The Phoenix Rises Again

Photos by Luke George Photography

Benicia is a city steeped in California history, much of which can be seen at the Museum of History-Benicia, formerly Benicia Historical Museum

When the Benicia Fire Museum decided to close its doors in 2021, the Museum of History, Benicia (MoHB) stepped in to save the museum’s artifacts by taking over the museum.  All artifacts had to be reviewed, researched and cataloged.  It was, and continues to be a big job.

The fire trucks (two engines and three hand pumpers), are the largest artifacts in the museum, and the jewel of the collection is The Phoenix.  The Phoenix is the oldest of the group, and was built around 1839 by John Agnew of Philadelphia.  It is a hand-pumper built in the Philadelphia style, and requires several people to operate it.  Firemen stand on the upper duckboards and alongside the engine, pumping on either side of the mechanism which draws water from a tender or nearby water source to project through one of its buffalo hide hoses. 

The Phoenix appears in historical records as a well-known and widely celebrated pumper; it first resided at the Phoenix Hose Company No. 11, in Philadelphia.  The company went out of active service on March 15, 1871, when the paid fire department was placed in service.  The pumper was quite a celebrity in its time.  The Public Ledger dated December 24, 1840, page 2, gave us the following description: “Decorative Painting, Eisenbright (misspelled); Carving, Smith: Engraving, Gaskill and Copper: Bronzing, Hemphill.  The members of the Company furnished a light collation (light meal) on the occasion of bringing home their new apparatus.”

Painted on the side of the Phoenix is the motto, Surgo Lucidius (I arise in radiance), which was once the adage used by the Phoenix Engine Company of Philadelphia. 

The Phoenix was in service until 1854. The Daily Pennsylvanian dated April 21, 1854, page 3, states, “The career of the old apparatus, is not uninteresting and worthy of notice.  She was bought by two members of the Company and sent to California for sale.  Last February she was paraded with the San Francisco Fire Department, and after the parade was tried by the members of the Pennsylvania Fire Company, of that city, [Pennsylvania Fire Company of San Francisco] when she threw two side streams over the City Hall. 

The apparatus was subsequently sold for $3,500, to the Pacific Mail Steamship Company for the works at Benicia.”  An interesting side note regarding the painting on the pumper, the art was created by Eisenbrey and refers to his brother, George L. Eisenbrey, who was a member of the Phoenix Hose Company.  On June 24, 1841, he was battling a large fire with his company, when he was killed by falling brick walls.  The fire was located at Mulford & Alter’s Wholesale Grocery Store, 247 Market St., above 6th St. The brick wall in the painting refers to that tragic incident.  

The Phoenix then was moved to Benicia, where, in 1863 it was moved from the docks to the fire station on East 7th St. above H St. 

While it was stored in the station belonging to the Benicia Fire Department (BFD), the Phoenix was manned by individuals with ties to the Pacific Mail Steamship Company.  In 1878, Benicia Fire Department was able to purchase the Phoenix from Pacific Mail.  It remained in service for BFD until June 5, 1923, when it was donated to the M.H. deYoung Memorial Museum in San Francisco.  The deYoung displayed the Phoenix at the museum until the 1960s, when they loaned it to the Sutro Baths.  The de Young then loaned the Phoenix back to Benicia via the Benicia Volunteer Fire Department in 1966.  By a stroke of luck, members of the Benicia Volunteer Fire Department picked up the Phoenix from the Sutro Baths just before a suspicious fire burned the bathhouse to the ground.  

There were several attempts in 1966 and 1967 to get the de Young to donate the Phoenix to Benicia. 

The BFD, the Native Sons of the Golden West, and the Benicia City Council worked hard to make it happen.  Unsuccessful, they settled on the de Young loaning the pumper to Benicia.

When the Benicia Fire Museum turned its collection and business over to the MoHB, the museum Executive Director Jen Roger contacted the de Young to reestablish the loan between the de Young and the MoHB.  She requested that the loan be converted to a deaccession on their part, and given to the Museum of History, Benicia.  And that is what has happened: one hundred years, almost to the day, after the City of Benicia donated the Phoenix to the de Young, the Phoenix has returned home permanently.