Western Trips

Monday, May 26, 2014

Historic Camel Barns / Old Benicia Arsenal / California

The Camel Barns at the Old Benicia California Arsenal

A site filled with plenty of history can be found in the Northern California town of Benicia. The town of Benicia was named for the General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo's wife, Francisca Benicia Carillo de Vallejo. The site of Benicia also served as California's third state capital. When you visit the San Francisco Bay Area this is a stop you may want to add to your vacation planner.

benicia camel barns
Camel Barn, Benicia Arsenal CA
If you visit Benicia you will want to stop at the old Benicia Arsenal which at one time during the 1800's boarded camels which were a part of a U.S. Government experiment with the Army just prior to the Civil War.

 The arsenal on 252 acres acquired in 1847 served as a large U.S. military reservation first occupied in 1849. The arsenal was located just east of the Benicia city limits. The Camel Barns which were built in 1855 can still be seen at the old Benicia Arsenal whose grounds now house the Benicia Historical Museum in Benicia California.

Benicia is located northeast of San Francisco along Suisun Bay. Benicia is about a 35 mile drive from San Francisco and shorter if you're coming from the East Bay area. The directions to the old Benicia Arsenal and to the Benicia Historical Museum is as follows: 

From San Francisco take I-80 over Carquinez Bridge. Take I-780 East to East 5th Street exit, turn right, then left on Military East. At fork, keep left on Adams to Park Road up the hill and under freeway. Follow Camel Barn signs on the right.

benicia arsenal california
Camel Barn Museum Bldg.
Traveling from Sacramento to the east take I-80 to I-680 to I-780 split. Take the I-780 fork. Take first exit, East 5th Street, turn left, then left on Military East. At fork, keep left on Adams to Park Road up the hill and under freeway. Follow Camel Barn signs on the right.

Below is a brief description of the governments experiment with camels through America's Southwest. 

Why Camels? / The Experiments of Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis fought in the Mexican American War. He was aware about the problems of military and civilian communication and travel in desert regions. When the war ended and the southwest was taken over from Mexico the U.S. military would need to travel throughout the arid southwest not to mention future railroad survey crews. Water can be a scarce commodity in the southwest.

How about camels? Camels of course have the ability to travel without water for long periods. When water is available, a camel can drink 53 gallons of water in about three minutes. It's body can also withstand changes in body temperature and water consumption that would lead to death in many other animals.

benicia california things to do
Benicia Historical Museum
Two Historic Trips to the Mediterranean

In 1855, and with a budget of $30,000, Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War, sent the U.S.S. Supply on a voyage to the Mediterranean for the purpose of bringing camels back to the U.S. The vessel made a second trip to the Middle East in 1856.for the same purpose. The destination of both boatloads of camels was Indianola on the Texas coast southeast of San Antonio.

Historic Camel Treks Across the Southwest 

In 1857 Lt. Edward Fitzgerald Beale was directed to use seventy of the camels in a survey for a wagon road from Fort Defiance, New Mexico, across the thirty-fifth parallel to the Colorado River. This trail closely follows today's Interstate 40. After this survey, the camel drive continued to Fort Tejon California.

After reaching Fort Tejon, Lt. Beale decided that the camels' performance far exceeded that of the horses and mules for desert transportation, but were not compatible with soldiers.The demise of the camels as permanent transportation sources in the Southwest obviously had absolutely nothing to do with their ability. As Beale noted, in many ways they were superior to the horse in desert conditions. The problem was simply that they smelled horrible, scared the horses, and were hated by handlers accustomed to the more easily handled mule.

See the Western Trips articles on the links below...

Visit the Famous Winchester House in San Jose California

John Muir Home / Muir National Park / Martinez California

Sonoma's Historic Buena Vista Winery

See These Carson City Nevada Historic Sites

A few good books regarding the history of the Benicia Arsenal include, History of Benicia Arsenal January 1851-December 1962 by author Josephine W. Cowell. Also, Great Expectations, the Story of Benicia California by Richard Dillon.

camel seat
Camel seat exhibit at Benicia Historical Museum
Enjoy Camel Treks and Historic Reenactments and Exhibits in Southwest Texas

The Texas Camel Corps guides camel treks through the Big Bend region of Texas. Camel trekking is like backpacking, only without having to carry anything. When you tire of riding, you can walk.

