Steamship service to gold rush California begins

SS California

On October 6, 1848 the SS California departed New York on its maiden voyage. With the Mexican War over and California now American territory the Pacific Mail Steamship Company had acquired a contract to deliver mail from Panama to San Francisco. A United States Steamship Company ship would bring mail to the Chagres River where Pacific Mail would ferry it up river by canoe, then haul it by mule along ancient Spanish trails across the last 20 miles of the isthmus to Panama City on the Pacific Coast. After the California sailed news of the gold discovery reached the east coast and hundreds of men left for Panama and crossed to Panama City along the same route as the mail. When the California arrived on January 17 over 700 men waited for passage to the gold fields. And when the she docked in San Francisco 40 days later with 400 of them aboard both the passengers and crew abandoned ship for the mines. It was four months before the California sailed again.

Panama, the Chagres River by Charles Christian Nahl

Soon the SS Oregon and the SS Panama were in service. But malaria, typhus and yellow fever were rife in the jungles of Panama, the trip by canoe and mule an inefficient ordeal. A better way across the isthmus was needed. So William H. Aspinwall, the founder of Pacific Mail, organized the Panama Railroad and in 1850 construction began. The demand was so great that the railroad began carrying passengers after only seven miles of track were laid. At Culebra the continental divide was crossed 37 miles from the Atlantic and met up with track laid from the Pacific side. On January 28, 1855 the first passenger train crossed the 47 miles from Atlantic to Pacific, instantly making transportation to America’s west coast easier and safer.

Culebra Summit

In 1858 the Butterfield mail route, running through the southwestern United States, opened from St. Louis to San Francisco and Pacific Mail’s delivery share declined. When the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 west coast mail service was over for Pacific Mail, but in 1867 the company had opened service between San Francisco and Yokohama, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Pacific Mail brought many of the Chinese who built the transcontinental railroad to America. PMSS was taken over by Southern Pacific in 1893 then by the Robert Dollar Co. in 1925 and finally by American Presidential Lines in 1938.

Pacific Mail Ad 1906



  1. Kathy Jastrzembski says

    An ancestor of my husband is said to have traveled home from the gold rush in 1852 or late 1851 on the steamship Philadelphia. He is said to have died en route. He was headed to MO. Does the name of the ship seem likely to you? I have no idea if he traveled across Panama or Nicaragua.
    Thank you, Kathy J

    • Hi Kathy,

      Indeed, the SS Philadelphia made the voyage from the mouth of the Chagres River in Panama to New Orleans and back from 1850 until the Civil War. It was very common for travelers to catch malaria or some other tropical disease while in Panama. Theodore Judah, the engineer responsible for the transcontinental railroad, died that way, and a young Lt. U. S. Grant led a party of soldiers and their dependents who came down with cholera while in Panama. It was a dangerous place.

      Here’s a web site where you might be able to find your relatives name on the passenger lists.


  2. David N. Thatcher, Sr. says


    My 3rd great grandfather John Thatcher b. approx. 1817-1818 was an original 49er. He lived in Rehoboth, MA and was of English decent and allegedly departed from the Port of New Bedford, MA in 1849 for New York City and sailed off to California via Panama. According to family members John never returned from the west coast. I found a J. Thatcher registered as a passenger on the Steamship California which sailed out of N.Y. on Oct. 11, 1849. I found a record for a J. Thatcher who sailed from California to New York on board the ship Georgia which landed in Chagres on January 6, 1851. I don’t know if this was my relative or not. I also noticed in the ships passenger manifest a number appearing after each man’s name, i.e. 37, which reappeared after several others names. Was this to denote the mining company that they were affiliated with? Any information that you could provide on this long lost family member would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

    David N. Thatcher, Sr.

    • Thanks for sharing the story of your great grandfather, David. I’m sorry he didn’t make it home.

      I do think you have some of your facts confused. The SS California originally sailed from New York on October 6, 1848, a full year before your relative left for the mines. After that the California made a regular run between Panama City and California. The SS Georgia on the other hand regularly ran between New York and Aspinwall on the Chagres River. It seems more likely that on his return trip, if he were the J. Thatcher in question, he sailed to Panama City on the California, went down the Chagres River by canoe and sailed to New York on the Georgia. In other words you seem to have your ships backwards, each sailing on the wrong side of Panama.

      If he did die on the trip, and so many did, he likely contracted malaria or yellow fever along the Chagres River and died on the way back. If that happened who knows what became of his body. He may have been buried at sea or in New York. There should be a record somewhere, if you can find it. One would think that someone would have written the family, but maybe that wasn’t possible. I am sorry for your loss.

      I don’t have any idea what the number 37 means either, unless it’s an age or a stateroom assignment, but that’s only a guess. Here are a few web sites that may help some. Good luck!

  3. Fascinating episode in US history. Over a period of just a couple of decades there were so many competing routes to get mail and people to California.

    • And the transcontinental railroad replaced them all, Ron. But until then the best and easiest was Panama and the Panama Railroad. You’re right on about the time span too. Gold was found in 1848 and the railroad was done in 1867. That’s 19 years sandwiched around the Civil War. A remarkable time for America.

  4. Carol A Reel says

    Such a good article…I am writing the story of my GGGrandfather, his brothers and friends from the Macon Miss. area who were in the gold fields in Yuba and Santa Clara Counties and perhaps other areas from 1850 to 1853. I am attaching a photograph of that GGGrandfather in what I believe was his “traveling garb” for the trip from New Orleans to Panama and then by sailing ship to San Francisco. This is a tintype, so it would be a very early one if it was made during this period, but my real questions regard his dress. What does it tell you about him?

