Steamship Mail in the 19th Century

Rising Tide


From Novelty to Necessity

The United States was eager to establish settlements and industry in its newly acquired territory and it became imperative to establish a means of regular communication with the West Coast. President Polk announced the settlement of the Oregon boundary controversy on August 6, 1846, in a message to Congress and called for the establishment of a mail service. He wrote, “It is likewise important that mail facilities, so indispensable for the diffusion of information and for building together the different portions of our extended Confederacy, should be afforded to our citizens west of the Rocky Mountains.”1

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Map of the Panama Route, 1849.

Three main routes existed by which the mail could be carried. It could be transported overland from the Missouri River by road to Astoria, Oregon, but this route could only be travelled in seasons with hospitable weather. Mail could otherwise be sailed by clipper ship around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, but its six month turnover rate was highly impractical. The choice route was to transport the mail to Chagres by steamship, overland across the Isthmus of Panama, then northward by steamship to Astoria. The United States had already taken diplomatic steps to open the isthmus to development and gain permissions for transit across the region. On December 12, 1946, a treaty was signed between the United States and New Granada, of which Panama was a state.2 By this treaty, the United States was given right of way and in return would recognize New Granada’s sovereignty over the isthmus.

Early Efforts

Until steamships gained prominence in 1832, sailing was the primary method of maritime transport and the sector was able to achieve a level of sustainable competition.3 The market was much more hospitable to new sailing operations, as sailable ships could be constructed rather inexpensively. Steam powered vessels were used primarily to travel through inland waters where currents and variable winds were detrimental to sailing. Steamship manufacturing in the United States was based around the Hudson River, where builders had long manufactured light and fast riverboats for use in the region’s well-established system of trade.4  

The economic conditions surrounding steamship navigation, however, were unlike those of an ordinary competitive business. The construction of steamships was made difficult by imperfect competition in the supply of shipbuilding materials like steel, boilers, engines and generators. The United States also lacked adequate construction facilities and materials would often need to be imported from more established manufacturers in Europe. The government would need to financially support the infant industry.

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Diagram of the side-lever engine of the SS Pacific, built in 1849. (A History of the Growth of the Steam Engine, 1878)

The United States was to follow the example set by England, which by 1830 had already established an impressive line of transport steamers.5 Though the British government had in mind the military utility of steamships, the system was primarily organized to provide rapid and frequent communication between its territories rather than to increase its total merchant marine. The British government organized a line through contractual-operating subsidies because it was believed that private services stimulated by profit would provide a more efficient service at a lower cost to the government. However, because of the lack of competitive bidding and the risk of overcharge by contractors, the government was forced into direct negotiation, making steamship transport a quasi-public service.6

Subsidies, Mandates & Contract Bidding

On March 3, 1847, Congress authorized the Secretary of the Navy to advertise for bids for a mail service between New York and Chagres, Panama, as well as between Panama and Astoria by passing what became known as the “Mail-Steamer Bill.7 Later, the Committee of Naval Affairs was also authorized to contract for the construction and equipment of four steam warships as well as for mail contracts to be established between the Secretary of the Navy and private operators.8 The Secretary of the Navy advertised for bids on April 21, they were received until July 15 and a decision was announced on August 1, 1847.9 Due to a lack of interdepartmental negotiation, the Post Office Department had also advertised for bids, but the Navy being more heavily endowed with funds, ultimately gained the privilege of making contracts.

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George Law of the U.S. Mail Steamship Company

The first contract for the transportation of the mails was awarded to Albert G. Sloo of Cincinnati, an entrepreneur who had a history of profiting off of the Post Office by shortening mail routes and cheapening postage. Sloo entered a contract with the Navy Department on April 20, 1847, to carry mail fortnightly from New York to New Orleans and Chagres.10 But just four months after arranging the contract, it became clear that Sloo did not have the resources to carry out the service. Sloo found a way to profitably dispose of the contract by transferring the agreement to entrepreneur George Law on September 3, 1847.11 A bill to charter Law’s U.S. Mail Steamship Company was introduced into the Senate of the New York Legislature in Albany on March 6, 1848.12 After being considered by the committee on Commerce and Navigation as well as the Committee on the Whole, the U.S. Mail Steamship Company was incorporated on March 23, 1848 with a capital stock of $1,500,000 divided into shares of $100 each.13