Led by Texas Camel Corps owner Doug Baum, participants must be able to walk 5-7 miles per day and provide their own sleeping bag, water container, small duffel bag or backpack and change of clothes. Camels, all other camping gear, and meals are provided. The location is Gearhart Ranch, Scenic Fort Davis Loop, Fort Davis, Texas.

(Article and photos copyright 2014 Western Trips)

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Winchester House

The story of the mysterious Winchester House which resides in San Jose California certainly has many mysteries surrounding it.

winchester house california
Winchester House and grounds
It is the story of unbounded wealth created by one of the most successful firearms companies ever established. It's also a story about the wealthy widow of that business owner, a trip out west as suggested by a medium and a construction and rebuilding endeavor that lasted some thirty-six years.

Explore the Winchester House

If your travels take you to the San Francisco Bay area, and more specifically in the South Bay area, a trip to this unique home and grounds is well worth the trip. The Winchester House is located at 525 Winchester Blvd. in San Jose California.

From San Francisco and the North Bay: Take I-280 South to San Jose. Take Winchester Blvd. exit. At stoplight, turn left. At next stoplight (Winchester Blvd.), turn left. Proceed two stoplights, and the Winchester  House will be on your left.

From Oakland and the East Bay: Take I-880 South to San Jose. Take Stevens Creek Blvd. exit. Proceed West on Stevens Creek Blvd. to Winchester Blvd. Turn left onto Winchester Blvd. and proceed two stoplights, and the Winchester Mystery House™ will be on your right.

san jose california attractions
The Door to Nowhere
The Winchester Wealth

Mr.William Winchester's father, Oliver Winchester, was a successful businessman who,in 1857, bought a company that made repeating rifles. He changed the name of the business to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company and redesigned the rifle to make it more effective. The rifle was named the "Henry" and was capable of firing a shot every three seconds,a major improvement over most firearms at that period. reportedly about 12,000 Henry's were produced over six years. As a side note, the Winchester Henry was named after Winchester's talented engineer Benjamin Tyler Henry.

When the rifle met with success during the American Civil War the government rewarded Winchester with enormous government contracts. It were these government contracts that made huge profits for the company. Many people have heard the saying that it was the Winchester repeating rifle that won the West.

Oliver Winchester passed away in December 1880. Upon his death the Winchester fortune passed to his son William. 

winchester house san jose
Another section of the San Jose house
Sarah Pardee Marries William Winchester and Soon Tragedy

When Sarah Pardee from New Haven Connecticut married William Winchester in 1862 she became the heir to this large fortune.

Four years later in 1866 Sarah had her first and only child, a girl named Annie. Unfortunately for the Winchesters, the child died just ten days after birth. This as very hard on Sarah who almost went insane. Ten years later Sarah suffered another shocking loss with the death of her husband William.

The Medium 

Sarah Winchester inherited about $20 million upon William's death. The story is that to help overcome her grief of losing both a child and her husband in a ten year span, upon the suggestion of a friend, Sarah sought out a psychic. It was supposedly from this psychic/medium that Mrs. Winchester was told to move to the San Jose California area. The suggested was said to have come from her dead husband.

It has often been said that Sarah always believed her family cursed and turned to psychics for some degree of relief. One spiritualist told Sarah that the Winchester family was cursed because of all the people killed by the Winchester company products.

things to do in san jose california
Another view of the grounds
The Move to California

Upon arriving in San Jose California in 1884 Mrs. Winchester located a home that was under construction. She purchased the house and 162 acres surrounding it.

Along with the suggestion of moving west, the medium also said that the spirits wanted her to continue the house's construction and never end. The medium told Sarah that if construction on the house stopped sh would join her husband and infant son. This warning she accepted and the result was the hiring of some twenty-two craftsmen who were working in shifts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

See the Western Trips articles found on the links below...

California Spanish Mission / Santa Clara de Asis

Visit Mission San Jose 

Historic old Benicia California Arsenal 

Visit the Historic Custom House Plaza in Monterey

winchester house california historical landmark
California Historical Landmark plaque
Mrs. Winchesters Construction

In case you're wondering what could be constructed for thirty-six years, the answer was plenty. Rooms were added to rooms which eventually became a wing. The home had forty-seven fireplaces. Three elevators were built and the home reached seven stories high. In some cases doors went to nowhere.

