Steamship Mail in the 19th Century

The Tide Turns

The Passage

All Aboard

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The North Star of Vanderbilt's line, built in 1852. (Artwork by James Bard.)

Passengers on Panama steamers frequently complained of overcrowding. When the North Star of Vanderbilt’s line left New York in 1863, the ship carried 925 travelers in addition to officers and crew, totaling about 1,200 passengers.1 According to a passenger aboard the North Star, there were only four restroom facilities for the use of about three hundred people of the first and second cabin. More importantly, only two of the seven lifeboats were in a suitable condition to be launched in the case of an emergency, the remaining boats serving as additional storage for baggage. Of course, these were the conditions of only one ship and Vanderbilt’s fleet was frequently noted as one of the least well maintained. In February 1850, John B. Pierce wrote to his wife from the U.S. Mail steamer Cherokee.

“We have no noise or boisterous mirth, each passing the time as best suits his taste… some reading, others smoking, others in little knots conversing… some studying maps of gold regions and all apparently good-natured and happy.”2

Mail agents were initially responsible for the safe-keeping of mail through its journey to the opposite coast. Agents were appointed by the Post Office Department to accompany the mail across the isthmus, sort the mail en route and deliver it to the postmaster upon reaching its destination. This system was abandoned in 1853, in favor of the more efficient arrangement of resident agents stationed on each side of the Isthmus.3 The ship’s purser was then in charge of the security of mail at sea.

Across the Isthmus

Passengers and freight that disembarked on the Atlantic side of the isthmus did so at the mouth of the Chagres River near the town of Aspinwall, named for the president of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, William H. Aspinwall (the local community always referred to the town as Colón). Whether on the Atlantic or Pacific side of the isthmus, to reach the other side and find a ship to their destination, passengers had to travel overland by foot or if they were lucky (and had the money), by mule. This journey was lamented because Panama was not a region where travelers wanted to linger. Many worried that the miasma harbored by the warm climate would cause “Panama Fever.” Fatality due to yellow fever and cholera was particularly gruesome during the summer of 1852. Over one-third of the passengers travelling eastward to board the Philadelphia died before reaching New York.4

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The town of Aspinwall, which is present-day Colón, Panama. (Harper’s Weekly, April 11, 1885.)

At the dawn of steamship mail service in 1848, no provision had been made by either company for transporting mail across the isthmus. The U.S. postmaster general hastily ordered the Panama-Astoria route to include isthmian transit in October 1848, which the Pacific Mail Company agreed to carry out for an additional subsidy.5 But the quality of service was notably poor so, in 1849, the transportation of mail across the isthmus was put in the hands of the government of New Granada. New Granada contracted the service to Panamanian business firms, whose service proved to be no more efficient than that offered by the Pacific Mail Company.6 The transit of mail across the isthmus became the responsibility of the Panama Railroad in 1852, though the actual railroad was not completed until the end of January 1855.7

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The Pacific terminus of the Panama Railroad, 1855. (Sketch by Robert Tomes.)

The journey westward across the isthmus ended in Panama City.  In order to board the ship waiting off the coast, passengers had to travel to the ship in a native boat called a “bungo.” One passenger making his way out to the Oregon wrote,

We tumbled in among the stone ballast of a large bungo provided to convey us to the U.S. Mail Steamer, ‘Oregon,’ which lay at anchor some three miles out in the bay. After receiving our complement of fifteen or twenty passengers… we succeeded in prevailing upon our swarthy navigators to shove off… hoisting a bull’s hide and leg-of-mutton sail on the rude bean poles used for masts, and tugging at the clumsy oars, el patron… in due time laid us alongside.”8


Ships then made their way from Panama to San Francisco. As they approached the bay, semaphore signals were relayed to a station on Telegraph Hill, where the signal was repeated for the town. As the ships entered the harbor, their guns were fired and crowds of people gathered awaiting the newspapers and intelligence they carried. The mail was quickly transferred from each ship to the post office where it was sorted and readied for pick up on the following days.

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Miners during the Gold Rush, circa 1900.

It was much more expensive to operate steamers in the Pacific than the Atlantic, largely due to the difficulty in finding satisfactory coal deposits on the west coast. Coal from the Eastern United States and Britain was often be shipped westward around Cape Horn by sailing ship for use by Pacific steamers. There were also very few facilities for ship repair and maintenance on the Pacific Coast, so it was necessary for ships to carry tools and spare parts with them wherever they traveled. And then, of course, there was the labor shortage because the territory was sparsely settled and those travelling westward aboard steamers as crewmembers were likely to abandon their posts for the gold mines upon reaching California.

The day on which steamers would depart from San Francisco to carry mail and passengers eastward was known as “Steamer Day.”9 This was the time to settle accounts, send remittances to eastern creditors and maintain mercantile affairs. Early in the operation of the mail service, steamer day occurred only once per month, but as sailings became more frequent, steamer day occurred fortnightly, then every ten days. When sailings eventually occurred weekly, California merchants agreed to hold back and collect city bills only twice per month.

Stormy Weather

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Broadside promoting the services of both the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and the U.S. Mail Steamship Company.


In September 1850, a proposed amendment to the Naval Appropriation bill to fill the need for increased service in the Pacific by rearranging steamship service was struck down because of its potential to create a monopoly in the transport of steamship mail.10 To remedy the situation, in October, 1850 an executive order was issued to increase service on the Pacific and postmasters were ordered to send mail in only ships contracted by the federal government. Importantly, it was also stipulated that no member of Congress be admitted any benefit from the postal contracts aside from being a stockholder. The Pacific Mail Steamship Company paid its first returns to stockholders in July 1850.11 Pacific Mail gave a dividend of fifty percent, which was fair given the initial resources needed to establish service and the overarching uncertainty of economic success in the infant industry.

