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Sunday, May 24, 1998

Solano County offers many ways to see past

Kristin Delaplane

Historical centers are thriving

But last week’s list told only half the story.
History centers can also be found in and around the cities of Rio Vista, Benicia and Vallejo. Like their counterparts in the central and northern Solano County, these centers also rely on volunteers to fulfill their missions.

Rio Vista Junction

The Western Railway Museum features more than 100 pieces of vintage railway equipment, many of which are operated on a section of the old Sacramento Northern Railroad.

Electric interurbans depart every hour to carry visitors through the countryside to Gum Grove Station. Diesel-powered trains are operated every spring to Jepson Prairie, a national natural landmark that is home to many rare and endangered species. Santa’s electric trains are operated in December. Reservations are required well in advance for these special excursions. Call 1-800-900-Rail.

There are spacious picnic areas and self-guiding tours. A 12,000-square-foot Visitor and Archive Center is set to open late this year. The museum store carries one of California’s largest selections of railroad-related books, magazines, videos and souvenir items.

Address: 5848 State Highway 12 (midway between Rio Vista and Suisun City). Hours: Open weekends year-round and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays in July and August. Admission: Adults, $5; youth, $2; children 3 and under, free. Phone: 374-2978.

Rio Vista

The Rio Vista Museum is a “grandma’s attic” museum, with display areas replicating life in and around Rio Vista from the mid-1840s on. A ‘‘hands-on” approach is encouraged with family scrapbooks and relics that can be examined.

Also on display is an excellent exhibit of farm equipment, tools and photos. There is an extensive exhibit of newspaper front pages from San Francisco, Sacramento, the Delta and Solano County, with special concentration on World War II.

Vast research materials are available on the delta region, Bird’s Landing and Montezuma Hills, and on farming and sheep raising. The museum hosts an annual barbeque.

Memberships, from $6, include a quarterly newsletter, first-choice tickets to the barbeque, and an invitation to the board of director’s annual potluck.

Hours: 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. weekends. Address: 16 North Front St., Rio Vista. Admission: Free. Donations accepted. For private tours, call 374-5169 or 374-2321.

The Dutra Museum is a private collection on dredging, especially the clam shell dredge, in California. (The clam shell dredge’s bucket is shaped like a clam, hence its name.) The collection is housed in a private 1900s house.

Included are photographs, scale models of various dredges and an oral history of dredging given by Linda Dutra, a self-proclaimed “delta rat” whose family is involved in the dredging business. Shown by appointment to groups of 10 or more. Contact (707) 374-6339.

The Rio Vista Library has a collection of books on the city’s history and history of the River-Delta area. They also have microfilm of the River News Herald from its beginnings in 1890. Address: 44 South 2nd Street, Rio Vista. Phone: 374-2664.


The Benicia Historic Museum at the Camel Barn occupies the stone house used for the “camel corps,’’ 35 camels brought to Benicia in 1864 as part of a failed experiment. Exhibits highlight Benicia’s history, including as the location of the former U.S. Army Arsenal.

The museum shop sells an array of camel memorabilia, local history books, stationery, commemorative coins and wineglasses. The Capt. Charles P. Stone Hall can be rented for special functions.

A range of memberships are available, including gold at $150, family at $35 and special rates for students and senior citizens. Members receive the newsletter Camel Tracks every other month, free admission to the museum, discounts on purchases and a discount on the rental of the building.

Hours: 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Address: 2024 Camel Road, Benicia. Admission: $2; senior citizens and youths 12-18, $1. Children under 12 free. Phone: 745-5435. Current exhibit: Photos of early Benicia.

The Benicia Capitol State Historic Park features two buildings for viewing, the early state Capitol (1853-1854) and the Fischer-Hanlon House. The brick state Capitol is in the Greek Revival style and is one of the state’s finest vintage public buildings. The columns in the Senate were fashioned from gold-rush sailing ship’s masts and the original state seal.

The Fischer-Hanlon House was originally a hotel on another site. It was moved in 1856 and remodeled into a home for Joseph Fischer and his wife. It is completely furnished to that era. A Victorian Christmas is re-created each year for the public. The Victorian garden connecting the two buildings features heirloom varieties of trees and flowers, including a wisteria plant more than 100 years old.

