Located next to Suisun Bay in Benicia, California, the Benicia Arsenal served as the US Army Ordnance facility for the West Coast of the United States for more than a century.
In 1847 a 252-acre parcel of land adjoining the Benicia city limits on the east was acquired for a military reserve. The post was first occupied on April 9, 1849, when two companies of the 2nd Infantry set up camp to establish Benicia Barracks. In 1851, after the urging of General Percifer F. Smith, the first Ordnance Supply Depot in the West was established, and the following year it was designated Benicia Arsenal.
The grounds of the Benicia Arsenal are famous for stabling the Army’s one and only Camel Corps — an idea dreamt up in 1855 by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (later Confederate President). The short-lived Camel Corps was disbanded in 1863, but the remaining Camels were sent here to be housed and auctioned off. The Camel Barns remain and are now the Benicia Historical Museum.
The Benicia Arsenal was a staging area for Union troops from the West during the Civil War. The installation remained a garrisoned post until 1898, when troops were assigned to duty in the Philippine Islands during the Spanish-American War. During World War I, Benicia Arsenal gave ordnance support to all large Army installations in the Western States and supplied Ordnance material to American expeditionary forces in Siberia.
In the 24 hours following the Pearl Harbor bombing, 125 separate truck convoys were loaded and dispatched from the Benicia Arsenal, leaving its stock of ammunition, small arms, and high explosives completely exhausted. The arsenal supplied ports with weapons, artillery, parts, supplies, and tools throughout the war. In addition, the arsenal overhauled 14,343 pairs of binoculars, manufactured 180,000 small items for tanks and weapons, and repaired approximately 70,000 watches. However, the arsenal is most famous for supplying munitions to Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle for the first bombing raid on Tokyo on April 18, 1942, launched from the USS Hornet.
Before 1940, the arsenal employed 85 civilian employees at Benecia Arsenal. The labor shortage in 1944 forced the arsenal commander to put 250 Italian and 400 German prisoners of war to work, alongside 150 juveniles from the California Youth Authority. Women comprised nearly half the civilian employee force. During the Korean War, civilians reached an all-time high of 6,700 workers.
Benicia Arsenal was deactivated in 1963, and the facility was closed in 1964. Today, the arsenal has been redeveloped into an artist’s community. The art district displays several historic buildings, including the historic Camel Barn, which now houses the Benicia Historical Museum, a gunpowder magazine, the historic Clocktower Building, the barracks hospital, and other buildings primarily utilized for private purposes.
The Benicia Arsenal is located at Army Point and I-680 in Benicia at 2024 Camel Road.
Benecia Historical Museum
2060 Camel Road
Benicia, California 94510-2339
Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated December 2021.
Camel Caravans in the American Desert
Forts & Presidios Photo Gallery
Ghost Camels in the American Southwest
Primary Source: National Park Service