For the frenzied gold rushers who traveled to the California gold mines by sea, the voyage itself was truly a great adventure … just not the relatively safe, sane adventure they had envisioned when they boarded ships in Atlantic Coast ports. There were two routes: a sail of some 15,000 miles around Cape Horn, or a shorter one to Chagres, Panama, and then overland across the Isthmus, to board another, San Francisco bound ship on the Pacific side.
The ship Osceola left Philadelphia in January, 1849, with 65 passengers (12 more than was lawfully allowed); all but three of whom were terribly seasick within three days due to ferocious squalls and gales. Improperly secured water casks leaked to all-or-partly empty, prompting passengers to almost appreciate new storms, since at least rain replenished the freshwater supply. Severe cold, hail, and furious storms battered the ship for weeks off the Cape. At one point the brig was on the verge of breaking up, so the captain ordered most of the deck cargo jettisoned over the sides to relieve the strain; cargo which mostly consisted of the passengers’ own clothing and supplies. At Cape Horn the thrashing about was so violent that it broke up the steerage gallery and all of the stoves, which meant no hot meals until the ship made port at Talcahuana, Chile. After a journey of seven months, the Osceola dropped anchor in San Francisco Bay on August 5, 1849.
On February 17, 1849, the association calling themselves the Hartford Union Mining and Trading Company set sail from Hartford, Connecticut in the Henry Lee, a ship they had purchased and outfitted, for a journey around of Cape Horn. Besides two years’ provisions, they carried mining equipment, and a good amount of merchandise to sell in California. The weather was rough, cold and wet; like the Osceola’s passengers, they were seasick immediately. Lightning felled the main mast, which crashed to the deck in a tangle of rigging before they reached Cape Horn, where the weather was even more fearsome. They arrived in San Francisco September 13, after seven grueling months at sea.
Though the Panama route involved less prolonged turbulence of weather, it was miserable just the same. Even early-days travelers were frequently astonished to find scores of other gold seekers there in Chagres before them—who had already hired all the canoes, the sole means of conveyance across the Isthmus—necessitating waits of several days in a filthy port bereft of even the simplest civilized accommodations. Furthermore, the Isthmus teemed with malignant fevers. Not until 1855, when the Panama Railroad reached completion, did the route become relatively secure for travelers.
The potential for shipwreck was always present. Between 1851 and 1853, eleven passenger steamships went under on the Cape Horn voyage, and many early sailings on the Panama route ended in catastrophe, too. Three later, horrific shipwrecks include the Yankee Blade in 1854, the burning at sea of the Golden Gate in 1862; and that era’s equivalent Titanic disaster, the sinking of the Central America in 1857, with 423 persons dead and eight million in California gold swept to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.