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Sunday, June 05, 2005

Suisun City was a scene of bustling business

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

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Activity abounded in 1857 despite limited access

By 1857, the interest of Benicia and Vallejo residents in the development of upper Solano County increased quickly. Population numbers in those areas rose rapidly, inspiring the debate about relocating the county seat.

The Solano County Herald had readers in Benicia and Vallejo as well as in newly founded Fairfield, Suisun City, the surrounding valleys and Vacaville.

News collection and distribution of the newspaper in these new towns was accomplished by locally appointed agents. On Sept. 26, 1857, the Herald announced its agents: for Suisun - D. Stockman, News Depot; for Cordelia - postmaster C. J. Pittman; for Rockville - T. M. Page at Page’s Store; and for Vacaville - postmaster E. F. Gillespie.

That same September, the Herald sent its reporters on a tour through these towns. Their report was published on Sept. 26, 1857, providing readers then and now with a vivid description of the area.

The reporters describe their venture as “a stroll through the upper part of the county, and on Monday last took a seat in Mr. Cutler’s stage for Suisun. After driving over hill and dale for a few miles, we reached Green valley, where the land lay beautifully and the winds blow constantly. A great number of cattle cover the plain, which forms a marked contrast to the rugged hills that surround Benicia.”

After passing through this valley, they reached Cordelia, “where there is a post office, hotel (both operated by C. J. Pittman) and some other buildings.”

Another important location at the time was “a town called Rockville, composed of a store, several other buildings, and ornamented by a nice little church built of native stone hewn from a quarry in the neighborhood.” Rockville Chapel, located next to Rockville Cemetery along Suisun Valley Road, had been constructed the previous year. It is one of the few reminders of upper Solano’s early history.

By 1857, the influx of settlers had had its impact and our roving reporters commented: “By this time the country had entirely changed its appearance. The rugged hills of Benicia and the wild prairie of Green Valley were lost sight of in the domesticated scene before us. Farms fenced in neatly built houses; teams crowding the road with produce all indicated the hand of thrifty husbandmen. The district school was located by the roadside where numbers of shining faces might be seen.

“Thus, for two or three miles we passed through what appeared an old settled valley, - the first we have seen in California where fences were run regularly for some distance.”

From Rockville, the reporters drove “through meadow land in which the stock of the valley miscellaneously browse,” until they reached Suisun City.

Its location at the edge of the water came as a surprise. “At length the vicinity of Suisun City was reached, and to our great astonishment it was nothing more nor less than a point of high land in the tule, to be approached only by means of canals and bridges, reminding us of what is written of Venice, her gondoliers and bridge of sighs, although we would by no means draw a comparison at this time, such may nevertheless be realized at some future period.”

A year later, on Oct. 9, 1858, the Solano County Herald reported on an incident showing the difficulties travelers encountered in   trying to reach Suisun across the tule land. A little dig against a local political figure probably ensured a few chuckles by readers familiar with the reference. The notice was titled “Up To The Hubbs.” Hubbs seem to be the earth divider protecting the plank road from the water.

“On Tuesday, one of our county officials and another ‘cove’ borrowed a horse and buggy to ride from Fairfield to Suisun. When on the narrow plank road they met an ox team and stopped to let it pass. Their horse - a contrary Spanish devil - didn’t like the operation. The tide was backing in at the time, and the horse concluded to do the same thing, and soon commenced the operation. The official cried ‘whoa!’ ‘whoa!’ but the horse, not understanding English, kept backing, and finally backed the buggy into the ditch, clean over the ‘Hubbs’ into the water. Never mind Mr. Official, take the example of Governor Macy and charge the expense to the county.”

Once the reporters had braved the difficult approach to Suisun City on their tour in 1857, though, they “were struck with amazement at the amount of business transacted. The whole length of the town don’t (sic) appear to be more than that of one block of Benicia, where its width is about double that of First street, yet within this contracted space there are wagons, carts, buggies, cattle, horses, and men so closely packed together that it is almost impossible to pass.”

At the time, the main agricultural commodities were hay, wheat, and barley. Capt. Josiah Wing, founder of Suisun City, had established a wharf, providing access to the water channels connecting San Francisco and Sacramento.

“The principal business of the place is the sale of grain. It is the shipping point for Suisun, Vaca and Green valleys, three very productive valleys, especially the former. Wheat and barley are stacked on the landing seven or eight feet high, and as much as twenty feet deep. Schooners are constantly loading for San Francisco and Sacramento.”

Buildings sprang up at every corner to accommodate the various businesses. “The buildings in the town indicate its prosperity as much as anything. The large brick store of McClory & Ballord, J. B. Lemon & Co., and Merrill & Masion, are self evident proofs of the mercantile prosperity of the place.

“A new brick warehouse has just been built by Mr. A. Jackson, about a quarter of a mile below the main town, on the tule, where we notice some grain has already been stored. For the better accommodation of his customers he is preparing a couple of basins in which the small craft that navigate the slough can conveniently lie while they are being loaded from his warehouse.”

Besides storage and shipping operations, the town also boasted a number of other ventures. With the amounts of grain, a flour mill was a logical operation. “In the centre (sic) of the town a flour mill is constantly going, blacksmith shops, tin shops, saddleries, carpenter shops and many other evidences of industry are in active operation. In fact, Suisun City may be styled the mercantile town of Solano county.”

While the reporters do not say much about this flour mill, another article the following year, published on Oct. 9, 1858, titled “The Suisun City Mills,” sheds some light on the importance of such an   operation and the willingness of the owners to make substantial investments.

“We had the pleasure, a few days since, of visiting the new and elegant Steam Flouring Mills of Messrs. Read & Edwards, which started on Saturday, the 3rd, and is now in the full tide of successful operation. The building is of brick, with a cut stone basement, thirty-four-feet front, fifty-five feet deep, three stories high, tin roofed, situated on the east side of the Plaza, a little north of the old wooden mill owned by the same firm, and is one of the neatest and most substantial structures in Solano county.

“The masonry of the building was performed by our enterprising fellow townsman and contractor, A. P. Jackson, and the wood work by George B. McGreavey, of San Francisco, mill-wright.

“The steam engine - forty horse power - is from the Pacific Foundry of Messrs. Goddard, Hanscom & Wrankin, of San Francisco, and is, in the opinion of competent judges, an excellent piece of mechanism. There are three runs of stone, and when all in operation can turn about nine hundred bushels of flour per twenty-four hours. William Bedell is the engineer, and Charles Webster miller. The probable cost, we are informed, would exceed $30,000.

“The people in this vicinity may well be proud of the enterprise of Messrs. Reed & Edwards. This large investment will no doubt entitle them to the substantial patronage of Suisun and the adjoining Valleys. On going through the mill we were much pleased to see with what precision the various machines perform their quota in the manufacture of flour, and on opening the bolting chest, we were forcibly reminded of the days of our boyhood,  when going with grist to the mill, with what delight have we looked at the flour as it fell from the old fashioned bolting chest; but here the scene is changed; we were amazed at the contrast, to see the velocity with which the flour poured from this improved machinery, which is put up with all the modern improvements, for doing merchant as well as grist work.

“Messrs. Reed & Edwards are confident that they can make a better yield than any other mill in the State from a given quantity of wheat. The engine room is one of the finest specimens of workmanship in California; the balance wheel is said to be the largest in the State, and the ease with which it drives such a vast amount of machinery, pronounces it a good one.”

I will conclude the article on the 1857 tour through the county in my next column.