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 Depot.
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 Army Barracks.

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 and Sacramento.
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 1898.
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.

Storehouse shown 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 program.
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 operations.
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. Cowell, 1963.

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 Bruegmann, 1980.
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.
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