    Thanks so much
    Carol R

    • Thanks for writing, Carol. I hear from a lot of people who had relatives who went to the gold rush. I didn’t see the picture of your GGGrandfather but there are a few things I can tell you. Yuba county and the area around the 3 branches of the Yuba River was a prime gold mining area and it’s likely he found some gold there, but Santa Clara County is south of San Francisco near the bottom of the San Francisco Bay. If he was there he wasn’t mining. Now days that county is the heart of Silicon Valley but in the early 1850s it was mostly open ground.

  5. Carol A Reel says

    I’m sorry, I’ve had a problem attaching the photo. Perhaps you could tell me how to do that? It is currently in a jpg format.

    Carol R

    • I don’t think WordPress is set up to take photos in the comments section, Carol. I doubt I could tell you much from his dress anyway. He likely wore his Sunday best for the picture and it may well have been clothes he brought with him. He would have looked like any other young man from Mississippi.

  6. Carol A Reel says

    I know his brother was in the Yuba County 1850 Census and the story he told my grandmother was that he “made more money growing potatoes than he did looking for gold.” So, he may have started out with his brother and then gone on to what became Santa Clara County. One man who was a part of their group left a diary describing the view from a mountain of San Francisco about “50 miles away, with ships in the harbor.” I don’t have a clue where that might have been.

    Thanks for your response. Every little piece helps with the puzzle.

    Carol R

    • You could well be right that he went somewhere south of San Francisco and farmed, even for potatoes, Carol. San Francisco had grown so quickly and continued to grow as people poured into California. Food was always needed. Men who had trouble finding gold often found other sometimes lucrative ways to make money. Opportunity was everywhere. Men hunted along the shore of the bay. Duck and goose were popular foods. They fished that same bay. They took eggs from the rookeries at the Farallon Islands off the Golden Gate. And they started to farm and raise cattle. About this time another man began to farm across the bay in what is now San Leandro. Up until after WWII Santa Clara county was mostly farms and orchards. Then urban sprawl hit.
      There are two possible mountains near San Francisco. Both would have a view of the harbor. The first and closest is Mt. Tamalpais just north of the city in Marin County. It is a lot closer than 50 miles away but if you were to add the winding route to the top it might seem like 50 miles in the end. Across the bay in Contra Costa County, east of the cities of Walnut Creek and Concord and south of Pittsburg, is Mt. Diablo. It is, I would guess, almost exactly 50 miles from San Francisco and on a clear day you could see the city and the bay around it from the peak. Not far away is Benicia a port city on the Carquinez Straight that led to the gold fields. This would be my best guess where he was when he wrote about the view.
      Find a map with the geography of the area and locate the these two peaks. Find Santa Clara county and look at the creeks that flow into the bay. He had to get his potatoes to market somehow and by boat would be the easiest way. Maybe he mentioned where he shipped them from. Otherwise he had to take them by wagon. He would likely pass something that has left its name for you to see. His wagon would most certainly go by SFs Mission Delores and travel from there into town by the old plank toll road. Good luck. Tracing the past can take a lot of time but it can be awfully rewarding.

  7. Carol A Reel says

    Thank you so much for your detailed comments and information. I have access to part of a diary kept by one of his cousins which describes the view of the San Francisco harbor in elegant detail. As for the photo, I have studied 19th century garb a bit and frankly, I have not seen any photo of a man dressed as in this one. It’s nothing like the “Sunday go to meeting” dress found in most photos of the period. I’ve shared it with professional historians of the period and none could offer any suggestions other than the hat looked like hats sometimes worn by Miss. River boat crews. (There’s no evidence that he ever worked on a boat, and his family had the money to subsidize his trip.) Now, I’m beginning to think about how he made it back home. It must have been an uneventful trip as he left no clues. I’m wondering if he might have “signed on” to a ship to “work” his way home. Do you have any sites that might show the clothing non-professional sailors wore at that time? He seems to be wearing new “jeans” folded up at the ankles, boots, a vest which may have a money belt under it, a pistol on a lanyard, a long sleeved shirt which appears to be a soft fabric like wool, a white startched collar and the “cap” set at a “jaunty” angle.
    I’m looking for any clue I can find to “flesh out” his story.
    Thanks loads, Carol

  8. Jo Robles Faubush says

    Looks like I may be too late for your reply but I’ll ask anyway. My great great grandparents came to California from New Orleans by way of the Isthmus. He came in 1850 she followed a year later with baby. I have been unable to find any trace of their travel from New Orleans or Panama City. They were William Thomas Luddy and Joanna Bergen Luddy. They came to Columbia, California where gold had been discovered in 1850. They stayed there raising their family of nine children.
    They mined as did most of their boys and they became part of the growing then dwindling community when the gold ran out.

  9. Peter Stines says

    One of my ancestors went to the Gold Rush. He left from Galveston Texas between 1849-1851. He died crossing the Isthmus of Panama. Are there any ship passenger lists that might reveal more information ? His name was William A. Smith. Native of New York. Married with step-daughter in Texas.

  10. Very nice article. I absolutely love this site. Keep it up!

  11. Good info. Lucky me I came across your site by accident (stumbleupon).
    I have saved it for later!

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