Click Here to Print This Story!   Click Here to get a PDF Copy of this Story!   

Sunday, February 21, 1982

How it all began

Ernest D. Wichels

One of the interesting facets of history concerns the inauguration or birth of things commonplace to us today in Napa and Solano Counties.  Our research has found such things as sugar beets, Mare Island dry. docks, striped bass, Vallejo industry and a host of other items.

Sugar beets today form one of Solano’s top agricultural crops.  In the Vallejo Evening Chronicle of Dec. 27, 1872 we read: “A group has just leased 500 acres in this county, near Davisville (when it became a university city the “ville” was dropped for sophistication) for the purpose of experimenting with the raising of sugar beets. If the locality proves to be adapted for beet-raising, they’ will erect a refinery.”

Or striped bass. Many of our readers do not realize that it is alien to our waters.  In 1879 103 years ago a man named Livingstone Stone caught 162 fingerling stripers in Navesink River, N.J., placed them in a railway tank car with some lobsters, and started west. Some 30 were lost enroute, but the 132 survivors were dumped in the Carquinez Strait.

Three years later the State Fish Commission sent J.G. Woodbury to New Jersey for another batch. He brought about 300 from the Shrewbury River, and they were released at Army Point in Benicia.

The stripers needed food—they are meat .eaters so thousands of shad were imported. Today the shad swarm in the rivers tributary A o the Sacramento. There must be millions of Them!

Vallejo has had many industries. Another item from the Chronicle of 1872 tells us: “Two Farads of timber have arrived from Calistoga today, and two schooners from the North Coast loaded with timbers are expected for the Vallejo Barrel Works. The Vallejo Barrel Works produces barrels which are by far the best in the state. It is expected that the barrel works will operate day and night to supply the meat packers in San Francisco.”  Perhaps most readers think that the pres- ent plant of the Times-Herald has always been a publishing house.

This structure was built 60 years ago for a large industrial plant called the Western Die Works. Valves, carburetors and other pressed-metal articles were manufactured here.  Much of the news today concerns the buildup of the Defense Department, and two of the largest defense establishments on the coast are here in Solano: Mare Island and Travis.  One hundred years ago the West Coast papers were. urging better dry dock facilities for Mare Island (at that time it had only a floating sectional dock).

Here is one editorial in December 1881: ‘‘Congress has wisely decided that the number of Navy yards are far beyond the present needs of the service. On the Atlantic there are seven yards for this purpose.  “On the Pacific Coast there is but one - that at Mare Island. It follows that with the greater demands that may come upon this yard, it should be in the highest possible state of efficiency. In time of war the entire coast would be dependent upon it.

“The most important improvement to these works would be the docks. The sectional floating dock at Mare Island, provided it were in good condition, may do for small vessels, but it is not sufficient for the needs of the service.  “It is not always safe for wooden vessels, and no ironclad ‘could come upon it without great risk.

The logic paid off by 1892 the first graving dry dock was completed, and today the shipyard has four such drydocks.  But industry in both counties had to begin with cattle the only product in early days when hides and tallow were the medium of exchange in California.
Both counties were leaders in the state in leather tanning.

In Vallejo there was the huge Santa Rosa Tannery, located at Rice and Sixth Streets with a railroad spur: it operated for more than 30 years until destroyed by fire 50 years ago or so.  Benicia was a giant in those days it had the largest tannery in California, the Kullman and Satz plant, and the huge buildings were landmarks on lower First Street for more than half a century. Benicia also had the McKay Tannery and the Shaw Tannery.

From the 1860s, Napa was in the leather business. One huge establishment was the Sawyer Tannery in the southern part of the city on the river, producing glove leather and upper shoe leathers.

Another was the McBain Tannery on the northern edge, producing sole leathers.  Naturally, leather promotes the shoe and glove industry. Napa had one of the largest glove factories: California Glove Co. on Sus col Ave. Across the street was the huge Napatan Shoe Co. (earlier called the Evans Shoe Co.). There were three smaller glove and shoe factories in Napa, too.

The glamor of the early stock-raising days is told in fascinating fashion by many authors: one is Richard H. Dana, in his book, “Two Years Before the Mast,” which most readers (and teen-agers especially) would en-joy reading today. Dana visited Vallejo and Napa Valley during the Christmas holidays in 1859.