daisy walk” of flowering bushes planted down Jefferson Street.
Today, while the gardens, pool, and flagpole are gone, the landscape is otherwise unchanged.
“Colonel James Walker Benet...commanded the Benicia Arsenal on the Carquinez Straits, and his son, William Rose Benet,... used to take me up on weekends to the absolutely paradisiac old army-post. It wasn’t like an arsenal. It was like the back-drop of a romantic play, all pepper trees and acacias, and fountains, and pillared porches.” —Leonard Bacon, author, commenting on the Arsenal of the early 1900s
“Father met us at the station in Benicia and took us home to a superb house, really a mansion, with a garden and fountain in the back and an avenue of pepper and eucalyptus trees. Roses were everywhere and later there was a hedge of sweet peas.” –Laura Benet, who lived in the Arsenal’s Commanding Officer’s Quarters with her father, Colonel James Walker Benet, and family in the early 1900s
Today, the grounds of Jefferson Ridge and Officers’ Row are proposed for development, threatening the character and integrity of the entire historic district. Under new state laws, some construction could even be approved and built with no public review, no environmental review, and no assessment of impacts on historic resources.
Help us preserve this authentic historic treasure as a park for all to enjoy!
The Benicia Arsenal’s National Register District C, Jefferson Ridge and Officers’ Row, includes buildings and surrounding grounds. Together, the buildings and open spaces form a harmonious, formal military unit.
Four of the buildings—the Clocktower Fortress (1855), the Commanding Officer’s Quarters (1860), the Lieutenant’s Quarters (1861), and the Duplex Officers’ Quarters (1872)—line the ridge high above the Carquinez Strait. This row of buildings, along Jefferson Street, is the heart of the historic district and the nation’s most impressive ensemble of mid-19th century military architecture still largely intact as built over 150 years ago.
Jefferson Street is one of the Arsenal’s earliest roads. The view from the road today is essentially the same as what Ulysses S. Grant saw when he was stationed at the Arsenal in the 1850s.
Clocktower Fortress. Built in 1855 of fine Benicia sandstone, the Clocktower is the only 19th century Gothic stone fortress in the United States. It was the Arsenal’s main storehouse for armaments. The structure suffered heavy damage in an explosion and fire in 1912, after which it was rebuilt but with the damaged third story removed. Today, the Clocktower is owned by the City of Benicia and is available for special events.
Commanding Officer’s Quarters. This 20-room Georgian mansion was built in 1860. As the home of the Arsenal’s commanders, built under the direction of U.S. Army Captain Julian McAlister, it became the Arsenal’s headquarters and a popular social center for army and civilian leaders. From 1905 to 1911, the mansion was home to Lieutenant Colonel James W. Benet and his family, including his son, Stephen Vincent Benet, who went on to become a poet best known for “John Brown’s Body,” an epic on slavery and liberation in the Civil War with a title referencing the radical abolitionist John Brown. Today, the building is owned by the City of Benicia.
Lieutenant’s Quarters. This home was built in 1861, following a plan similar to that of the Commanding Officer’s Quarters. Known today as The Jefferson Street Mansion, it serves the community as a wedding and special events venue.
Duplex Officers’ Quarters. Built in 1872, the Duplex Officers’ Quarters is similar to the other two officers’ homes, although it was built as a double house, with two entrances on Jefferson Street and two hallways running side by side down the length of the building.
Guard House. The Guard and Engine House, built in 1872, is an unusual attempt to combine two very different functions in one structure. The engine house required a large open space, and the guard house needed a series of small prison cells. The two sections of the building are completely separate, with the engine house having an entrance on the side.
Headquarters Office Building. Also known as the command post, this c. 1870 brick building is nearly cubical in shape, with a high basement and two floors above. The ground around all sides of the building was excavated, leaving a kind of dry moat bridged by the front stairs leading up to an entry porch.
Today, the open spaces surrounding these buildings are proposed for development, threatening the character and integrity of the entire historic district. Under new state laws, some construction could even be approved and built with no public review, no environmental review, and no assessment of impacts on historic resources.
Help us preserve this authentic historic treasure as a park for all to enjoy!
