There were a large number of schools established in the first years of Benicia’s history, which lead Benicia to be known as the “Athens of California” in the 1850’s-60’s. The first two schools opened in 1852; Blake’s School for Boys and the Benicia Young Ladies’ Seminary. Blake’s school briefly closed in the financial crisis of 1854 to 1855 but was purchased and reopened under the name of Benicia Collegiate Institute by C.J. Flatt. The school closed in 1867. One of the school’s most famous graduates was Joseph McKenna who was appointed Attorney General of the United States by President William McKinley in 1897. In 1898 he was appointed an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America where he served until 1925.
The Young Ladies’ Seminary operated from 1852 to 1886 under the direction of Miss Mary Atkins. Between 1865 and 1871 it was owned by Mr. and Mrs. C.T. Mills and was the first setting of Mills College, the woman’s college now located in Oakland, California.
In 1853, the Episcopal Church decided to establish a boys school and a girls school. The boys’ school was St. Augustine’s, founded in 1868 by Dr. James Lloyd Breck as a missionary college. St. Augustine’s occupied the site of the Benicia Collegiate Institute which closed in 1867. The only remaining building of the complex is the former residence of Bishop Wingfield and today is a private residence. The girls’ school, St. Mary’s of the Pacific was also founded by Dr. Breck in 1870 and was housed in a newly built Second Empire-style building. The school closed in 1884 and none of the buildings remain today.
In 1854 the Catholic Church founded St. Dominic’s school for boys. The building was originally the Dominican seminary of San Domingo in Monterey, CA. The building was transferred to I St, between 4th and 5th Streets in Benicia in 1854. A small Catholic Church and monastery were founded as part of the St. Dominic’s complex.
In the later part of 1854 the Dominican Archbishop of San Francisco asked the Dominican sisters of the Santa Catalina Convent in Monterey to also move to Benicia. The sisters established St. Catherine’s Convent and School located at First St. and Military West (in what was/is known as Solano Square.) Many of the daughters of Benicia citizens attended the school including Luisa and Maria Vallejo, two of General Vallejo’s daughters. The convent was moved to San Rafael in 1899 but the school remained in operation until 1962. The buildings were demolished in 1966.
During the 1850’s and 1860’s, Benicia was a center of refinement and culture among remote California villages and rough gold mining camps. It was also considered an excellent location for the schools because Benicia lacked the distractions of theaters and music halls. Instead Benicia was known as a town of quiet, refined living.