The Promise



I remember, not long before my father died, we used to drive down to the end of First Street and sit on a bench that was dedicated to an old friend of his. It was our daily ritual. We’d sit there and watch the tankers go by. Sometimes two or three would pass in an hour.


“Guess how much the city of Benicia makes off those ships?” he said one day.


I figured it was a lot, given all the boat traffic, but I had no idea.


“Nothing. Not a dime. More than four decades now and not a plugged nickel.”


Back in the ‘60s, when the Army closed up shop at the Arsenal, the city was teetering on bankruptcy, he explained. The federal government offered to sell the land to Benicia for a little over $4 million, but the city didn’t have that kind of money.


“So along came two wealthy businessmen – Joe Coney and Stanley Hiller, who made their millions in the shipping business in the ‘30s and ‘40s.”


Over time, they bought up hundreds of acres of tidelands along the East Bay. In the ‘50s, they proposed filling in part of the bay with millions of pounds of sand and building a 1,500-home development off the coast of Alameda, until the locals ran them out of town.


“It was rumored Coney owned more than 3 million acres in the Andes, including gold mines, but the real gold mine it turned out was right here in Benicia.”


I loved the look in his eyes when he got like this. My dad was like an old politician who never ran for office. But he always read the papers, stood up and gave his two cents at city council meetings and debated current events with a tight circle of friends. The guy could tell a story, no doubt about it. He could hold a crowd. And in these last years, every once in a while he would latch onto an idea and run with it.


It turns out the whole Arsenal selloff was one big land grab. Coney and Hiller formed a shell company called Benicia Industries and forked over the $4 million so the city could buy the Arsenal. In a later land swap, Benicia got the Camel Barns, the Clocktower, the Depot and the waterfront between First and Fifth streets. In return, Benicia Industries got the port – what would turn out to be the only privately owned port in all of California.


“The best part was Benicia’s city attorney was also the attorney for Benicia Industries – you can’t write a better movie than this,” Dad said, shaking his head and laughing. “As part of the deal, they got it rent-free for 66 years. But here’s the catch: The lease comes up in 2031. By then, I’ll be dead and lying next to your mother. But hopefully you’ll still be alive and kicking. So you know what I want you to do?”


“Lemme guess - stick it to the bastards?” It was his favorite saying.


“You got it, son. Give ‘em hell for me. At least tax them for every ship that comes through here, if not for every brand-new Toyota they roll off the boat.”


We shook hands, and I vowed I would give it my best shot. Just about then, an oil tanker pulled out from port, two tugboats trailing, heading westward through the Strait. We watched it cruise by slowly. You couldn’t hear its motor over the shriek of seagulls diving for handouts nearby. But as it passed, I could clearly read its name: “Hellespont Promise.”