The Longer Story:
The Unofficial History of the Benicia Arsenal
The National Register-Listed Benicia Arsenal:
An Army Post for Over 100 Years
The U.S. Army maintained a post at the Benicia Arsenal for over 100 years. Originally called the Benicia Barracks, the Arsenal was established in 1849. By 1862, it was expanded under orders of President Abraham Lincoln to become the only Civil War-era federal arsenal west of the Mississippi River.
During the Civil War, the Arsenal was a staging area for Union troops from the West. The post played a major role in all of America’s military conflicts from its founding up through the Korean War until its close in 1964. Notable Americans who have lived and worked at the Arsenal include General Ulysses S. Grant, General William Tecumseh Sherman, General John J. Pershing and the writer Stephen Vincent Benet.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975, the Benicia Arsenal has long been recognized for its contributions to the nation’s military history and the growth and development of California. The National Register recognizes four historic districts within the Arsenal: Districts A, B, C, and D.
When the Arsenal closed in 1964, a state historical park was proposed. Due to the city’s pressing economic needs, however, the City of Benicia instead took ownership of the former Arsenal lands and leased the properties to Benicia Industries. Today, a small percentage of those properties are owned by the City of Benicia. Most are privately owned.
The Mid-19th Century:
Benicia is Established and the Army Arrives
The U.S. Army arrival in Benicia began in 1849, the year of the California Gold Rush, when Benicia’s founders Robert Semple and Thomas Larkin donated 345 acres of Benicia land to the U.S. government for use as a military reservation. In that same year, General Persifer F. Smith, U.S. Army Commander of the Pacific, moved his headquarters to Benicia (1849-1857), the army established the Benicia Barracks (1849-1924) in the northwest corner of the military reservation, and the General Depot for the Quartermaster Corps (1849-1858) was established in the southern portion of the military reservation.
Establishment of a military reservation in Benicia was vital in sustaining the U.S. Army’s presence in California at the conclusion of the Mexican American War in 1848. The army grasped the importance of this strategic location overlooking the Carquinez Strait; California’s two major rivers, converging in the Delta from the state’s vast interior, flowed through the Carquinez Strait, along which Benicia’s natural deep-water port harbored gold-laden ships bound for the Golden Gate Strait and the Pacific Ocean. At a time of aggressive U.S. western expansion, the army envisioned a distribution hub for military supplies to help maintain peace and security in California in support of establishing the United States “from sea to shining sea.”
The military’s presence in Benicia expanded when, at the urging of General Smith, Captain Charles P. Stone and 21 enlisted men established the California Ordnance Depot in August 1851 (1851-1964) within the military reservation in Benicia. The first building, a small wooden powder magazine, was erected in September 1851 east of the Benicia Barracks and north of the General Depot. In the spring of 1852, the army named the new installation one of the five major permanent arsenals in the United States, and it received the designation “Benicia Arsenal.”
Difficulties soon arose, the most significant concerning the validity of the land title itself. The government had obtained the land from Semple and Larkin, who had received it from General Vallejo, who in turn had received it from the Mexican government. The validity of the original Suscol Grant to Vallejo was being challenged in the courts. The matter was not resolved until 1861, when the U.S. Supreme Court voided the Vallejo grant and all of the land simply passed to the United States government. On October 12, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed an executive order officially establishing the Benicia Arsenal.
Between 1853 and 1863, Congress authorized $550,000 to be spent on the Benicia military reservation, and some 15 stone and frame buildings were constructed. These included two storehouse “Camel Barns” (Buildings No. 7 and 9, 1853-1855), Magazine (Building No. 2, 1855), Engine House (Building No. 8, 1855-1856), Post Hospital (Building No. 1, 1856), Powder Magazine (Building No. 10, 1857), storehouse “Clocktower Fortress” (Building No. 29, 1859), and Commanding Officer’s Quarters (Building No. 28, 1860), all of which survive today. The Benicia Arsenal had expanded to become the only Civil War-era federal arsenal west of the Mississippi River. Notable Americans who were to live and work at the Arsenal include Generals John Charles Fremont, Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and John J. Pershing, and the writer Stephen Vincent Benet.
