Exploding gold rush steamboat service

Before the discovery of gold, and the mad rush to California that followed, the tiny 37-foot long steamboat Sitka left San Francisco on November 28, 1847 and docked on December 4 at the embarcadero near what would soon become Sacramento. Hauled down in pieces from Alaska by William Leidesdorff, an early California trader, it was to be the first of many craft to ply the bay and rivers of Northern California in the years to come. On September 15, 1849 the Washington arrived in Sacramento. In October the 226-foot Senator completed an arduous trip around the horn and competed with the Mint and the Mckim for an ever-growing business ferrying men and material into the gold country. The John A. Sutter started runs to Stockton in late 1849 and made $300.000 in profits in its first three months of service.

Wilson G. Hunt

The Wilson G. Hunt was built for service to Coney Island but headed west as soon as news of the gold discovery broke. The New World was one of the most ornate and fastest of the riverboats. It quickly set a record of time of 5 hours and 35 minutes to Sacramento. But the need for speed caused many accidents. In June the John A. Sutter blew up. In 1851 the boiler of the Sagamore exploded just out of San Francisco. In 1853 the J. Bragdon rammed the Comanche and sank her. Even the plush New World’s boiler blew while racing the Wilson G. Hunt near Benicia. Although equipped with a safer boiler, the Yosemite exploded near Rio Vista in 1865, killing 55 people and injuring many more.

The Yosemite

The steamboats quickly imbedded themselves into the gold country with smaller, shallower draft vessels that could go farther up the rivers where the gold was found, traveling as far north as Redding and Red Bluff and as far south as Fresno. Even the mighty railroads could not compete and often operated steamboats themselves. In the latter part of the century and on into the next one, ferries and cargo vessels crossed the San Francisco Bay from town to town and leading to still more accidents. Built in 1878 the San Rafael and her sister ship the Sausalito plied the bay until November 30, 1901 when, in a fog just off Alcatraz Island, the Sausalito slammed ten feet into the San Rafael’s dining room. Twenty minutes later the San Rafael sank.

San Rafael, painting by James Bard



  1. Somehow people forget that steamships worked areas more than the Mississippi. I thoroughly enjoyed this post.

    • Boats were essential to get from San Francisco to the gold fields, Doris. The San Francisco Bay and all the secondary bays that lead inland from it were extensive and hard to ride around. Steam power was preferable because it was more reliable in all kinds of weather. The steamboats became a classic part of the gold rush and an integral part of California for many years. They must have been a sight to see back in their day. Thanks again for your comment.

  2. Do you have any information on these two river vessels?
    Lawrence and Putah

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