On December 28, 1879, 100 years ago, two unprecedented events in central Pacific Railroad history occurred at the waterfront end of First Street in Benicia. Solano, the largest train ferry in the world, made her first trip of a future, half century tour of duty, and two transcontinental trains stopped at our town, which that day became an official listing on the C.P.’s [Central Pacific’s] newly printed cross country timetable.
Solano, that colossal 3549-ton train carrier, “brilliantly” completed her “maiden voyage with a full train aboard” from the terminal across Carquinez Strait to the “slip” on our side. Built to convey complete transcontinental passenger trains over our strait waters, the gigantic boat, equipped with a four parallel track deck, could transport with ease two locomotives and 24 passenger cars at one time. That Sunday morning of December 28, so long ago, she plied the channel between “South Benicia” and Bull Valley (later named Port Costa), and “Benicia City” in six or seven minutes, despite the dense fog!”
Though it could not be seen through the thick mist, whittles and bells indicated the arrival of the huge carrier. “When Solano landed, the smart military bands from the Benicia Barracks struck up a lively air” amidst the shouts and huzzahs of excited citizens. A new life for our town was just beginning.
The “Atlantic Express” Transcontinental Train #1 was upon Solano for that first trip. Once the enormous boat was secured, the “Train from the West” chugged off the immense ferryboat onto the tracks upon the newly erected train wharf and was recoupled. Slowly then, with steam hissing, whistles shrieking, engine bells clanging, and fog bells tolling, the “through Atlantic Express” rolled toward the intersection at the “south end of Main Street”, where the Pacific Express Transcontinental Train #2, by then was waiting.
There, a wildly enthusiastic throng of Benicians, waving banners and flags, greeted the East-bound “Overland Limited” as it came to its first stop at their beloved little City of Benicia.
The S.F. Daily Examiner reported that, “The people of Benicia turned out en masse…” What a day of celebrating that must have been! And no wonder. History, which was to become a part of our civic legacy, was “in the making”, American transportation history!
Transcontinental trains traveled upon Solano “through the stream” for the next 51 years. Then, even though a still larger ferry, Contra Costa had been built in 1914 as an assist, by the 1920’s, cargo and passenger volume had become too great for the super-carriers to handle. Plans for a bridge were begun in 1927, and the Southern Pacific Railroad Bridge, from Benicia’s Army Point to a site near Bull’s Head Point east of Martinez, was completed late in 1930. The Benicia Herald reported that “The last trip of the Solano , Saturday, November 1, was a memorable one to those who had the privilege of taking it.” I was one of the “privileged”. The great boat was jam-packed with teary-eyed Benicians and visitors who were making a Sentimental Journey.” “Progress,” the ogre of civilization, that day terminated the magnificent performance of the “Queen” of all train ferries, the ”Wonder of her Age,” Solano.
Benicia’s participation in the “Golden Years of American Railroading” ceased. The lovely name of our town would never again grace the North Western and Cross-Country timetables. An era had ended!
Excerpt taken from an article by Charline Erwin published in the Benicia Historical Gazette in April 1980. This article originally was written for a pre-centennial issue of the Benicia Herald.