Mrs. Winchester lived alone in this enormous house with the exception of her servants. In 1922 Sarah Winchester died in her sleep at the age of 83. Sarah Winchester is buried next to her husband and infant son in New Haven Connecticut.

The house furnishings were removed and the mansion was sold to  investors who opened it as a tourist attraction which it remains so today.

(Article and photos copyright 2014 Western Trips)

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Explore the Presidential Yacht the USS Potomac

In 1934 the Coast Guard cutter Electra was built by the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company. Two years later the boat was commissioned as a U.S. Navy vessel, the USS Potomac. That very same year this 165 long foot vessel that weighed 376 gross tons and had cruising speeds of 10 to 13 knots began serving as Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidential yacht and did so until his death in 1945. The USS Potomac replaced the previous presidential yacht the Sequoia.

uss potomac
USS Potomac, former presidential Yacht of President Franklin Delano Rossevelt

Fortunately for all of us the USS Potomac has been saved from the salvage yard, restored to it's former grandeur, and can be toured today in Oakland California. More information on visiting the vessel is at the end of this article.

A Pleasurable Escape From The White House

Franklin Roosevelt as a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy. With that said he had a deep love of the sea and the Navy tradition. Washington D.C. could get very hot and humid during the summer months and FDR often chose to cruise on the  USS Potomac as opposed to staying cooped up in the White House. He also enjoyed the yacht's privacy and held many informal strategy sessions with close advisors and congressional leaders on it. It's been said that  President Roosevelt cruised nearly 50 times per year in the years prior to World War II. The ship could offer a degree of escape from the enormous pressures of public life being president.

presidential yacht potomac
USS Potomac at anchor in Oakland CA
The Potomac's Role in History 

The Potomac played a unique role in history prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. On August 4, 1941, four months prior to the Japanese attack, FDR boarded the USS Potomac for, what the press was told, a fishing trip and a visit to Martha's Vineyard. Roosevelt however was secretly transferred to the heavy cruiser USS Augusta the very next morning bound for Newfoundland. Here he would meet with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This was their first meeting as Heads of State.nDuring this top-secret meeting, the two leaders forged the principles of the Atlantic Charter, which formed the Allied partnership during World War II and what Roosevelt called the "United Nations," to plan the post war peace.

At the end of 1941 when the United States' became directly involved in the war, the president's recreational use of the USS Potomac ceased. During war years the USS Potomac was used mostly as a naval sonar research vessel. Special transducers and motor generator units for the sonar equipment were installed.

Many Owners of the USS Potomac

The USS Potomac took on many roles after FDR's in April 1945, none of them even remotely involved in world affairs. The vessel had many owners one of them being Elvis Presley. It was reported that Presley donated the vessel to St. Judes Hospital in Memphis who would auction it off to help raise charitable funds.

things to do oakland california
The 165 foot long USS Potomac
Between the end of it's federal use in the 1940's and today, in addition to Elvis Presley, the vessel was owned by the Maryland Tidewaters Fisheries Commission, W.G. Toone whose company used it as a ferry between San Juan Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, Hydro-Capitol Inc, California investors who wanted to operate it as a floating disco,

In 1980 this once presidential yacht was seized in San Francisco by U.S. Customs  for it's role as a vessel for drug smugglers. The old USS Potomac was then towed to Treasure Island Naval Base The vessel was stored their but a hole in the caused her to eventually sink.

The Navy refloated the vessel after a few weeks and sold her to the Port of Oakland for a mere $15,000. The Port of Oakland led a cooperative effort with organized labor, maritime corporations and dedicated volunteers to complete a $5 million restoration that spanned twelve years.

See the Western Trips articles on the links below...

Visit the Tall Ship in San Francisco

Visit the USS Pampanito WW II Submarine / San Francisco

Tour the Red Oak Victory Ship / Richmond California

presidential yacht sequoia
USS Sequoia
 The USS Potomac Opened to the Public/ A Unique Trip Stop

Opened to the public in 1995, the Association for the Preservation of the Presidential Yacht Potomac now operates this National Historic Landmark as an active memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Since it opened to the public in the summer of 1995, more than a quarter of a million people have visited and sailed aboard former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's beloved "Floating White House," the USS Potomac. The USS Potomoc is a National Historic Landmark.The vessels fortunes came full circle.

