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Sunday, August 06, 1995

Soft land, big fire and cars sink Suisun City

Kristin Delaplane

State highway bypasses town, sealing its fate

Information for this article came from the Vacaville Heritage Council, Solano Genealogical Society and the Solano Historian.
Second of two parts
Historian Wood Young found these tidbits in an 1871 issue of the Weekly Solano Republican. Printed business-card-size advertisements for local doctors along with advertisements for patent medicines that cured consumption and seemingly every other wretched ailment that could befall a human being.

One product’s claim was, “Multitudes are rescued from premature graves by its use.” Walkers Vinegar Bitters could cure gout, boils, kidney and liver diseases. The company promised “... a $100 reward will be given for any incurable case provided the bones are not destroyed by mineral poison or other means, nor the vital organs wasted beyond the point of repair.”

By 1878, Suisun City boasted five physicians, three dentists and three attorneys. Dr. J.F. Pressley was in charge of the county infirmary (known as the poor house), which had been established in 1876. Three drug stores existed. One of D.M. Stocknon’s prescription bottles was found during the restoration of the Pena Adobe.

In 1870, the population of Suisun City was 462, while Fairfield only had a recorded population of 329. A census taken of Chinese in that year shows six laundry men in Suisun City and seven clothes washers.

The Chinese were also well-regarded as great anglers, and they fished the Suisun Bay. At one time, more than 5,000 Chinese were employed building dikes and levees in the area.

Josiah Wing died in 1874. In honor of Wing, flags in Suisun City were flown at half-staff. His grave is in the old Fairfield Cemetery, where his tombstone reads: “... Was a man of worth and beloved by all who knew him.”

According to the newspaper, “his funeral was more largely attended than any that has ever occurred here.” After his death, Mercy Wing moved into her son Josiah’s home in Fairfield. This son was the first mayor of Fairfield.

The Solano Union Jockey Club was organized in 1875 by Lewis Pierce Sr. The club’s racetrack was set up in the fields in Fairfield. This racing enterprise proved unsuccessful. This may have been the only venture flop in which Pierce, who became one of the wealthiest men in the country, was involved.

Pierce’s Wharf was a famous California stopping place for steamers and schooners. In 1877, it was recorded: “Every foot of Pierce’s wharf in Suisun is covered with Bridgeport paving stones. Over 3,000 tons now await shipment. Schooners are not available to transport same to San Francisco as fast as they are quarried from Rock Hill.”

In 1876, the Bank of Suisun was chartered. Eleven years later, the bank advertised a surplus of $127,114 and was paying a dividend of 1 percent a month on the capital stock, indicating loans had been made only on good security.

Following the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1877, Suisun City was linked with direct service to New York. In 1878-79, the Northern Railroad Co. began construction of a line from Benicia to Suisun. Whole trains were to be ferried across the straits.

Chinese laborers were brought in to work on the railroad. They lived in a big tent on the edge of town.

The railroad was up and running in 1879, but the job was a big headache. Between Goodyear and Suisun, a good 11 miles, the track crossed marshes, sloughs and tules. No solid ground was to be found, so fill was used.

The fill did not always do the trick, thus causing the “sink” condition of the roadbed, which would simply sink out of sight. Workers would be seen one minute and go down with the “sink” the next. Up to the last minute, two or three soft spots continued to settle.

Up to 1905, there was an annual settlement of portions of the roadbed from 6 to 12 inches that required additional fill. Once up and running, duck hunters from as far as San Francisco were well-familiar with such stops as Teal, Jacksnipe, Goodyear and Cygnus.

By 1878, the Suisun commercial center included a total of nine grocery, dry goods and hardware stores. The largest stores lined the Plaza and Main Street, and were said to some of the very handsomest in the county.

The main hotel had been the Roberts House. When it burned down, it was rebuilt as a three-story hotel with balcony and was renamed the Arlington Hotel. Other enterprises were a bank, saloons and restaurants.

