Benicia’s best-kept secret might just be the Benicia Fire Museum, a gem of history that puts it right up there with top sites to see in town. The museum is run solely by The Benicia Volunteer Firemen (which includes women). According to the museum’s literature, the organization is the oldest continuous volunteer fire service in California. It is housed in a nondescript building, kitty-corner from the James Lemos Pool complex. Marked outside by an interesting display of fire hydrants from the past, it’s what’s inside that comes as a surprise.
The large, one-room museum has a treasure trove of fire memorabilia. Christine Cooley, who moved to Benicia from Concord in 1992, was ready to answer every question and share a detailed history of each of the exhibits. Cooley has been volunteering with the Fire Museum since 1996. It’s something she can relate to—her background includes working as an emergency medical technician.
One of the first fire engines to arrive in California and the Museum’s centerpiece display, the Phoenix, an 1820’s double-decker hand pumper, sits proudly on its perch just waiting to be admired. Aside from being downright adorable, if the name can be applied to a life and property-saving piece of equipment, the pumper has a rich history. Shipped around the Horn, it arrived in Benicia in 1847 for a long stay before doing a stint at the prestigious De Young Museum in San Francisco and helping fight the fire that engulfed the city after the 1906 earthquake. It took 45 firemen to operate the pumper, with 15 men at a time working 15-minute shifts. Made of one solid log of South American wood, it was completely restored in 1966, and weighs in at 5,000 pounds. Other engines on display include The Solano, purchased by in 1855, The Griffin, a late 1800’s era restored Ramsey pumper and the Chief Solano Engine No. 5, purchased in 1950.
The walls are lined with hundreds of toy fire trucks and other memorabilia: antique extinguishers, badges, uniforms, leather helmets and pieces of original fire hoses made from buffalo hide. The hoses had to be boiled in oil after each use to restore pliability. In those days, extinguishing structure fires was not an attainable objective— it took too long to arrive and tap into the rudimentary water supply—the goal was to keep the fire from spreading. There’s even an original display of a piece of Benicia’s 1800’s-era water pipe, made of kerosene-soaked wood. It’s well worth an hour’s visit, steeped in Benicia’s fascinating history.
The Mt. Diablo fire was still burning, as well as the Rim Fire near Yosemite, as we went to print. They are grim reminders that fire is an unfortunate part of life. October is Fire Prevention Month; remember to change your smoke alarm batteries November 3, when you set back your clocks.
Benicia Fire Museum, 900 East Second Street, Benicia
Free admission, donations gratefully accepted
Open: The first three Sundays each month, 1-4pm
For more information, to volunteer or to arrange a tour: 707.745.1688
Monthly meetings: First Wednesdays, 7pm, all are welcome