Panama, the easy route to California

As soon as trains ran regularly along the Panama Railway between Panama City and Aspinwall, and passengers were not delayed more than a few hours in either direction or more than a day or two across the whole isthmus, the journey between New York and San Francisco became a relatively pleasant, but expensive trip. The railroad charged very high fares and those on the Pacific Mail Steamships were also steep, but to residents of gold rich California back then these cost mattered little.

Train loading at Aspinwall

With the California business depression of 1855 coupled with a decrease in gold production, only about twenty-nine thousand people immigrated to the state that year. That number declined each year following to a low of twenty-three thousand in 1857 while twenty-three thousand departed in both 1855 and 1856 and seventeen thousand in 1857. But now that the railroad, a considerably easier route to California, was wide open there was a marked difference in the general character and objectives of the travelers compared to those of past years.

The Culebra Station at the summit of the mountains

In the early days of the gold rush most who came to California had no intention of staying and those who left went home for good, but now a great many California travelers came to stay and thus much greater numbers of women and children also made the trip, while those who returned to the east usually did so only for a visit. Californians had come to believe that their state was preferable to any other place they had been, so, while growth slowed after the Panama Railroad was completed, California鈥檚 population became more settled and permanent. Gradually these favorable impressions of California spread around the world and intelligent, well-informed people everywhere came to know California as a marvelous land, or as it was called in those days, a glorious country.


  1. Turbulent yet exciting times in California’s history I should think John. 馃檪

  2. Melinda Elliott says

    I am enjoying your website and all the information you have included. I grew up hearing about my 3rd great grandfather’s travels to the gold rush in 1849. He left with an oxen team and returned via Cape Horn with enough gold to purchase a large farm.

    Just yesterday I found a letter from one of my husband’s kin describing his journey to San Francisco in 1858. He said the ship was over crowded, lacked food and “everything going on except murder.” But he did also say that the travel only took 24 days from New York to San Francisco.

    In another letter, he mentioned about the steamer bringing mail and how everyone waited to hear their name called to be given a letter. I don’t think he actually made it to the gold fields; he had a job in San Francisco.

    Anyway, I am enjoying your blog! Thanks!

    • Thanks for writing, Melinda, I’m glad to hear that your great gandfather made enough money in the gold rush to buy a farm. And your husband’s relatives 24 day trip to California is also interesting. I wonder if he came through Panama. History is more fun when you can relate it directly to someone in your own family.

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