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The Town of Benicia (1847—1861)

Daily Alta California, 6 December 1862


[From the Special Correspondent of the Alta California.]

Benicia. December 5, 1861,

The Foundation of Benicia.

Benicia is the oldest American town in the State; that is, it is the oldest of those towns built up by the Anglo-Americans, as contra-distinguished from the Spanish-Americans. It was laid out by Thomas O. Larkin and Dr. Semple, in 1847, and was named Francesca, after Señora Francesca Benicia Carrillo de Vallejo, the wife of the gentleman who had sold the land with the intention that it should be used as a town site. Soon after it had been named, the Ayuntamiento of the village of Yerba Buena, adopted a resolution to change the title of that place to San Francisco. The proprietors of the proposed city, at the Straits of Carquinez, were very indignant at this near approach to the designation selected for their place, but San Francisco was already a bustling town, and feeling themselves to be the weaker party, they considered it necessary to give way; and to prevent any mistake to their injury, by the confounding of titles, they chose Sefiora Vallejo's second name, and called their town "Benicia," by which designation it is known to this day.

Metropolitan Aspirations.

Its founders expected that it should become the chief city of the American dominion on the Pacific Coast. They looked forward to the time when the Sacramento basin, then occupied chiefly by elk, antelope, wild cattle and Indians, should be filled with farms and cities, when steamers should run daily from San Francisco bay to the interior, when the main communication, between the rich agricultural valleys north of the California chain of bays on one side, and those south on the other, should be by a ferry at the narrow strait between the bays of San Pablo and Suisun. The city was planned, therefore, on a grand scale. Its prospects were bright from the first. Lots were in demand. The discovery of gold gave sudden prosperity to the central part of the State. All trade went past the gates of Benicia. The town wan selected as the headquarters of the Pacific Division of the army. Commodore Jones of the navy expressed his belief that it would become the main town of the coast. The agents of the Pacific Mail Company selected it as the best point for their workshops.

During 1849 and the early part of 1850, it hoped to rival San Francisco, and the latter place feared the rivalry. The proprietors of Benicia injured themselves by the extravagance of their expectations. They held a large number of lots, (probably a hundred,) in the best place for business as high as £10,000 each. — lots, some of which, can now be had for $50. The old residents of the town tell how this and that person or company, then or now wealthy, went to Benicia in the early part of '50 for the purpose of buying land and building, but was scared away by the prices, which are supposed to have been an influential cause of failure of the prospects for the city's greatness. The metropolis of the Bay soon accumulated such a capital that all rivals were overwhelmed.

Benicia, while abandoning its expectations of metropolitan preeminence, still aspired to a second or third rate position, and its ambition appeared to be in a fair road to success when it became the Capital of the State in 1853. The Legislature, however, were dissatisfied with the small size of the town, the scantiness of the population, and the scarcity of amusements, and moved to Sacramento. This was a cruel blow to Benicia, and the last of its serious misfortunes. Speculative prosperity then ceased, but the town has bun slowly gaining in absolute business, wealth, and population ever since.

Present Resources.

The present resources of the town are three large academies, which contain 300 students; a garrison, now numbering 700 men; the works of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, which employ about 30 laborers regularly, and sometimes 300: the transit at the Straits of Carquinez, which brings large numbers of people through the town, and supports a steam ferry-boat: and the daily passage of five or six steamers and about a dozen sailing vessels to and from San Francisco. The position of the town is such that it must always be a point of importance in the travel of the State: and it can confidently look forward to the time when a railroad connecting with Sacramento and Marysville will terminate either here or in the neighboring town of Vallejo.

Flatt's Collegiate Institute.

In proportion to its population. Benicia has the largest and most prosperous schools of the State. Two are for the education of girls, one for boys; and I will to speak more particularly of the latter— the Collegiate Institution, under the management of C. J. Flatt, Esq. This school was established seven years ago for educational purposes simply: has never been assisted or controlled by any sect: has maintained itself without outside assessments or contributions, and owes its reputation and its uninterrupted prosperity solely to its educational merits. Mr. Flatt himself is a plain, careful, industrious, attentive, kind man. who knows how to manage boys and how to select assistant teachers, and omits no exertion to deserve success.

Academic Life.

His school occupies a site on the hillside about a mile from the steamboat landing, and half a mile or more from the business part of the town. A couple of large buildings connected by a covered way serve as dormitories and class rooms. The position is elevated, commanding a view of the town, the straits for several miles in extent, the opposite town of Martinez, and Mount Diablo which rises high above the horizon and is visible from the double peak to the base. The students ore mostly young men, between sixteen and twenty, and living together, making study their sole business, profiting by contact with numerous other minds, and by the constant attention, assistance, and encouragement of their teachers, they must learn. It is a great thing for a student to live among students, to see none but students, and to converse only with those whose occupation is to learn. Under such circumstances, an academic spirit must grow up, it communicates itself unconsciously, it influences and benefits even those who will not study. There is a certain infectious intellectuality in all collegiate institutions where students dwell together, such as it is difficult to obtain when a boy lives in his father's house and sees his fellow pupils only four or five hours a day in the recitation room. There is an academic life, which is, in itself, one of the great benefits of a collegiate course, and rises in power and value in proportion with the number of students, and the completeness of the exclusion of extraneous influences. Benicia is a small town, and presents nothing to distract the attention of students. There are no theatres or places of public amusement to draw them away from their study. When they want relaxation they can find nothing better than their own playground, and gymnastic scaffolding, and when they have exhausted themselves there, books, either for their class lessons or from the library, are welcome for a change. Advantages of this kind, contributing with the central position of Benicia, and the accessibility from all directions, have no doubt had much influence in giving prosperity to its schools.

The Examination

To-day is the last of the session, and the academic year. A number of ladies and gentlemen are present. The students come from all parts of the State, and the parents and friends of many have come to ascertain their proficiency and accompany them home, The recitations in Latin, geometry, astronomy, science of government, and political economy, trigonometry, surveying, and the history of the United States, were extremely creditable. In geometry, a class which had bean studying only four months drew by lot from a box each a number for one of the eighty or more problems in Davies' Legendre, and each one drew and demonstrated his problem well. The singing was good, showing that the boys had not only practiced much, but had received instruction in the science of music. The essays written and read by the students John Hook, John Stevenson, C. E. Warner, and James Stephens, and the School-Boys' Journal, edited by O. S. May and Joseph Hall, were good specimens of school-boy composition [...].

Source: Text retrieved from the California Digital Newspaper Collection
Page created: 18-IX-2016
Last updated: 18-IX-2016