The Canal Zone marked the centennial of the 1849 California Gold Rush with a series of four commemorative stamps. The stamps underscored the Isthmus of Panama's significant role as a major transit point for gold seekers in that historic era. The stamps were in denominations of 3-, 6-, 12-, and 18-cents and were placed on sale to the public on June 1, 1949.
The Bureau of Engraving and Printing produced 500,000 of the three lower values and 525,000 of the 18-cent. No record seems to exist of any destruction of these stamps, so we may assume they were all sold.
The Gold Rush Centennial stamps are frequently seen as a set on first day covers prepared by at least twenty different cachet producers working both in the United States and on the Isthmus. Commemorative first day covers and also examples of these stamps used either singly or in combination with others on non-philatelic covers are enthusiastically sought by many collectors.
The 3-cent Arriving at Chagres regular issue stamp (Scott 142) is the low value of the four-stamp series commemorating the centennial of the California Gold Rush. Since gold seekers arrived by the thousands on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus, a scene showing a sailing vessel was selected for the stamp. The ship appears below San Lorenzo, the old Spanish fort that overlooked the mouth of the Chagres River. The mouth of the Chagres River was the entryway to the then-department of Panama now known as Colombia. A makeshift town called 'Yankee Chagres' was soon established across the Chagres River from the fort, and from there the Argonauts traveled up-river to the Pacific Ocean port at Panama City. This 3-cent stamp depicts a small boatload of 49ers heading towards the beach, the initial step on their trek across the Isthmus of Panama.
Some 500,000 of the 3-cent Gold Rush Centennial stamps were printed, all of which were sold over time.
This stamp is usually found either on a regular or 'boat-mail' letter addressed to the United States or together with its sisters on first day covers. All of the Canal Zone post offices of the time were equipped to postmark first day covers, and as a result collectors seek out complete sets of stamps from each office. The 3-cent Gold Rush Centennial stamp may also be found on non-philatelic mail in combination with other stamps. Multiples and usages to foreign destinations and special services such as registration are popular.
The 6-cent Up the Chagres River regular stamp (Scott 143) is part of the Gold Rush Centennial series issued on June 1, 1949, and made available at all Canal Zone post offices for postmarking. It depicts a small native boat called a 'bungo' ascending the Chagres to a point that it reached the head of navigation and met the old Spanish trail at the townsite of Las Cruces. This was a very difficult part of the trek, especially during the dry season, when the Chagres did not flow freely. This 6-cent stamp was meant to be used for double-weight letters addressed to the United States which were to go by boat or alone to pay the then-current airmail rate to the States.
The Bureau of Engraving and Printing produced 500,000 of these stamps, and all of them were sold.
The 6-cent Gold Rush Centennial stamp is frequently found with the other stamps of this series on cacheted first day covers by about twenty different publishers. It is found postmarked at all the then-current Canal Zone post offices. Examples on non-philatelic mail are fairly common in its intended roles, but in combination with other stamps it is surprisingly hard to find.
The Canal Zone Postal Service issued the 12-cent Las Cruces Trail to Panama regular stamp on June 1, 1949, to mark the centennial of the California Gold Rush. The Postal Service issued four stamps on this date. It depicts a miner with axe leading heavily laden mules over the dangerously deteriorated Spanish-built Las Cruces Trail to Panama City. This was perhaps the most difficult and perilous part of the twenty-mile journey to Panama City, especially during the May-December 'rainy season'. The 12-cent stamp was intended for use on double-weight airmail letters to the United States or quadruple-weight boat mail letters. It was most often used, however, in combination with various Gold Rush centennial stamps or with other stamps in a 'make-up' rate situation.
Half million 12-cent Gold Rush Centennial stamps were printed.
Philatelically, it is most often seen with its sisters on cacheted first day covers created by a rather large group of artist/producers both on the Isthmus and in the United States. Some 31,000 were sold on the first day at the various Canal Zone post offices, the least number of any of the four stamps in this series. Single usages are very scarce, and it is rarely seen in combination with other stamps.
The 18-cent Leaving Panama for San Francisco regular stamp (Scott 145) was first sold to the public on June 1, 1949. It is the high value of a four-stamp series marking the centennial of the California Gold Rush and the part Panama played in that historic era. The design features a representation of the side-wheel steamer/sailing vessel the S.S. Panama of the Panama Mail Steamship Line, which plied the Pacific Ocean between San Francisco and Panama during that period. The ship is just getting upstream for an outbound trip, and the City of Panama is in the right background. In the left background are the islands in the Bay of Panama, where these ships actually anchored because the reefs and the extreme tidal fluctuations (in excess of twenty feet) made it impossible to actually pull-up to the shore.
The 18-cent Gold Rush Centennial stamp had a number of possible uses if used singly—for example, used when the minimum registration fee was fifteen cents and ship mail was three cents or when a triple-weight airmail letter to the United States cost eighteen cents, as did five- to six-ounce seamail letters. Since these usages were not often necessary, the stamp usually appears in combination with other stamps in a 'make-up' rate scenario.
The number of these stamps shipped to the Canal Zone numbered 525,000. This was 25,000 more than any of the other stamps, yet they were all sold for use on mail and to collectors. For example, nearly 33,000 were sold on the first day of issue, most of which were put on first day covers at any of the Canal Zone post offices open at that time. The 18-cent stamp is not often seen on non-philatelic mail, but relatively large numbers of them are seen on packets of stamps sent from the Canal Zone Philatelic Agency to American collectors. Cacheted first day covers by a fairly large number of artist/producers from both the Isthmus and the United States are common, and they usually display all four of the Gold Rush Centennial stamps. Such covers from the smaller townsites and military bases are much scarcer than those from the major towns and the Philatelic Agency. Its most common use was in combination with other stamps, none of which are often seen.