Historic California Posts, Camps,
Stations and Airfields
The Benicia Barracks and Arsenal
by Justin Ruhge
The founding of an arsenal on the west
coast had its beginnings in the arrival of the First Regiment
of New York Volunteers under Colonel Jonathan Drake Stevenson.
With this first occupying force came Captain Joseph L. Folsom,
the regiment's assistant quartermaster, who was assigned the
duty of establishing and operating a depot for military supplies
that arrived on the small fleet with Stevenson as has been described
in earlier sections of this book. Folsom leased a warehouse at
the foot of California Street in San Francisco from pioneer merchant
William Leidesdorff who had been U.S. Vice-Consul during Mexican
rule. Captain Folsom sent urgent pleas to Washington for supplies
for the growing military needs of California. The following spring
his request was answered by an avalanche of military goods that
overflowed the warehouse and piled up on the wharves. To add
to his dilemma, the warehouse lease was about to expire and the
renewal rental was considered exorbitant. The Army decided to
transfer the supply depot to the Military Reserve recently acquired
at Benicia some 35 miles from San Francisco, upstream on the
Carquinez Strait. Brevet Major General Persifor F. Smith and
Commodore Thomas C. Jones selected the site adjoining Benicia
in Solano County in April 1849 for a Quartermaster's Department
The founding of the City of Benicia and
the Army's acquisition of the U.S. Military Reserve there were
rooted in the bear flag revolt. Among Merritt's small party of
adventurers that descended upon Vallejo's hacienda in June 1846
was Dr. Robert A. Semple, tall Kentuckian, dentist by profession
and visionary frontiersman. Having taken Vallejo prisoner, the
party returned to Sacramento by boat. As the craft passed through
the Carquinez Strait, Semple pointed out to Vallejo how the low
rolling hills north of the Strait would be a good place to develop
a metropolis. The land was part of huge holdings claimed by Vallejo
under a grant from the Mexican Governor Micheltorena. Gracious
grandee that he was, Vallejo immediately promised to deed to
Semple enough of the admired land for the founding, with him
as co-founder, of a city. His one condition was that the city
should be named for his wife, Senora Benicia Francesca Vallejo.
View of Benicia from the
Frigate Savannah drawn by Navy Lieutenant Henry S. Stellwagon
in the spring of 1850. This represents the earliest known drawing
of the new town. From The First Hundred Years of Painting
in California - 1775 to 1875 by Jeanne Van Nostrand, John
Howell Books, San Francisco 1980, Plate 25 (Detail). The flag
in the left center of the picture may be the location of the
That the United States should have acquired a military reserve
adjoining the City of Benicia was a direct result of the town's
establishment and of the near-obsession of Semple to promote
it. In this regard, Semple brought into the planned development
Thomas O. Larkin of Monterey, former American Consul there and
notable early-day diplomat, merchant and developer of Monterey
and San Francisco. To support Semple, Larkin directed attention
of the government and settlers to the new community. He urged
both U.S. Navy and Army chiefs to establish installations adjacent
to the new town, even to the extent of traveling to Washington
to personally present his proposal to the Secretary of War. He
was successful and the Government did acquire a tract of land
containing 300 acres adjoining Benicia city limits on the east
for a military reserve.
The first Army occupation occurred on
April 30, 1849, when Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Silas Casey, 2nd
Infantry, with approximately 135 officers and men, disembarked
on the government land at the conclusion of a voyage from San
Francisco and established the post at Point Benicia.
In January 1851, the Army ordered the
establishment of the first Ordnance Supply Depot in the western
frontier land. Twenty-six year-old Army Brevet Captain Charles
P. Stone from Fort Monroe, Virginia was ordered to prepare a
shipment of arms to supply the projected Pacific Coast Depot.
These were acquired from the Frankford, Washington and Watervliet
Arsenals on the east coast. All equipment was loaded on the U.S.
Transport Helen McGaw and with a company of troops, set sail
about January 39, 1851. After seven months at sea, the Army vessel
arrived at San Francisco on August 15, 1851. Here Captain Stone
reported at the Presidio of San Francisco to General E. A. Hitchcock,
commanding the Pacific Division, to determine the location of
the proposed depot. He was told to proceed to the Point Benicia
site to establish the new arsenal. They arrived on August 19
and Captain Stone was quite satisfied with the location. He found
the barracks that had been erected on the reservation by the
Quartermaster's Department to be adequate for his men.