The Pioneer Livery Stable furnished buggies to the elite, featuring high-stepping horses. There were two harness and saddle shops, three blacksmith shops to repair farm equipment and shod horses, and a skating rink in the Union Hall with a 25-cent admission for gentlemen, ladies free and 25 cents additional for skates.

The Pioneer Meat Market operated well into the next century. It was noted that the owners were never accused of weighing their thumbs along with the meat. C.A. Gixon had a Shaving Saloon and served his customers with bathing facilities, as well as providing shaves, cuts and shampoos.

There was a Furniture Wareroom and Undertaking establishment. Ridgley’s Hack Service supplied transportation to the depot and courthouse. Other enterprises were a watchmaker and jeweler, milliner, gunsmith, and the ever-popular Candy and Cigar Store. Select saloons in town offered reading rooms for their patrons.

There was always a huge Fourth of July celebration at the plaza with a bandstand used by speakers. Featured entertainment was majorettes, horsemen, carriages and the fire company. The Chinese laundries supplied the fireworks. A grand ball, with a committee to introduce eligible gentlemen and ladies, concluded the festivities.

It was just five days after such a celebration that the “demon” struck Suisun City. The blaze started in the summer heat on July 9, 1888. In the end, the fire continued for a solid, unrelenting three hours, destroying eight blocks of homes, downtown stores, and a supply depot.

Overall, 45 businesses, 28 homes and nine saloons were lost. All the firemen could do was look on helplessly, with their hose cart and hose destroyed by flames. The alarm was given and the fire company had the flames under control when the hose burst.

Seeing their dire situation, help was requested and the Vallejo Fire Department answered the call. Meanwhile, the women manned the hand pumpers, while the men worked the hoses and buckets. Unfortunately, the 42 Vallejo firefighters could not get a train, having to get permission from Sacramento to take out an engine.

Even with this delay, when they approached Suisun the fire had not been quenched. There was little to save. One of the few buildings left standing - and in fact, remains today - was the I.O.O.F. Hall on Main Street. When the fire came to that building the citizens quickly extinguished it with bottles of beer.

The streets were filled with furniture, household items and stunned people. The walk to Fairfield was filled with vehicles belonging to farmers near and far, who had come to assist. Their trip was in vain as it turned out. Telegraph poles were burnt down and wires were dragging over the streets, entangling horse and man.

There were several injuries. The death of one poor woman occurred when she was run down by a frightened horse. Even though only one saloon remained standing, the dazed and defeated group did not have to go without liquor. Four tents were set up to ease their sorrow with bartenders to meet the immediate demand. The total loss came to $25,000, according to newspaper accounts. The cause of this disaster was Budd Bartlett’s 2-year-old son playing with matches in his woodshed.

Tragically, the year before there had been a fire and the equipment had proved unreliable. The citizens were then warned to establish a volunteer firefighting group and to make sure their fire equipment was in top condition. The warning went unheeded

Rebuilding the town was said to have commenced at dawn the following day. An idea was briefly bandied about to rebuild in Fairfield, making it one city, but the citizens of Suisun City rejected this option.

Reconstruction of the city progressed well until the earthquake of 1892. This caused some cracks in plaster and some broken windows. The damage came to only $500. Suisun, being on marshy land, was able to ride out the quake movement better than her neighbors situated on hard pack.

By the late 1870s, the orchards were in full bloom and canning became an important industry. The J.K. Armsby Cannery was built in Suisun City. In the 1890s, Miss Lou Hutchinson of Suisun City landed a job working in the cannery. She stayed on for the next 28 years, eventually becoming a forelady. She claimed she knew everybody and everything there was to know about the fruit industry.

Over the years, the marshland between Fairfield and Suisun was filled in, and the famed walkway was no longer needed to keep feet dry at high tide. The “sink” was fixed. But Suisun City was to sink in importance as a central place of commerce. The automobile would sink Suisun City.

In 1913, the first state highway bypassed Suisun and was routed through neighboring Fairfield. Gradually, cars and trucks took traffic that had formerly been given to railroads, ships and horse-drawn wagons. By the time the Great Depression came along, Suisun City was a town that was bypassed.