The photo above is of the USS Sequoia which served as the presidential yacht from 1933 to 1936 when she was replaced by the USS Potomac.

The Potomac Association, a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, is committed to preserving the legacy of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt through education for students and adults. Educational cruises highlight the impact of the FDR Era on our local and national history. Docents lead educational tours of the Potomac and facilitate in classroom discussions with students of all ages.

The Potomac offers cruise opportunities to visit Angel Island, The Bay Model, The Bridges of the Bay and the Islands of the Bay. You can cruise and learn about the history of San Francisco Bay and FDR’s role in its development. In addition to cruises you can learn about the USS Potomoc with a 45 minute dockside tour conducted by a docent on any Wednesday, Friday or Sunday. Two-hour history cruises tour the Bay eight times each month from mid-March through mid-November.

On the vessel you'll see many interesting photos of FDR, antique typewriters, and period furnishings.

jack london square oakland
Jack London Square, Oakland CA
The USS Potomac is located in Jack London Square in Oakland California and is a must see when you're in the San Francisco Bay Area. Visiting this historic former Navy vessel is fun and educational.  You have the choice of taking a tour or going on one of the Bay cruises offered.

The USS Potomac National Historic Landmark is a living piece of history and visiting her is a fun family experience.In addition as serving as a floating and cruising museum, the USS Potomac can also be chartered and has been used as a venue for weddings. For more information and for a list of scheduled events see website www.usspotomac.org

The address is 540 Water Street Oakland, CA.

(Article copyright 2014 Western Trips)

Friday, May 2, 2014

James-Younger Gang Retreat From Northfield

What may be the most famous crime in Minnesota history occurred about 150 years ago - September 7, 1876. The robbery at the First National Bank of Northfield involved infamous outlaws like Jesse James and Cole Younger and his brothers, and heroes like bank bookkeeper Joseph Lee Heywood which we'll detail later in our article.

northfield raid
Northfield's First National Bank
A Failed Bank Robbery

The James-Younger gang attempted to rob the bank in broad daylight, a trademark of the gang. The gang was as far north as they had ever been, traveling to Minnesota in part to avoid the posses in their home state of Missouri. 

As it turned out, the attempted Northfield Minnesota bank robbery was a failure and represented the end of the James-Younger gang. Two of the eight gang members were killed by town folk outside the bank. 

A gang who left a trail of violence and death starting during the Civil War as Confederate bushwackers for guerrilla leaders William Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson, met fierce civilian resistance in Northfield Minnesota and other towns like never before. 

As far as the Northfield Raid was concerned, it was a disaster for the James-Younger gang and eventually led to Jesse's death and Frank's surrender. After the failed Northfield Raid, the ensuing manhunt for the robbers covered nearly 400 miles. The James-Younger gang tried to escape Minnesota in a generally southwest direction from Northfield and the manhunt involving lawmen as well as farmers and merchants was the largest in Minnesota history. 

The Great Northfield Raid Reenactments

Today, travelers through Minnesota have the opportunity to visit historic sites and attend annual events which not only reenact the failed bank robbery but also tell a lot of the story about the gangs attempt to stay ahead of the posse of manhunters. The James-Younger gang were never before pursued by lawmen and civilians for such a long distance and in a such a strange territory to the outlaws. The attempted escape from Northfield Minnesota is a fascinating story.

Below are a few examples of events and reenactments you may wish to add to your Minnesota vacation planner.  

james brothers
Jesse and Frank James, 1872
Northfield Minnesota

The details of the robbery itself are well known and will be re-enacted this weekend in Northfield as part of the annual "Defeat of Jesse James Days." Less well-known are the events that came after the robbery attempt, as the gang fled across southern Minnesota, pursued by a host of posses. 

Madelia Minnesota 

There is an annual event held in Madelia Minnesota that celebrates the courage of the seven posse members from Madelia who captured the three Younger brothers and shot and killed gang member Charlie Pitts. This is a day long celebration that included old west shows on Madelia's Main Street and a reenactment at the capture site. The gunfight and capture takes place at 2:30P at the Historical Capture Monument about seven miles west of town.

