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Monday, May 29, 1995

Vallejo’s shot as state capital is short-lived

Kristin Delaplane

Benicia’s superior facilities entice legislators to relocate

Information for this article came from the Vallejo Naval & Historical Museum and Vacaville Heritage Council - First of two parts.  During the age of the American Indians, the region around Vallejo was known for its wild cattle and horses that fed on the area’s high oats. No evidence has ever turned up to show that there were Indian settlements there, but it does appear tribes came from Suisun Valley and other locations to dig for shellfish and hunt the cattle and other game.

In 1775 Don Perez Ayala explored the area in the gunboat “San Carlos.” The party stopped on Isla Plana (Mare Island) to replenish its meat supply with native wapiti elk. The next mention of the region is that it served as a National Rancho or stock farm for the Mexican soldiers. Later it was part of a Mexican land which General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo added to his vast holdings when the 80,000 acre Soscol Grant was deeded to him in 1844 to cover a debt owed him by Governor Manuel Micheltorena.

Tradition has it that the original town site was named, “Eden,” which consisted of a 10 by 10 sheet iron building, the Union House, a small general store with simple overnight accommodations, and Robert Brownlee’s minimal, dwelling from which he operated a milk ranch. By 1850, traffic through Vallejo increased with would-be gold miners. The town was surveyed to encompass 160 acres.

It was at this time that a plan was afoot with Gen. Vallejo and others to make this site the future state capital. To this end, Gen. Vallejo offered the state 20 acres, free of cost, for the capitol building and grounds and another 136 acres for accompanying buildings to be apportioned as follows:

“Ten acres for the governor’s house and grounds; five acres for the offices of treasurer, controller, secretary of state, surveyor-general and attorney-general; one acre for the state library and translator’s office; 20 acres for an orphan asylum; 10 acres for a male charity hospital; 10 acres for a female charity hospital; four acres for an asylum for the blind; four acres for a deaf and dumb asylum; 20 acres for a lunatic asylum; eight acres for four schools; 20 acres for a university; four acres for a botanical garden; and 20 acres for a penitentiary.” He fattened the deal by offering $370,000 for the construction and furnishing of all buildings.

In 1851 the terms were accepted and the legislature proclaimed the site “Vallejo,” though Gen. Vallejo had suggested the name “Eureka.” The town’s future was seemingly guaranteed. The Central Hotel was almost immediately erected at Marin and Maine. In May 1852 the capitol, a two-story building, was completed at York and Maine. It was a rather unrefined building made with lumber shipped from Honolulu, but it had a commanding site at the crown of a hill. The outside was coated with yellow wash, which produced an “orangeade” hue. Planks and boxes provided temporary seating. In the basement was a saloon and ten-pin bowling alley. The other buildings in Gen. Vallejo’s grand plan were yet to be constructed.

The legislature convened January 5, 1852. The Central Hotel did not provide the number of accommodations required, so the politicians were housed on a steamer, and they made their way to and fro through Vallejo mud. Fortunately high top boots were in fashion. Unfortunately, bathing and laundry facilities were poor. A few housewives took advantage, charging $5 to launder one shirt. Within a week’s time the legislature voted to move the proceeding to Sacramento, immediately! But in Sacramento they were beset by a massive flood in March, causing everyone to head for safety on high ground. This dashed Sacramento’s hopes of being named the state capital and it was agreed that the legislature would convene January 1853 in Vallejo.

As a prelude, Vallejo planned a celebration for Christmas 1852. The following invitation was sent out to all the prominent citizens of the state:

“A grand Christmas ball will be given at Vallejo on the evening of the 25th instant, in the senate and assembly chambers of the new state capitol on which occasion the Hon. Isaac El Holmes will address the ladies and gentlemen at 7:30 o’clock.”

Unhappily, for Vallejo, the accommodations were not much improved in 1853, and when Benicia happened to be able to offer a capitol building constructed in the Greek Revival style, the relocation of the state capital was in effect by February. Most of Vallejo’s inhabitants also moved to Benicia, even taking some buildings with them. Only about seven families and a few single men remained.

During these early years, Gen. Vallejo realized a fairly good income by rounding up the wild cattle for their hides and tallow. The few vaqueros who herded the cattle stayed in Vallejo. In addition, there were a few squatters and some fishermen and hunters. This made up the small settlement of, what were basically, huts. On July 4, 1853, there was mention of an Independence Day celebration complete with bonfire. At the dinner there were two ladies and eight gentlemen. The population was about to increase.