For the route between Panama and Oregon, advertisements for contract bids were issued on May 4, 1847.14 Arnold Harris emerged as the foremost bidder. It was clear, however, that after procuring the contract Harris also sought to transfer it to another bidder for a profit, never actually intending to carry out the service. Harris transferred the agreement to a competing bidder, Jabez M. Woodward on July 7, 1847.15 In order to finalize his agreement, Harris requested an extension from the Navy Department, though it appears he was using Woodward to find a more lucrative deal. Only three days after the contract was finalized in his name, Harris transferred the agreement to William H. Aspinwall instead. A well-known businessman, Aspinwall was a partner in the firm Howland and Aspinwall, which handled the largest trading business of any house in New York and were early pioneers in the operation of clipper ships.

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William H. Aspinwall of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company

After being notified of Harris’ deception, Woodward brought suit against Harris and Aspinwall in the Court of Chancery, New York, requesting an injunction to restrain Aspinwall from executing the contract.16 The court ultimately denied the injunction on the grounds that, while the agreement between Harris and Woodward had bound Harris to sell, it had not required Woodward to buy. Indeed, the arrangement with Aspinwall was much more profitable for Harris, who was to receive one-tenth of the profits derived from the service. This arrangement continued until 1850, when Aspinwall bought out Harris’ interest for a quitclaim of $80,000.17 A bill to incorporate the Pacific Mail Steamship Company was passed by the New York Senate on April 4 and the Assembly on April 12, 1948.18 The charter established the company for a span of twenty years with a capital stock of $800,000 divided into five hundred shares.19

Steamship Construction

The contract enacting the U.S. Mail Steamship Company provided for the construction of five steamers, each suitable for quick conversion into warships. Four of the ships were to be at least 1,500 tons burden and the fifth at least 1,000 tons burden.20 The engines and boilers were to be placed as far below the waterline as possible in order to protect them from enemy fire and each ship was to be commanded by an officer of the United States Navy not below the rank of lieutenant, with midshipmen of the Navy serving as watch officers.

Law began construction of the steamships Ohio and Georgia. The construction of these ships was marred by difficulty, partly due to the inexperience of builders and lack of facilities to build steamers of such an unprecedented size. Moreover, the ships’ potential for military use was questionable.  Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who was ordered to supervise the construction of these ships, suggested that while the ships built by the U.S. Mail Company were fine vessels for the carriage of mail, they should have had two engines and an additional boiler to be suitable as naval vessels.21 Though the U.S. Mail Steamship Company was contractually obligated to build five steamers, they ceased building after the Ohio and Georgia because they claimed the ships were much larger than required. Construction plans were delayed to test the ability of these especially large ships. In fact, construction had initially been delayed because the plans were considered too extravagant for use as naval vessels. While these ships were being constructed, the U.S. Mail purchased an existing steamer, the Falcon, which sailed in December 1848.22

Aspinwall’s Pacific Mail Steamship Company played their hand more wisely, building reasonable ships from the outset, eventually building and purchasing grander ships. The steamers built for Pacific Mail were more appropriate for the task at hand because they were carefully built for the demands of the Pacific route. These ships were sturdy, bluff-bowed and wall-sided to withstand the abuses of distant Pacific shores and had little space for passengers.23

Panama Steamers

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Panama steamer

Many steamers were purchased or chartered by both the U.S. Mail Steamship Company and the Pacific Mail Steamship Company to meet the demands of the service while ships were under construction. These contracted ships were not necessarily constructed appropriately for the task at hand, so they varied in design and were often too small or expensive to operate efficiently. Later, as the mail line operators became familiar with the Panama route, ships were built to be specifically suited for isthmian travel. Panama steamers were distinguished by their large deckhouse with a hurricane deck overhead, to provide a canopy for passengers walking the promenade. Mail steamers built during this time tended to have wooden hulls and were propelled by paddle wheels.24 Paddle wheels were initially turned by a side-lever engine, though beginning in 1850 their use for maritime transport was replaced by efficient screw propellers powered by oscillating engines.25 Mail lines continued to build paddle steamers because their passengers preferred the steady turning of a paddle wheel to the growl of a screw propeller.