The troop area, designated Benicia Barracks,
occupied approximately 99.5 acres of land acquired by the U.S.
government for a military post, and was located in the northwest
portion of the reserve. It included the Barracks, Quartermaster's
and Commissary Depots.
Captain Stone chose a site adjoining the
barracks to the east for setting up his ordnance operation that
was designated the California Ordnance Depot.
It was important to erect buildings with
which to protect the shipload of ordnance brought to the new
Depot by Captain Stone. This work got underway immediately. In
addition Captain Stone conducted a survey of the ordnance in
California and found ordnance left everywhere by the American
Army now left for other duties. An order was sent out by General
Hitchcock to all commanders to return all such ordnance to the
Benicia Arsenal. There were also old Spanish trophy brass 8-pounders
abandoned to the elements at Clark's Point (Fort Montgomery),
San Francisco. In January 1852, Captain Stone visited Monterey
where he found Fort Mervine unguarded and filled with large quantities
of ordnance that had not been returned. No report was given for
Fort Stockton in San Diego, but the situation may have been the
same, cannon and powder lying everywhere unprotected.
A view of the Benicia Arsenal
in mid-1850. Note rows of cannon in the middle of the picture.
These may have been acquired from the Mexican and American installations.
Photograph from the National Archives, Old Army and Navy Group.
Courtesy of the Benicia Historical Museum, Benicia.
Another view taken in the
mid-1850s showing the Benicia Barracks in the bakgroound as well
as a closer view of some of Benicia Arsenal buildings. Photograph
from the National Archives Old Army and Navy Record Group. Courtesy
of the Benicia Historical Museum, Benicia, California.
As a result of this wide-ranging survey,
unused ordnance began to flow into the depot. Funds for a fireproof
magazine were requested. In mid-1852, the designation of the
Ordnance Depot was changed to Benicia Arsenal. By 1859 seven
structures were erected of sandstone blocks, hand-hewn from a
quarry in the Arsenal hills. These structures included a hospital,
a guardhouse, two magazines, two shops and a three-story storehouse
later known as the Clock Tower. This largest structure was given
a crenulated roof, two lookout towers, and apertures for howitzers
and loophole windows for musketry. Benicia Arsenal had taken
its place in the Ordnance Department plan and with Watervliet,
Allegheny, Washington and St. Louis had become an arsenal of
construction, the five installations providing manufacturing
service to the Atlantic, Central, the West and the Pacific parts
of the country, respectively.
The Arsenal had a navy of one sailing
brig and a schooner, both used to move supplies between the San
Diego Barracks and the barracks at Puget Sound; and a sloop used
in moving supplies between the Arsenal and Stockton, San Francisco
Captain Franklin D. Callender took over
the Arsenal command from Captain Stone in 1856 and remained until
1860. During this time weapons and ammunition were furnished
to military escorts of surveying parties that established boundary
lines between the United States and Mexico and marked the route
for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Colorado River
and across the desert to Los Angeles. Dragoon recruits for Pacific
Coast units were mounted and equipped at the arsenal. Infantry
and artillery units that manned scores of forts from the far
reaches of Washington Territory in the north to the Mexican border
in the south and rode or marched to engage in savage encounters
with rampaging Native Americans or to protect the westward trek
of emigrants were supplied with arms and equipage from Benicia
Arsenal. Emplacements of cannon for coastal harbor defenses were
achieved and maintained by the installation, and arsenal stores
provided the young State of California with needed arms and ammunition.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, a company
of the 6th Infantry Regiment garrisoned the Arsenal and the ordnance
was stored in the Clock Tower building where it and the troops
could protect it from attack, if any.
In 1862 a two-story shop building was
constructed of sandstone and brick followed in 1870 by a new
headquarters building. In 1877 the Northern railroad arrived,
owned by Leland Stanford.
In the 1880s and into the 1890s the Arsenal
was given the task of testing and evaluating new gunpowder production
on the West Coast.
