The Sinking of the “Golden Gate”


By Nancy Pope, Head Curator, History Department

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Illustrators Currier & Ives produced this lithograph of the last hours of the “SS Golden Gate”

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 led to a rush of hopeful fortune hunters to the west coast. The Post Office Department kept the area’s inhabitants connected with the rest of the world by moving mail on steamboats that traveled to Central America, where mail (and passengers) traveled across either the Panamanian or Nicaraguan isthmus to the opposite shore where steamers waited to take them the rest of the way.

Among the grandest steamers running on the Pacific side was the “S.S. Golden Gate,” operated by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. The PMSC was under contract to the Department to carry mail between San Francisco and Panama, and had been doing so successfully since its first run between the two harbors in 1851. On the night of July 27, 1862, that streak came to a horrifying end. The “Golden Gate” had left San Francisco only six days earlier carrying mail, 338 passengers and crew, and over $1 million in gold gathered from the California gold fields. Early on the evening of the 27th a fire was spotted on the ship. As Captain W.W. Hudson worked to steer towards shore, the fire raged out of control.

Some passengers and crew were able to flee in lifeboats, others leapt from the ship and tried to stay afloat with life preservers or debris. Among the survivors was Ben Holladay, a wealthy stagecoach entrepreneur with a number of mail contracts to his name. Holladay survived, as he noted, “by lashing myself to the forecastle ladder. I then jumped overboard; passing under the port wheel while the vessel was still underway. Fortunately I sustained no serious injury, and was picked up by the ship's boat.”

Captain W.W. Hudson later told the “Alta California” newspaper that about an hour after the fire was first noticed, the ship “grounded about 300 yards from the beach, where there was a heavy surf breaking. Before reaching the sore, the after boats were lowered away and filled with passengers. . .  In the meantime, life-preservers, spars, and everything of a buoyant nature, were furnished to the passengers—thrown overboard after she struck.”

Survivors were spread across the area, in the ocean, on a scattering of boats, and on the shore, about 11 miles near Manzanillo, Mexico.  Efforts were made to recover the dead, but many were lost at sea.  Newspapers carried the harrowing tales of survival alongside of heartbreaking tales of loss for months after the disaster, in which 173 people ultimately died.

On August 30, 1862, the “New York Times” ran a long story on the disaster. Fresh information, the headline noted, was received “by Overland Mail.” The article included Captain Hudson’s description of the disaster.

Almost 50 years later, Frank Soule and P.R. Nicholls wrote a song inspired by the cries of a young girl. “I Do Not Want to be Drowned,” complete with a colorful lithograph front page of a boat in flames, became a popular tune.

The ship’s disaster is still in the minds of some. Although most of the gold was recovered by salvage, contemporary visitors to the Manzanillo area still try to see if they can find some of the treasure.


Nancy Pope

About the Author
The late Nancy A. Pope, a Smithsonian Institution curator and founding historian of the National Postal Museum, worked with the items in this collection since joining the Smithsonian Institution in 1984. In 1993 she curated the opening exhibitions for the National Postal Museum. Since then, she curated several additional exhibitions. Nancy led the project team that built the National Postal Museum's first website in 2002. She also created the museum's earliest social media presence in 2007.