Ships were typically modelled after clipper sailing ships with a straight stem and clipper-esque bowsprit. At this time, steamships were also fitted with sails. Sails were necessary to augment the propulsion of paddle wheels and to offer alternate means for powering the ship if the engines or coal supply fail. When the Oregon left San Francisco for San Blas in 1849 with only seventy tons of coal aboard, the steamship was still able to continue to its destination under sail when the coal ran out.26

The earliest ships built for the mail lines used saltwater in their boilers as they did not have condensers or sufficient capacity in their tanks to carry freshwater. Later in 1848, the Ohio had tanks large enough to carry ten thousand gallons of water in addition to a condenser.27 On the Oregon, built in 1848, an engineer complained that the temperature in the fireroom and nearby bunkers could reach up to 132 degrees and many of his firemen and stokers were overcome by the heat.28 Later-built steamers like the San Francisco in 1853, were built with an airtight fireroom and forced ventilation, rather than simply relying on hatchways and sails set just right to bring air below deck.29

California’s Maiden Voyage

Technical Problems

The SS California was the first Pacific Mail steamer to depart from New York. The ship was set to sail from its point of construction around Cape Horn and take its position in the Pacific for its impending mail service. The California, built by foremost steamship builder William H. Webb, was 1,100 tons burden with a 200 ft keel, 34 ft beam and 20 ft depth of hold. The ship had a side-lever engine built by the Novelty Works of Stillman, Allen & Company of 250 horsepower with a 17 inch cylinder and 8 feet stroke.30

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The steamship California of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company

The California had been delayed for a month with engine trouble, but was repaired in time to launch on October 6, 1848.31 The day after the California departed, the New York Herald wrote, “The splendid ship, named after the most important of our territorial acquisitions, left port yesterday afternoon (Oct. 6) under command of Captain Forbes, for the shores of the Pacific, her future field of action, where it is expected she will be joined in her course of useful services by two vessels of equal power, now fitting out.”32 On the day of the embarkation of the California, speeches and toasts were given and vessels exchanged whistle blasts.

The goodwill of these festivities would not last. On the evening of the first day of the voyage, a shaft bearing overheated and the starboard feedwater pipe ruptured.33 The steamer proceeded under low steam pressure the next morning. The engineers also discovered later that one of the ship’s crossheads was cracked. Though it was a spare crosshead, it could not be replaced at sea and the ship would soon have to be wharfed.  On the tenth day, a bolt came loose in one boiler, letting all of its water out and on the fifteenth day, the bilge pumps gave way, a valve in the delivery pipe broke and the blow pipe to each boiler burst.

To make matters worse, less than one month after the departure of the California, Captain Forbes fell ill with a pulmonary hemorrhage and transferred command of the ship to Mate Duryee.34 En route to Rio de Janeiro, Duryee made a navigational error that forced the ship to backtrack its path and extending its long and painful journey. On the twenty fifth day, the California reached Rio de Janeiro where it was recoaled and repaired. The collier ship Ohio ran into trouble with port authorities and could not run alongside the California, so the ship had to be recoaled by hand. Of the twenty five days the California spent in port, seventeen were spent recoaling.35 The ship continued its journey to California, stopping at Valparaiso, Callao, Paita and Panama. In Panama, the California came upon an unanticipated sight - 1,500 Americans demanding passage to California.36

Gold Fever

On December 5, 1848, just two months after the departure of the California and four days after the sailing of the Falcon, President James K. Polk announced that gold had been discovered in California. Addressing the nation, President Polk revealed, “It was known that mines of precious metals existed to a considerable extent in California at the time of its acquisition. Recent discoveries render it possible that these mines are more extensive and valuable than was anticipated.”37

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Sailing card for the clipper ship California during the Gold Rush, 1850.