The Spanish-American War that began in
April 1898 marked the beginning of the Arsenal's overseas supply
mission. During a comparatively brief period of the war, the
Arsenal supplied the Philippine Expedition with ordnance of all
kinds. It also armed and equipped all troops arriving in San
Francisco en route to Manila until the end of the War in December
View of the Benicia Arsenal
from the northwest. Drawing is by Hugo Hochholzer circa 1860s.
The central building is the Main Storehouse. Note the two towers.
In this view, the Main Storehouse, the Commanding Officer's House,
and the Lieutenant's House crown the hill in the foreground.
Behind is the large brick Shop Building completed in 1862. Photocopy
is from the California State Library. Taken from Benicia
by Robert Bruegmann, pg. 100.
View of the Benicia
Arsenal from the Southwest. From a lithograph published in Historical
Atlas of Solano County 1878, and taken from Benicia
by Robert Bruegmann, pg. 101.
The upper drawing is the
as-built drawing of the Main Storehouse, Built in 1859, Showing
the two towers in opposite corners and sniper turrets on the
other opposite corners. The lower photograph shows the Store
House from the northwest. A clock was added to one tower in 1886
to Honor Colonel Julian McAllister, Commander for 24 Years. Note
the Northern Railroad train in the upper left of this photograph.
drawing is from The National Archives, Cartographic Division,
Record Group 156; Photograph is U.S. Army taken from Benicia
by Robert Bruegmann, pg. 78.
above before the 1912 explosion and fire and below as it appeared
in 2003 with one story and tower removed. Courtesy of the Benicia
Historical Museum, Benicia.
The Arsenal's first permanent
shop buildings, handsomely constructed of brick with native sandstone
trim, in the years 1876, 1884 and 1877 respectively. These buildings
later received coatings of stucco and buff-colored paint. U.S.
Army Photograph taken from History of Benicia Arsenal
by J. W. Cowell, 1963.
Interior of one of
the stone Powder Magazines, showing hand-hewn blocks flaring
into vaulted ceilings. U.S. Army photograph taken From History
of Benicia Arsenal by J. S. Cowell, 1963.
An 1892 photograph of Officers
of the First Infantry Regiment stationed at the Benicia Barracks.
From left to right is Girard, O'Connell, Edmunds, Crofton, Vogdes,
Wilcox, Benjamin, and Kirkman. U.S. Army Photograph Taken from
History of Benicia Arsenal By J. W. Cowell, 1963.
An 1886 photograph of the
entrance to the Benicia Arsenal. Note the brick and slate roof
Guardhouse and the two Rodman Cannon on opposite sides of the
gate along with three pyramids of cannon balls. Courtesy of the
Benicia Historical Museum, Benicia, California.
Early in the new century, workmen from
the Arsenal small shop force, all of 59 in 1904, were sent to
fortifications along the Pacific Coast to assist in erecting
and maintaining gun emplacements.
Following the entrance of the United States
on April 6, 1917 into World War I, the Arsenal experienced increased
activity that continued for three or four years after the conclusion
of the conflict, the latter due to returns for storage, repair
and disposition of large amounts of ordnance supplies that had
been in the hands of the expanded army. The civilian personnel
strength of the installation increased during the war from 45
to 300 workers.
Throughout the war, the Arsenal supplied
troops in the mobilization camps of Lewis, Fremont and Kearny
as well as at various posts in the Western Department. Arsenal
shops serviced all weapons for the 91st Division before that
outfit shipped out for overseas duty in Europe.
In 1903, 1909 and 1911, the final brick
buildings were constructed for magazines, stables and storehouses.
On October 18, 1912 an explosion and fire
destroyed the three-story stone storehouse erected in 1859 and
referred to as the Clock Tower. The explosion and fire that ripped
off the roof and blasted down most of the third story walls resulted
in a loss of $1, 571,000 in supplies and damage to the structure.
In addition, almost all of the Arsenal's early records were destroyed.
The remaining walls of the third story and tower in the northeast
corner were later leveled to the second story height and the
building restored as a two-story structure with only the Clock
Tower. This is the building that can be visited today for various
social occasions sponsored by the City of Benicia.
In 1924 the Benicia Barracks and Arsenal,
covering 344.9 acres of land, were officially combined by War
Department General Orders No. 14, dated May 3, 1924 and signed
by General of the Armies John J. Pershing, Chief of Staff. The
new designation was the Benicia Arsenal Reservation, California.