The Pacific Mail Steamship Company and the U.S. Mail Steamship Company, the foremost steamer lines of the Panama route, cooperated in the transport of mail, each in firm control of their side of the country. When it came to passengers and freight, however, there were no holds barred.  To undercut a competitor, companies would reduce their fares to make the opposing business unprofitable or purchase the ships of the opposing fleet and add them to their own.

The U.S. Mail and Pacific Mail lines were actively competitive until January 1851, when they signed an agreement to diffuse their rivalry by sharing passenger and freight services just as they had the mail.12 The U.S. Mail sold its four steamers operating on the Pacific to Pacific Mail and the steamers that were in construction by Pacific Mail for use on the Atlantic were transferred to the U.S. Mail Company.

Entering the Fray

In 1851, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Edward Mills entered the fray by establishing their own passenger lines. Competition from Vanderbilt and Mills reduced the fares of all lines to $80 for cabin rates down from $300 in 1849.13 Rates slowly climbed upward again.

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Cornelius Vanderbilt of the Accessory Transit Company

Vanderbilt’s main strategy to wrest business from the mail lines was to open a route through the Isthmus of Nicaragua. This route was actually better than the route across Panama. It was shorter by nearly 300 miles14 and could be crossed by water through the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua, with only eighteen miles needed to be traveled overland. Because of Nicaragua’s higher latitude, the climate was cooler and assumed to be less likely to harbor tropical diseases. Under the title of the Accessory Transit Company, Vanderbilt gained a charter from the Nicaraguan government for travel across the isthmus and made an offer to Congress to carry the mail and make his ships available during wartime.15

In 1853, while Vanderbilt was spending a holiday in Europe, his business representatives Charles Morgan and C. K. Garrison transferred the company into their own hands.16 Garrison then signed an agreement with the San Francisco agent of Pacific Mail for a working arrangement to settle competition between the two companies. Vanderbilt was not one to admit defeat. He soon partnered with Edward Mills to form a new company, the Independent Line. In 1854, after suffering severely from competition with Vanderbilt and Mills, Pacific Mail and U.S. Mail lines together with the Nicaragua Transit Line of Morgan and Garrison jointly purchased all ships operated by the Independent Line and withdrew them from service.17

Panama Railroad

In 1855, the mail lines gained a towering advantage over the Nicaraguan steamer when the Panama Railroad opened. Passengers travelling through Panama were now able to cross the isthmus in less than a day, making Panama the preferred route.18 American physician and diplomat Robert Tomes travelled the Panama route in 1855. Tomes remarked,

“ was difficult to appreciate the enterprise, the skill, the labor, and the suffering which had been so prodigally expended in effecting what came to us only in the shape of comfort and enjoyment. How rapidly we glided mile after mile, and so smoothly, that the ashes were not shaken from the cigar we were smoking in such comfortable contentment, and yet there was hardly a food of the way which was not a prodigy of laborious enterprise.”19

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A map of the Panama Railroad, 1861.

Furthermore, in February 1856, President Rivas of Nicaragua annulled the charter of the Accessory Transit Company thus halting the operations of the Nicaragua Transit Company, which operated by virtue of the charter.20 The Panama Railroad, together with the worsening political conditions of Nicaragua, spelled the demise of the Nicaraguan Transit Company.

Over the next several years, Morgan, Garrison and Vanderbilt jockeyed for a position in Nicaragua, all hoping to reinstate transit through the region. William Walker, a southern-born lawyer possessed with the idea of establishing English-speaking slave states south of the border, frequently appeared as a supporting character in the antics of the steamship entrepreneurs.21

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Map of the Straits of Tehuantepec, 1898.

After signing the Gadsden Treaty with Mexico in 1853, the United States entertained the idea of yet another route, this time by way of Tehuantepec, Mexico.22 In the following years, the Post Office Department proposed a mail route between New Orleans and San Francisco through Tehuantepec. The route was advertised twice to transport companies but they gave no satisfactory bids. Postmaster General Aaron V. Brown argued for the strategic significance of the route, that it could be protected much more easily in times of war as it used the Gulf of Mexico, rather than passing through the Caribbean. In June 1858 after then receiving several bids, Brown awarded the contract to the Louisiana Tehuantepec Company.23 Ultimately, the results of the service were disappointing in comparison to the Butterfield Overland service (which operated across the southern U.S.) and the Tehuantepec route was abandoned in 1859.24

1) Kemble, 66.
2) Kemble, 148.
3) Kemble, 204.
4) Kemble, 163.
5) Kemble, 197.
6) Ibid.
7) Kemble, 198.
8) Kemble, 151.
9) Kemble 152.
10) Kemble, 41.
11) Kemble, 46.
12) Kemble, 51.
13) Kemble, 55.
14) Kemble, 59.
15) Ibid.
16) Kemble, 66.
17) Ibid.
18) Kemble, 72.
19) Robert Tomes, “Panama in 1855,” (New York: Harper & Bros., 1855), 75.
20) Kemble, 75.
21) Walker, who had barely escaped alive in 1853 after invading Mexico, turned his attentions to Nicaragua in 1855. He managed to talk himself into a partnership with the head of the nation’s Liberal Party, helping them in a revolt, and maneuvering himself into the nation’s leader. It did not last.
22) Kemble, 79.
23) Kemble, 80.
24) Kemble, 80.