During the California Gold Rush, a number of steam-powered ships chugged up and down between San Francisco Bay and the major northern rivers, carrying passengers and mail to inland river landings—and on their return trip to the Bay, hulls filled with gold nuggets for shipment to East Coast banks.
In 1849, the small ship Lady Washington was said to be first steamer to puff up the Sacramento River to a point above the entrance to the American River, taking several days to voyage from the coast to up-river settlements. It was followed later that year by the Sacramento, another vessel with a small-capacity engine, which was eventually used as a ferryboat to transport passengers and freight between the city of Sacramento and the communities across the Sacramento River in Yolo County. The diminutive steamer Mint made several trips up and back from the coast in the late summer of 1849, and opportunists made haste to provide dozens of small watercraft of every description, but by then thousands of gold-frenzied men had arrived by sea and more were arriving by land. Restless crowds of just-debarked passengers who had sailed around Cape Horn, or boarded a north-bound ship at Panama City, milled about San Francisco’s docks—anxiously awaiting transport to the gold fields.
In the fall of 1849, the arrival of the magnificent, 530-ton, seagoing side-wheeler Senator (pictured above) brought a measure of relief. Outclassing all earlier ships in both amenities and speed, the Senator had staterooms on deck for first class passengers, a salon where they were served meals on tables set with custom made, solid silver tableware; and a separate ladies’ cabin where the women could retreat from smoking and drinking men. In the forward section, the ship had a separate cabin for steering-class passengers, complete with kitchen facilities so they could prepare their own meals.
On Monday, November 5, 1849, the Senator, the first ocean-going steamer to make this trip, departed San Francisco at 8:00 a.m. and arrived at Sacramento, the gateway to the gold districts, at 6:00 p.m.—a ten-hour voyage heralded as a feat of great speed.
Following this initial success, the ship’s agents announced a two round-trip per week schedule—increased in March 1850 to three round trips per week. The fare to Sacramento was $25.00 one-way, for passengers. Freight was charged at $2.00 per hundred pounds for heavy goods, and seventy-five cents per foot on goods measured by bulk instead of weight. The ship also stopped downstream at Benecia, charging a one-way passenger fare of $15.00. With minimal competition on the river at first, it usually had 300 passengers, and 200 to 300 tons of freight aboard for each trip. Senator was one of the most successful steamships of the era; but after more river steamers became available, it embarked on a 26-year career in ocean waters, sailing between San Francisco and California’s southern ports.
Meanwhile, others had entered the river transport business, escalating competition to fierce heights as all the newcomers fought for customers. By 1851 fares had been reduced to ruinous levels, although certain ships were able to maintain a unique market niche. The sternwheeler Governor Dana, for example, built in Maine and shipped to California in the early 1850s around Cape Horn in pieces, traveled exclusively between Sacramento and the Feather River District.
Then in 1854, a group of entrepreneurs formed the California Steam Navigation Company, which consolidated river-steamer lines in the San Francisco Bay area, and on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. By buying out smaller, under-capitalized outfits the company established a profitable near-monopoly, effectively ending cut-throat competition on the rivers. It also acquired ocean-going, United States mail delivery steamships. Some of the California Steam Navigation Company’s more famous watercraft included the New World, the Confidence, the Wilson G. Hunt, the Helen Hensley, the Urilda, and the Cornelia. Its steamers departed San Francisco’s Pacific Street Wharf daily for Sacramento and Stockton, where passengers and freight could connect with other ships, or with overland transport, to the up-country gold mines.