You may also be interested in a video of the Younger Brothers Capture Reenactment

The Historic James-Younger Gang manhunt Through Minnesota 

As mentioned above, the manhunt for the James-Younger gang covered about 400 miles and lasted for weeks. During this time the gang even split up so to be able to travel faster. A large reward was offered by the state government and banks. Every farmer and everybody around that had anything to use as a weapon thought they were going to go out and get a reward.
The woods of Minnesota were full of people. Minnesota had many northern Europe immigrants and many joined the manhunt. Some of them were yelling in Norwegain, some in German, some in English. Unfortunately, a good number of the manhunters lacked professional searching skills.

The local searchers tramping through the brush and hollering at each other gave the James-Younger gang plenty of advance notice. In fact, the searchers made so much noise that the gang could usually hear them coming. It wasn't too hard to hide from the posses and stay a step ahead.

A young Cole Younger
Also mentioned above, at one point during the escape, the gang split up. Bob Younger was wounded in Northfield and slowed the gang's escape. Eventually, the two James brothers went one way and the Younger brothers, Cole, Jim and Bob along with Charlie Pitts went another. 

The Younger group traveled much slower than the two James brothers, Jesse and Frank, and eventually were sighted. The person who spread the word of the Younger group presence near Madelia was a seventeen year old farmer named Oscar Sorbel. Sorbel rode into Madelia and reached Sheriff James Glispin.

A posse from Madelia found the gang members just south of LaSalle Minnesota which didn't exist at the time of the capture. Charlie Pitts was shot and killed by the posse and the three Younger brothers were taken into custody. Below is a short description of the capture.

Sept. 21, 1876---A large posse surrounds the three Youngers and Charlie Pitts. They are surrounded in a boggy swamp called Hanska Slough. A full scale battle takes place. Charlie is shot several times and killed. Cole is shot six more times for a total of eleven wounds, Jim is shot two more times for a total of five wounds, and Bob is shot one more time for a total of three wounds.

See the Western Trips articles on the links below...

The James Gang's Blue Cut Train Robbery

Quantrill's Raiders

Sam Bass and Texas' First Train Robbery

Some good reading on the subject of the Northfield Raid and the ensuing manhunt include... Shot All To Hell by Mark Lee Gardner...Robber and Hero : The Story of the Northfield Bank Raid by George Huntington.

joseph lee heywood
Memorial window, Northfield, MN
The Fate of the Younger Brothers 

The three Younger brothers were first taken to Madelia and put on public display. They were then transported to Faribault MN and tried, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to life in thestate prison at Stillwater.
Bob Younger died in prison in 1889; Jim was pardoned in 1901 and committed suicide in 1902; Cole, also pardoned in 1901 and died in 1916. It was said that Cole Younger was a model prisoner and started the prison's first newspaper, The Prison Mirror.

In regards to the Sorbel family, after threats were actually made, the Sorbels changed their names and moved to Dakota Territory. It was only a few years before his death that Oscar's true identity was revealed. The annual “Oscar Sorbel Hometown Hero Award” was given out in the City of Madelia during the community’s Younger Brothers Capture weekend in September of 2013.

Joseph Lee Heywood 

During the attempted bank robbery in Northfield, the bank's treasurer, Joseph Lee Heywood, was shot and killed for refusing to open the ban's vault. Most accounts attribute the murder to Frank James. One must remember that this was the era before Federal bank insurance. Had the James-Younger gang succeeded in robbing the bank, the depositors, local citizens of Northfield, would have lost all of their savings with a slim chance of ever seeing the money again. The citizens of Northfield considered Joseph Lee Heywood a true hero. 

Heywood was a leading citizen of Northfield MN also serving as treasurer for the new Carleton College which still exists today in a much larger Northfield. Neither Frank nor Jesse were ever captured for this crime and the Younger brothers were convicted since they were part of the overall crime. 

The stained glass window pictured above
is at the First United Church of Christ in Northfield. Additionally, Carleton College established a Heywood Library Fund and installed a memorial plaque on campus. 

(Article copyright 2014 Western Trips. Photos and images in the public domain)