The somnolent decades of the Arsenal were
coming to an end as the prospects of war in Europe began to develop
for the United States. Plans were made by the War Department
for a tremendous expansion of facilities at the Arsenal, the
main ordnance distribution depot on the Pacific Coast. The building
program was well underway at the installation when the Japanese
bombs fell at Pearl Harbor. Most of the construction was not
completed until 1942. It included a new concrete wharf, costing
$3,400,000, capable of docking four ocean-going transport; 109
igloo-type bunkers of concrete for the storage of ammunition
costing $2,200,000; a new headquarters building; a shop building
for the rebuild of artillery and combat vehicles, costing well
over $500,000; several warehouses; additions to existing shops;
utility and office buildings, and various lesser structures.
Realignment of Arsenal roads and construction of an underpass
to facilitate movement of Arsenal traffic were also part of the
With the beginning of the war, the Arsenal
ordnance supply activities mushroomed within weeks into a gigantic
operation. Civilian employee strength prior to 1940 had never
exceeded an average of 85 workers. By October 1942 the payroll
had reached a peak of 4,535 employees. Later this group was supported
by troops from the Ordnance Air Corps Maintenance Group stationed
at nearby Camp Stoneman that were detailed to the Arsenal while
awaiting sailing orders. Some of the soldiers worked in Arsenal
shops, others in ammunition surveillance and ammunition handling
In California, in August 1942,
huge shipments were sent to Camp Cooke at Lompoc, California
on orders from Headquarters, 6th Army for initial stockage of
Ordnance Field Maintenance in the activation of that camp. Approximately
12,000 secondary items of supplies were shipped. In the fall
Camp Roberts at Paso Robles, California was activated by the
6th Army and it received 7,000 items of supplies.
Photographs of the modern
World War II Arsenal facilities, showing Headquarters in the
upper and Storage and Manufacturing Buildings in the lower. U.S.
Army Photograph Taken from History of Benicia Arsenal by J. W.
Needless to say, all through World War
II, the Arsenal was the center of ordnance supply and services
on the West Coast. At the end of that conflict, huge quantities
of ordnance were returned to the Arsenal. Much of this was reshipped
to the Far East and Europe to many countries needing military
help against the rise of communism. The Arsenal also supported
the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.
The Arsenal was required to upgrade its
capability with the change in technology. One program was the
testing of the new 155 mm gun tubes for the new howitzers and
the assembly and testing of components for the Nike antiaircraft
batteries located around major cities on the West Coast.
Despite a renowned record of achievements
for 112 years, the Defense Department decided to close the Arsenal
on March 31, 1964. The tasks of the Benicia Arsenal were to be
divided between the Tooele Ordnance Depot in Utah and the Mt.
Rainier Ordnance Depot in Washington State.
Over the years, some of the many officers
serving at the arsenal were U. S. Grant, W. T. Sherman and General
James Doolittle, who obtained his Tokyo bombing raid ordnance
from the Arsenal.
Many of the original 1850s buildings remain
today, including the Clock Tower building, the Arsenal barracks
and the barracks hospital, while a cemetery contains the remains
of many of those soldiers who served at the Barracks as well
as in more recent Army conflicts.
At the close of the Arsenal, the property
was turned over to the City of Benicia. The modern Arsenal buildings
were turned into an industrial park and the historical buildings
are a part of the Benicia Historical Society holdings.
References: History of Benicia
Arsenal, January 1851 to December 1962 by Josephine W. Cowell,
1963; Old Forts of the Southwest by Herbert M. Hart, 1964; History
of Arsenals, Vol. 1, 1913, Benicia Arsenal, California, September
2, 1908, National Archives, Old Army and Navy Division, record
Group 156, Records of the Chief of Ordnance, General Correspondence,
1894-1913; Benicia, Portrait Of An Early California Town by Robert
The Last Gate for
the Benicia Arsenal. The Arsenal was closed by the Defense Department
on March 31, 1964. U.S. Army Photograph taken from History of
Benicia Arsenal by J. W. Cowell, 1963.
Taken from History
of Benicia Arsenal by J. W. Cowell 1963.