Steamship Mail in the 19th Century

Rough Seas

The Central America

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The Panic of 1857 was caused in part by the sinking of treasure aboard the Central America. (Harper’s Weekly, October 31, 1857)

The Central America departed from Havana on September 8, 1857 and was bound for New York when the ship encountered a strong wind off of the Florida coast.1 The storm severely damaged the Central America and her head of steam went down causing the ship to lose headway. As water entered through her ports, fire in the boilers was extinguished and there was little hope of regaining a head of steam. The Central America was wrecked by the seas, with 423 lives and $8,000,000 in treasure lost.2 A large portion of the gold aboard the ship was intended for New York Banks—Wells Fargo and the American Exchange Bank each expected 20 percent of the treasure. The enormous loss of gold threw United States industries into debt, contributing to the Panic of 1857 and consequent economic depression.

After the wreck, J.A. Stone put words to the tune of “Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny,” to rebuke the U.S. Mail Steamship Company which faced enormous public scrutiny after the wreck of the Central America.

Loss of the Central America

The “Central America,” painted so fine,
     Went down like a thousand of brick,
And all the old tubs that are now on the line
     Will follow her, two at a lick.
‘Twould be very fine were the owners aboard,
     And sink where they never would rise;
‘Twould any amount of amusement afford,
     And cancel a million of lies.

These murdering villains will ne’er be forgot,
     As long as America stands;
Their bones should be left in the ocean to rot,
     And their souls be at Satan’s commands.
They’ve murdered and swindled the people for years,
     And never will be satisfied
Till death puts an end to their earthly careers,
     Then may they with demons reside.3

The Golden Gate

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The Golden Gate burns at sea on July 27, 1862.

The Pacific Mail steamship Golden Gate burned at sea on July 27, 1862, with two hundred and twenty three lives and over a million in treasure lost.4 Pacific Mail faced very little public scrutiny because it was recognized that fire aboard a wooden ship at sea was impossible to overcome. Generously, the directors of Pacific Mail voted to give half pay from July 1962 until January 1864 to the widows and orphans of crew members who lost their lives.

Mr. A. Bates, one of the rescued passengers aboard the Golden Gate, recalled, While standing at the bows, grasping a rope, a little girl -- a lovely child, about 8 years of age, named Addie Manchester, came up to me, and said, ‘O, mister, can you swim?’ I told her I could, and would try to save her if she would do just as I told her. She said:—‘Save me, do, please. I don’t want to be drowned!’”5

The story of Mr. Bates inspired a song dedicated to the survivors of the wreck of the Golden Gate.

“I Do Not Want To Be Drowned”

“On deck there is terror and agony wild,
     ‘The ship is on fire’ is the ominous sound;
And pleading for life hear a motherless child
     ‘Oh save me, do please I don’t want to be drowned.’
‘Cling close to me Addie’ a hero replied,
     ‘I’ll risk my own life little darling for thee.’
Then sprang with her over the ship’s heated side,
     From merciless flames to the pitiless sea.

They’re riding the wave, he is breasting the foam,
     She’s clinging for life to the neck of the brave
But over them rushes the breakers’ high comb
     And Addie sinks under the ravenous wave.
Yet never despair for at mercy’s command,
     The ocean its prey shall uninjured festore.
See! Addie is seized by a rescuing hand,
     And stands like a nymph on the desolate shore.”6

1) Kemble, 142.
2) Ibid.
3) Mary Hill, “Gold: The California Story,” (University of California Press, 2002), 197.
4) Kemble, 145.
5) Geo H. Baker, “I do not want to be drowned: a song respectfully dedicated to the survivors of the wreck of the Golden Gate,” (San Francisco, Chas. F. Robbins & Co.).
6) Ibid.