During the Civil War, the Benicia Arsenal was a staging area for Union troops from the West, including the Camel Corps, which was disbanded in 1864. It supplied the army with arms to fight the Indian Wars in the last half of the 19th century—today a reminder of the tragic, long-living consequences of federal and state government policies that caused the decimation and suppression of native populations throughout the U.S.
The 20th Century:
Arsenal Employment Peaks, then Benicia Faces a Crisis as the Army Leaves
During World War I, the Benicia Arsenal supplied important army operations in the Pacific. In 1942, the Arsenal was expanded to 2,192 acres to distribute and maintain enormous quantities of arms and equipment during World War II. During the Korean War, civilian employment at the Arsenal peaked at 6,700.
After the Korean War, two freeways were built through the Arsenal and military activities gradually dropped off. On March 30, 1960, the U.S. Defense Department announced that the Arsenal was to close. In 1964, all of the Arsenal’s activities were transferred to the Tooele Ordnance Depot in Utah and the Arsenal land was transferred to a public agency, the Surplus Property Authority of the City of Benicia.
While the State of California urged the City to hold 250 acres for an Arsenal Park, the City’s leaders kept no land for a park. With other plans quickly gelling to address the City's sudden financial decline and need for economic recovery, they quickly orchestrated a legal set-up for holding property in trust for future sale. The old Arsenal properties were divided up into parcels of varying sizes to be eventually sold off to private developers for heavy and light industrial uses, as well as for other commercial interests and port-related businesses. For example, a large parcel tract was originally purchased by Humble Oil to develop a refinery, and was then purchased by Exxon in 1968 for processing crude oil coming from Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay then oil-rich reserves. Today, this refinery is owned by Valero.
In February 1975, Benicia Industries obtained all of the former Arsenal lands outright through a trade of properties with the City. The City received land along the Carquinez Strait for a marina complex and several of the most important Arsenal buildings, including the Clocktower Fortress, the Commanding Officer’s Quarters, the Camel Barns, and the second powder magazine.
The Benicia Arsenal Receives National Recognition with Listing on the National Register of Historic Places
In the early 1970s, a group of local history advocates nominated the historic structures in the former Benicia Arsenal for national landmark status. In 1975, the National Park Service identified and placed the Benicia Arsenal Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. The Benicia Arsenal became nationally recognized for its contributions to U.S. military history and western expansion.
The National Register recognizes four distinct historic districts within the Benicia Arsenal: Districts A, B, C, and D. Collectively, these districts contain 23 historic buildings, six contributing buildings and five potential contributing buildings on 252 acres.
The Historic Site Design and Travel Ways of Jefferson Ridge
Along Jefferson Ridge, the three officers’ quarters and the Clocktower Fortress, built 1855 to 1872, are arranged along a single precise axis at the highest elevation, providing impressive vistas with a sense of the historic regimented military layout.
Historic maps show Jefferson and Madison Streets running parallel to this axis on either side, with Adams and Grant Streets below. Grant Street curves past the 1870 Headquarters Office Building to become perpendicular to Officers’ Row, extending to Madison Street through the historic garrison flagpole site between the Commanding Officer’s Quarters and Lieutenant’s Quarters. Historic maps show formal landscaping on the flagpole grounds, which are currently open space. The Headquarters Office Building is directly opposite the flagpole site, with a clear view corridor along the historic path of Grant Street. Likewise, the 1872 Guard House stands directly opposite the Lieutenant’s Quarters on an axis perpendicular to Jefferson and Adams Streets, with open space between.
When Arsenal lands were conveyed into private hands in the early 1970s, most of these historic travel ways were recognized by means of reserved rights-of-way and access easements, and in fact even where later ownership consolidation rendered easements redundant, actual use by the public still follows the same paths. The clear openness of these paths can be seen on satellite photos.
A park incorporating the open spaces and historic travel ways of Jefferson Ridge will provide an inspiring and restorative environment and foster a deeper understanding of Benicia’s historic significance to California and the West.
Help us preserve this historic treasure as a park for all to enjoy!