Benicia: What Could Have Been

 A modern Benicia map with the original 1847 layout of streets superimposed.
The Benicia that might of have been: a modern Benicia map with the original 1847 layout of streets superimposed, extending far up into its hills and out into the waters of the Carquinez Strait. Courtesy Steve McKee

Ever wondered how San Francisco looked with its fabled Yerba Buena Cove? Come visit the north side of the Carquinez Strait, to its pre-Gold Rush rival. In the now sleepy town of Benicia, you’ll find a 19th century street grid cutting abruptly into its naturally rocky shoreline. This is because most of the coves and inlets of Benicia were never filled in for urban development.

Growing up in historic Benicia, it was always evident to me what it could have been. Hard as it is to believe today, when conceived in the year 1847, Benicia’s founders envisioned the settlement to grow to be the alpha city of the American West. Despite its deep water port on the Carquinez Strait and easy access to California’s interior, San Francisco quickly usurped that role with the dawn of the Gold Rush.

Nonetheless, Benicia’s early optimism now presents itself as an interesting counter-example to San Francisco, which led the region with its amazing growth, but also the careless environmental degradation that came with reckless 19th and 20th century city planning.

A look at the history of each city’s name presents us a more telling tale of their early rivalry.

Benicia was originally slated to be called Francisca in honor of Doña “Francisca” Benicia Carrillo de Vallejo, the wife of Comandante General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, arguably the most powerful individual in the historic Mexican province of Alta California and one of the co-founders of the city. Perhaps, more importantly, the city of Francisca aimed to associate itself with something much larger: San Francisco Bay. A nod to the crown jewel of our region, already famous in an era when marine travel was king, the city was envisioned as the new metropolis of the West.

Fearful that the formation of Francisca would eclipse it, Yerba Buena, the small fishing village sitting on a cove of the same name, renamed itself “San Francisco,” effectively forcing the use of Señora Vallejo’s second name of “Benicia.” Indeed, the name San Francisco stuck in the minds of gold seekers around the world, who would always remember that city named after the Bay, rather than its rival Benicia.

In dramatic fashion, San Francisco erased not only its former name, but all traces of it. Yerba Buena Cove now sits underneath today’s Financial District, once a grid of carefully fought over “waterlots.”

It begs the question of how Benicia would have looked if built out as intended. The above map of Benicia as proposed in 1847 would certainly have it looking much more like its former rival. In accordance to the 1847 street grid, the rolling hills near and above Benicia’s Interstate 780 freeway would have developed like San Francisco’s Nob and Russian Hills. The thought of a majestic hill city before the Carquinez Strait sounds glamorous, but that urban development would have come at a great cost to its waterfront.

Indeed, after the Gold Rush, rampant filling of shallow areas reduced San Francisco Bay’s size by one-third and destroyed 90 percent of the Bay’s tidal marsh. For Benicia to have largely escaped this is a powerful testament to what could have been.

So perhaps, in an parallel world, Benicia would have stuck to its original name of Francisca. The gold prospectors that would have gathered in Benicia would have helped to secure its hold as a major world city. The natural contours that so define its shoreline today could have been transformed into a zigzag of rectangular geometry. High-rise buildings mounted on bayfill and plans to construct a “clean cut” shoreline like San Francisco’s Embarcadero could have taken place. Yet, for those wildlife and residents who enjoy a quiet life before the Carquinez and take pride in our town’s natural coves and inlets, this lack of development is a blessing in disguise.

Myself, having both grown up in Benicia and lived in San Francisco for two years, it comes as more of a mixed blessing. Like many Bay Area residents, I long for the urban amenities provided by residing in a city like San Francisco, such as accessible public transit. At same time, I’ve written before how the Carquinez Strait has been my connection to the Bay. My hometown’s many shoreline parks were instrumental in fostering my sense of place at a young age and ultimately my future pursuits as a student and advocate of the environment.