As the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot at the end of First Street undergoes the process of being considered for the National Register of Historic Places, residents can learn all about the town’s railroad history in a series of formal presentations.
The Benicia Historical Society will be hosting a series of lectures to tie in with its latest project of getting the Depot listed in the Register. To kick off these presentations, Diablo Valley College history professor Greg Tilles will be delivering a lecture at Camellia Tea Room titled “Before the Railroad Came to Benicia: Building the First Transcontinental.”
“In my presentation, I will provide an overview of the history of Benicia as a railroad town from 1879 when the link with the Transcontinental Railroad was established to 1930 when the railroad would bypass the town by crossing the new bridge spanning the Carquinez Strait,” Tilles said.
In 1863, construction began on the First Transcontinental Railroad with the goal of being able to link the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of the United States via railway. Over the next six years, workers underwent the daunting task of building a 1,776-mile railroad that extended from Sacramento to Council Bluffs, Iowa— which itself was connected to several East Coast train stations. The project had the blessing of President Abraham Lincoln; was heavily funded by a group of investors known as The Big Four, including future Stanford University founder Leland Stanford and utilized several Chinese and Irish-American workers for its construction. The project was completed when the last spike was driven into the ground at the Promontory Summit in Utah in 1869.
Tilles will discuss the history of the First Transcontinental Railroad and how Benicia became linked to it in 1878. Tilles will also talk about Benicia’s years as a railroad town and briefly talk about Benicia’s train and ferry system to Port Costa in the early 20th century, although he says many of those details will be covered in a March presentation by David Hyde, a member of the Society’s board of directors and Ph.D candidate in anthropology at UC Berkeley.
“The bulk of my lecture will focus on the earlier monumental task of connecting California with the rest of the nation through the building of the first transcontinental railroad between 1863 and 1869,” Tilles said.
Tilles says his goal is to let Benicians know where their town fits within the larger picture of California’s history.
“I have given several talks for the Society in past years,” he said. “In each of them, one of my central goals has been to provide the audience with an appreciation of the link between Benicia history--the town's people, experiences and institutions--and the larger context of California and United States history. My plan is to continue this focus at this year's presentation so that those who attend will take away a sense of how the railroad placed Benicia significantly in the larger arenas of state and national history.”
Jerry Hayes, former Society president, says he hopes people come away with a better understanding of their town’s long, colorful history.
“It is our hope that attendees will take away a better appreciation of Benicia's rich history and our responsibility to respect and enhance that gift to us all,” he said.
The presentation will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 25 at Camellia Tea Room, located at 828 First St. Society members will get in for free, and non-members will pay a $5 admission. Light refreshments will be served. For more information, visit BeniciaHistoricalSociety.org.