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Sunday, January 06, 2008

Waters muddied early location of state capital

Jerry Bowen

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In my last column we took a look at the events leading up to the establishment of the California State Capital at Vallejo. Congress finally passed a bill to admit California to the Union and it was signed by President Fillmore on Sept. 9, 1850.

Two legislative sessions that became known as the “Legislature of a Thousand Drinks” were held at San Jose during 1850 and 1851. On Jan 9, 1851, Peter Burnett resigned as governor and John McDougal, known as a gentlemanly drunkard, was elected.

On Jan 5, 1852, the elected California legislators sailed into Vallejo after a particularly disagreeable rainstorm had transformed the raw undeveloped land into a morass of mud. The California State Legislature convened there for the first time that day after carpenters worked frantically to complete the building before the “esteemed worthies” arrived.

The Capitol itself was a three-story wooden frame structure on land donated by Gen. Mariano Vallejo. The stark accommodations included a basement with the all-important saloon and a bowling alley. The Assembly was assigned to the lower floor and the Senate the upper floor.

The arriving legislators had to navigate through slippery mud from the Vallejo wharf to reach their new digs and needless to say, they weren’t in a very good humor when they finally arrived. What they found didn’t raise their spirits either.

No podiums, no committee rooms and no printing facilities were built into the edifice that was to be the governing center of California. Improvised seating consisted of boards laid on top of stools and nail kegs. I guess you might have to say that the saloon in the basement was very much a necessity considering the condition of the state’s seat of government.

Lodging for the legislators quickly became another source of irritation. At any rate, by Jan. 16, 1852, the Legislature, dissatisfied with the lack of accommodations and liquor, abandoned Vallejo and established the state capital in Sacramento - only to return to Vallejo a year later after Sacramento was swept by a spring flood when the levee on the American River broke.

The following month, Vallejo once again lost its designation as the state capital when the legislature settled on Benicia as the seat of government; and then on Feb. 28, 1854, once more named Sacramento as the capital - and this time succeeded in making it stick.

I highly recommend that anyone interested in the history of our capital read “The Capitol That wouldn’t Stay Put” by June Oxford. It’s fantastic reading and can be found at the Solano County Genealogy Society on the upper floor of the Vacaville Old Town Hall on East Main Street.