In 1852 Commodore John Drake Sloat concluded that the best site for the nation’s new Pacific naval yard was Mare Island. At the time the thought was that it would lie adjacent to the new state capital. So the island was purchased for $83,401 and by September 1853 ships with mechanics began to arrive boosting Vallejo’s economy and size.

Up to now the town was defined by Sonoma Street, the Napa River, Virginia and Pennsylvania Streets. On account of wild cattle, it was not safe to venture beyond these limits on foot. The boundary began to expand in 1854 when Mare Island was officially designated a government navy yard and all the men not directly connected with the work at the yard were ordered to move to Vallejo.

The Central Hotel re-opened in October as a boarding house. Homes and even clubs were built. Some of the buildings constructed were made from corrugated iron imported from Liverpool, England. One of these buildings was the Union Hotel. Capt. Weed, a retired sea captain, built a two-story hotel, “United States,” and a major wharf. One house on Marine Street was dubbed “Happy House.” There were two apothecaries in town. During this era somebody always slept in the drugstore so that in an emergency a doctor had only to rap on the door and the druggist could mix up the appropriate compound. Minor and sometimes major surgeries were also performed in these stores. Vallejo had no hospital until 1907. Other businesses cropped up to accompany the newcomers. Dan Williamson and his brother opened a grocery store at the corner of Georgia and Santa Clara streets. William Wetmore opened a dry goods store at Maine and Sacramento. John Dawson was the local tailor. G.R. Jacques set up a notions store and was the local agent of Wells Fargo’s pony express. P.B. Lynch’s grocery store became the local gathering place for politicians, the intelligentsia and the men-about-town. A butcher shop and a bakery opened their doors.

At the end of 1854 Gen. Vallejo deeded the “Town of Vallejo,” one square mile, to his son-in-law, John B. Frisbie. For many years Frisbie promoted Vallejo tirelessly and was largely responsible for pumping life and attracting good business to the town. Frisbie proved to be an astute businessman and a generous philanthropist. Over time, he donated land in Vallejo for most of the churches and schools.

On January 1, 1855, a full-blown storm hit. The wind blew ferociously and snow fell. The wind was so overpowering that the iron roof on the Union Hotel flew off and rolled down Marin Street. It was a disaster for the shipping vessels, laden with necessities and luxuries that were coming through San Pablo Bay on their way to Stockton and Sacramento. The next morning their wreckage washed up along Vallejo’s shoreline. This consisted of building materials such as doors, window frames and all types of lumber and boxes of canned goods and liquor. Salvage rights prevailed and by the end of the day the shoreline was almost completely clear of any debris.

This same year, a wharf was built at the end of Georgia Street for the steamer, Napa City, an 50-foot or so stern wheeler that ran between Napa and San Francisco, calling briefly at the navy yard and Vallejo. Soon a faster steamer was placed on the route so that the round trip could be made daily.

A Methodist church group was organized and funds were raised for a building to be used as a church and schoolhouse. A Catholic parish soon followed. At this time a wandering printer, A. J. Cox, invested in some type and a printing press and started a newspaper, The Vallejo Bulletin. Cox proved to be inconsistent in getting the issues out and the paper soon folded. Another paper appeared out of Mare Island, but its publication soon ceased when the owner returned back east.

In 1857 a telegraph line was built between Benicia and Vallejo and Mare Island. This was done to insure communication between the navy yard and the outside world, but having this in place upgraded Vallejo’s stature considerably. This same year, funds were raised and land donated by Gen. Frisbie for a school building 40-feet square with a 14-foot high ceiling. By 1867 the school consisted of five rooms with as many teachers and classes with 70 to 100 children.

Starting around 1858 a niece of Gen. Frisbie, Cynthia J. Frisbie, began keeping a journal of her school compositions, leaving us with a sense of the times. She described her arrival in Vallejo in 1855: “December we embarked for the Golden Sate of California of which we had received glowing accounts from my father’s brothers who claimed it as their home.” The family sailed into San Francisco New Year’s morning and proceeded to Benicia where they caught a carriage. “... soon rapidly whirling over the rough road from that town to Vallejo.” In another composition she wrote: “How beautiful flowers are! There is a great variety of them. Red, pink, white, yellow, and green roses; purple and yellow violets. In winter and spring, the fields of California are covered with wildflowers. I have counted 60 different kinds.” She also wrote about one of the town’s major events: “The first ship ever built in California was launched yesterday. (School children) marched to the wharf. In about ten minutes, it was launched, the Tousy.”

(Next week: Vallejo’s growth continues as a railroad and harbor port, but ups and downs seem to be Vallejo’s lot as she goes from good times to bad times in many valiant attempts to establish a name and a solid economy.)