Address: 115 West G St., Benicia. The Capitol is open daily from 10 to 5. The Fisher Hanlon House is open most Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is $2, children 6 to 12, $1. Phone: 745-3385.

The Benicia Fire Museum offers rare and vintage firefighting equipment and artifacts pertaining to fighting “the demon’’ in Benicia and Solano County.

Of special interest is an 1820’s New York City fire truck shipped to Benicia in 1847. It was the first fire truck in California. Weighing 3 tons, it required 75 men to operate it. Two other fire trucks from the mid-1800s are featured: A buffalo hide hose, hats, shirts and other memorabilia. Available for sale are cups, hats and buttons.

The museum is operated by Ron Rice, chief emeritus of Benicia’s Volunteer Fire Department. The museum is open the first and third Saturdays and by appointment for tours.

Address: 900 E. Second St., Benicia. Admission: Free. Phone: 745-1688.

The Benicia Historical Society holds meetings with guest speakers covering a variety of subjects concerning the history of Benicia, Solano County and the Bay Area. Members of the society receive a newsletter listing events and programs. Memberships are available at various levels. Phone: 745-1822.

Benicia Public Library’s collection includes microfilm of the Benicia Herald from 1899 on; books on California and Solano County history; and a collection of books written by Benicia authors. Address: 150 East L St., Benicia. Phone: 746-4343.


The Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum has collections reflecting the history of Vallejo and Mare Island Naval Shipyard.

The center operates an extensive research and resource library. A full-service bookstore carries history books along with cookbooks, fiction and travel books. Also for sale are unique and unusual nautical souvenirs.

Yearlong museum memberships include benefactor at $1,000, family at $35 and individual at $25. Members receive free admission, discounts at the bookstore, a bimonthly newsletter and invitations to special events.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Address: 734 Marin St., Vallejo. Admission: Adults, $1.50; senior citizens and students, 75 cents. Children under 12, free. Phone: 643-0077.

Current exhibit: ‘‘America’s Splendid Little War with Spain: A Centennial Perspective,” commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. It features models, uniforms, photographs, rare documents and other items from the museum’s collection and private collections throughout Northern California. Many items have never been on public display before. (Special: A private collection of the African-American “Buffalo Soldiers,” painting by Filipino-American artist Carl Angle and handcrafted ship models by local resident James Adkerson.) Through July 25.

The Vallejo Architectural Heritage Foundation is dedicated to preserving, restoring and appreciating Vallejo’s historic homes and neighborhoods. Tours scheduled periodically. Phone: 644-7649.

The newly formed Mare Island Historic Park Foundation is working to preserve the historic aspects of Mare Island. Docent-led tours of Mare Island and the historic St. Peter’s Chapel are available. The chapel, with its 16 Tiffany windows, is also available for weddings. Phone: 557-0662 or 644-4746.

Vallejo’s John F. Kennedy Library has the Vallejo newspapers on microfilm dating from the 1860s. Also on microfilm are the Solano County censuses for 1850, 1860, 1880, 1900, 1910 and 1920. Sanborn maps of Solano County are available from 1884 to 1903.

Of local interest is the Historical Resources Inventory, which includes photos and descriptions of properties of historical interest and Vallejo architecture of Mare Island and Vallejo. Lastly, the library has extensive local history files on Vallejo and Mare Island. Address: 505 Santa Clara St., Vallejo. Phone: 553-5568.

The McCune Library is housed on the ground floor of the John F. Kennedy Library. Local physician McCune gifted this extraordinary collection of more than 2,000 rare volumes to the city of Vallejo. The collection includes a sheet of the Gutenberg Bible and a complete set of the Book Club of California, which features a great deal of California history. The collection also includes books about miners in California. Also for viewing is a hand press.

The library offers a series of lectures on the “Art of the Book.’’ Call to be put on the mailing list. Information about the collection is available through Solano County Library’s SNAP system.

The McCune Library is open from 2 to 4 p.m. the first and third Tuesday of each month. It may also be made available by appointment. Admission: Free. Donations welcome. Phone: 644-4629.