Ocean Steamers

In the years before steamships, clipper ships provided passage from the East Coast to the West Coast by way of Cape Horn. In 1851 the Flying Cloud, true to its name, carried letters and passengers from New York around Cape Horn to San Francisco in a record-breaking 89 days.

However, a three-month journey was not fast enough for those eager to make their way to California following the discovery of gold there in 1848. Nor was it fast enough for those already in California anxiously awaiting news from home. Responding to the jump in demand, coastal steamers quickly became the central communication link between the East and West Coasts.

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This map of the Americas is used in the exhibit to display the routes used by ships carrying mail, cargo and passengers from the East to the West coast.

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The Central America, with 423 passengers and crew, tons of mail and freight, and over $1 million in gold on board, sunk in a storm off Cape Hatteras on September 12, 1857. Investigators found that the ship's owner, the United States Mail Company, knew the vessel was not seaworthy, but had considered repairs too costly.

The Pacific Mail Steamship Company contracted with the U.S. government to carry the mail from Panama north to San Francisco by ship. By mid-century two companies monopolized the Panamanian Isthmus route, linking East and West Coast communications. George Law's U.S. Mail Steamship Company operated on the Atlantic coast, and William H. Aspinwall's Pacific Mail Steamship Company, on the Pacific. Tickets from New York to California ranged from $400 in first class to $125 in steerage, and passengers paid their own way across the Panamanian Isthmus.

The 50-mile journey by mule, wagon, or on foot along jungle trails was difficult, and many fell ill. In 1851 the Vanderbilt Line opened a route through Nicaragua, all but 12 miles of it by water, giving California-bound travelers a more comfortable alternative to Panama. The exhausting overland trip across Panama became faster and easier in 1855 when the Panamanian Railroad began operations.