Brendan Riley really knows the town of Vallejo. Riley, the longtime chief of the Associated Press Capital Bureau in Carson City, was born and raised in Vallejo, where his father, Wyman Riley, was a legendary local newspaper editor and politician, and his mother, Marjorie Riley, was also a journalist and author.
After retiring in 2009, Riley, a member of the Nevada Press Association Hall of Fame who spends part of his time in Genoa and part of it in Vallejo, turned his attention to his hometown and particularly its rich history.
In 2017 he published his first book, Lower Georgia Street: California’s Forgotten Barbary Coast, about a once notorious seafaring neighborhood in Vallejo with a colorful and fast-paced story.
While writing this book, Riley gathered so much historical material about the city that he felt he could say more on the subject. As a result, later that year he began writing a regular column, the Solano Chronicles, for the Vallejo Times-Herald newspaper.
Riley recently compiled the best of his columns over the past few years into another book, Vanishing Vallejo: Random History Notes on a Colorful California Town. In other words, a book creates a column that creates another book.
Vanishing Vallejo provides a wonderful overview of the many interesting people, events and places that make up the city. Importantly, many of the listings focus on Mare Island, a historic shipyard that provided employment for many in the community and remains an important part of the community’s identity.
Riley divides his book chronologically; with entries ordered by year of publication. Appropriately, he begins his book with a brief history of the city’s namesake, General Mariano Vallejo, who originally hoped to locate the California capital in the municipality (it briefly held that distinction).
Other articles in the first chapter, which includes columns from 2017, include a profile of Admiral David Farragut, the first commanding officer of Mare Island Shipyard, a story about the time of gangster George “Baby Face” Nelson, who settled in the 1930s tucked away in Vallejo, and the impact of Prohibition on the city (it was largely ignored).
Subsequent chapters include stories about the time the future Duchess of Windsor spent in Vallejo in 1920, how ill-informed urban renewal efforts sadly destroyed several city landmarks in the early 1970s, the tales of sunken ships in Vallejo’s Bay, and how famous The Vallejo Raised One Writer Ernest J. Gaines once looked to the city library for inspiration.
Reading the book gives you a new appreciation for the rich history of Vallejo, a city often overshadowed by its more famous neighbors, Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, and San Francisco.
For example, who would have known that actor Boris Karloff, who later rose to fame in films like Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, spent time in Vallejo in 1918 as a struggling actor? Karloff, then in his early 30s, joined the acting company at Vallejo’s Airdome Theater and performed in a number of plays until the theater, like all public venues, was closed during the deadly flu outbreak of 1917-18.
Unable to work as an actor, Karloff worked at the nearby Sperry Flour Mill for about two months. In 1919, with the Vallejo Acting Company now defunct, Karloff joined a theater company in San Jose and eventually ended up in Hollywood, where he found much greater success had.
Brendan Riley’s Vanishing Vallejo: Random History Notes on a Colorful California Town is published by America Through Time, an imprint of Foothill Media, in association with Arcadia Publishing. It can be found at online bookstores like www.bookshop.org that pay a portion of their sales to local bookstores.