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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Fatal Contest

Haste was the imperative to bedazzled gold-rushers, men near-frantic to get to the gold fields and stake their claim on a promising slice of dirt or watercourse, before someone else got there first. The wonder of rapid steamship navigation, versus slower-moving sailing vessels, became the dominant mode of ocean voyages to—and river travel within—the Golden State, soon after the electrifying gold discovery in 1848.

California’s riverboat captains commonly stoked their boilers to produce greater speed during the Gold Rush, well aware that the fastest ships gained more paying passengers than the competition. They were also well aware that the pressurized steam trapped in the boiler, which drove the pistons that turned the ship’s paddle wheel, was inherently dangerous. How much pressure could the boiler stand? With metallurgy still an inexact science, shipboard engineers had to estimate how much pressure the boiler could withstand, and they didn't always estimate correctly.

Nevertheless, the opportunity for an amusing one-upmanship contest was irresistible to an insanely reckless captain who placed the speed of his watercraft over the safety of his passengers and crew.

This contest—by no means the only one in those years—developed on the Sacramento River when the steamship Pearl’’s captain bet cigars with his crew that he could out-run the steamship Enterprise coming alongside them. It was January 27, 1855, and both ships were returning from Marysville to the docks at Sacramento City.

It was an ill-starred bet. The sudden, flaming explosion of the Pearl’’s over-wrought boiler could be heard in the city thirteen blocks distant from the mouth of the American River just north of town, where the disaster occurred.

Boatmen trolled the river for days, finally recovering seventy bodies that were laid out in a public building, in hopes they might be recognized. Few were claimed, although the remains of the Pearl’s captain and members of his crew were identified. Meanwhile, Sacramento City ordered a public funeral on January 29 for the upwards of forty victims that had already been recovered. Three thousand people, including seven hundred Chinese mourning their eighteen dead, attended the solemn ceremony.

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