For Americans following the promise of gold, there were few viable routes. The overland route would not be safe to travel until April or May when winter storms would have passed. This left the routes around Cape Horn and across Panama, the isthmus route being quicker and seemingly more comfortable. Between December 14, 1848 and January 4, 1849, 1,164 travelers in 36 ships made their way around Cape Horn and three hundred and fifty travelers in seven vessels travelled across the isthmus.38

By the time the California was headed to Panama, Captain Forbes had already taken on 70 Peruvians at Chagres in addition to the passengers who had boarded in New York.39 Because the mail steamers were built primarily for the carriage of mail, not passengers, there was a severe lack of berths. The Americans waiting in Panama for passage to California forcefully demanded that the Peruvians be expelled from the ship, but Captain Marshall, who had been put in charge by the infirmed Captain Forbes, refused.

General Persifor F. Smith had arrived earlier in Panama on the U.S. Mail steamship Falcon, with a small army to command the “Division of the Pacific.”40 General Smith took it upon himself to prevent any persons not citizens of the United States from mining gold on American territory, declaring the Peruvians to be trespassers on the California. Captain Forbes settled the affair by agreeing to take on one American waiting at Panama for each Peruvian already on board. The ship first accepted those who had purchased through tickets and the rest of the passengers drew from a lottery. This left over one thousand disappointed Americans still waiting in Panama.

To California

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Broadside advertising route through Nicaragua, March 1849.

On January 31, the California departed from Panama with 375 passengers, twice the ship’s designed capacity, in addition to 75 officers and crew.41 Captain Forbes wrote in his journal, “ship filled to cramnation with passengers & stones & everyone looking out for himself with a peculiar aptness… all seem to be bound to California with the idea that low conduct & uncouth deportment is necessary to make them appear of importance…”42

Between Mazatlán and San Francisco, the ship found itself short of coal. The crew began to burn deck fittings, extra spars, cabin transoms and woodwork to maintain way. The ship barely reached Monterey, where about 30 cords of wood could be brought aboard. Ironically, 100 bags of coal were then discovered under the storeroom deck.43

As the California steamed into the San Francisco Bay on February 28, 1849, the ship was given a 21 gun salute from each of six ships of the US Pacific Naval Squadron under Thomas Catesby Jones.44 A California newspaper reported,

“The California is truly a magnificent vessel and her fine appearance as she came in sight of the Town, called forth cheer from our enraptured citizens, who were assembled in masses upon the heights commanding a view of the Bay, and in dense crowds at the principle [sic.] Wharves and landing places. She passed the vessels of war in the harbor under a salute from each, returned by hearty cheering from the crowded decks, and at eleven was safely moored at the anchorage off the town.”45

All told, the California made the 1,400 mile passage in 144 days, spending 76 days in transit and 58 days in port.46 Within one day of landing on the California shore, most of the crew, including Captain Marshall, deserted the ship in search of gold.

1) James K. Polk, Message to the House of Representatives, August 6, 1846.
2) Kemble, 3.
3) John G. B. Hutchins, “The American Maritime Industries and Public Policy, 1789-1914,” (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1941), 327.
4) Ibid.
5) Hutchins, 335.
6 Hutchins, 338.
7) Kemble, 19.
8) Kemble, 12.
9) Ibid.
10) Kemble, 14.
11) Ibid.
12) Kemble, 16.
13) Ibid.
14) Kemble, 17.
15) Ibid.
16) Kemble, 21.
17) Kemble, 22.
18) Kemble, 25.
19) Ibid.
20) Kemble, 25.
21) Kemble, 28.
22) Victor Maximilian Berthold, “The Pioneer Steamer California, 1848-1849,” (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1932), 12.
23) Kemble, 116.
24) Kemble, 118.
25) Kemble, 119.
26) Kemble, 120.
27) Kemble, 120.
28) Kemble, 121.
29) Ibid.
30) Berthold, 6.
31) Berthold, 3.
32) Ibid.
33) Duncan S. Somerville, “The Aspinwall Empire,” (Mystic, Conn.: Mystic Seaport Museum Inc., 1983).
34) Berthold, 27.
35) Somerville, 33.
36) Somerville, 36.
37) Berthold, 14.
38) Somerville, 36.
39) Berthold, 38.
40) Somerville, 39.
41) Somerville, 38.
42) Somerville, 40.
43) Somerville, 42.
44) Ibid.
45) Kemble, 35.
46) Somerville, 42.