Down on First Street, between a garden and a pet grooming shop, is little Kuhland Alley, one of the most unique places in all of Benicia. Why unique? Because it is an alley, and because it has a name: Kuhland Alley. The other alleys of Old Town are like stray cats; they don’t have names.
There is the alley at the top of Benicia’s main street, that runs beside beautiful and grace-filled St. Paul’s Church with its inviting benches and trees in front. But does it have a street sign proudly stating its name like Kuhland? No. Nor does this same alley on the west side of First, where it backs onto the playhouse for Benicia’s local theater group.
To some, perhaps, this is only right and fitting. Alleys are best left forgotten. They are, like those stray cats, in dire need of a bowl of warm milk and some grooming. Too small, too scraggly, and entirely disrespectable, compared to a proper street. Many are rutted and unpaved, and parking is usually forbidden in the alleys themselves because of their narrowness. They also have a slightly seedy, even dangerous aura, the sort of places where Jack the Ripper used to lurk when he was terrorizing fog-shrouded London.
Benicia’s alleys are, of course, nothing to be afraid of; in fact, they have sights you won’t see elsewhere around town and they lead to unexpected discoveries. An alley is defined as a narrow walk or passage, typically through a garden or park, but Benicia’s alleys tend to take you behind apartments and other buildings. The backside of buildings, like the backside of people, offers a much different view than when seen from the front. You might see a landlocked rusted fishing boat teetering on a trailer, a tree with grapefruits the size of overinflated softballs, and a whimsical country cottage painted half green, half red.
The alley behind the State Capitol and the Fischer-Hanlon House, when it enters onto First, is covered—our version of the bridges of Madison County. Alleys, themselves neglected treasures, sometimes lead to other neglected treasures, such as the Benicia Fire Museum. Anyone intrepid enough to walk the block-long alley next to St. Paul’s will find, on East Second, this humble tribute to the oldest, still active volunteer fire fighting organization in California. Another pleasant discovery, to be found at the end of Kuhland Alley, is the restful, park-like setting by the water at the Benicia Yacht Club, also on East Second.
The alley on the east side of First next to the brick Benicia Herald building is most curious. It is missing its twin: there is no companion alley on the opposite side as there is for other alleys on the street. This mystery is solved by driving over to West Second. There, between H and I, the alley reappears, like a snake that has had part of its body cut off but continues to live. Surely what must have happened was that development came to that block of First and the ancient passageway was removed.
But this truncated alley on West Second is not blind, not a dead-end; it leads to one of the prettiest waterside public access spots in Benicia. Travel another block down to West Third where you’ll see a “Not A Through Alley” sign. Turn left here and quickly right again and the cove at the foot of H with its sweeping views of the river and bridge will appear as in a dream. Bring someone you love, a picnic lunch and a bottle of something bubbly. And don’t forget: You found this happy marriage of land and water because of a stray cat alley.