In January 1848, two seemingly
unrelated events took place on opposite coasts of the United States. The first
event was the laying down at New York on January 4, 1848, of the keel of
a wooden paddle wheeler to be named California at her launching four months
later. The other event, on January 24, marked the discovery of gold at a
remote California trading post named Sutters Mill. California was
the first American steamer to reach the western seaboard after this momentous
discovery, and her early history was to be forever linked to the great California
out of the yards of William H. Webb, builder of some of the finest clipper ships
of that era. Not surprisingly, her beautiful lines closely resembled those of
Webbs magnificent sailing ships. For her size 203 feet
in length, 33 1/2 feet in beam, 20 feet in depth, and 1,057 gross tons she
was an expensive ship, costing over $200,000. But with a gleaming black hull (copper-sheathed
below the waterline), white upper works, red paddle wheels, and plenty of polished
brass, she was a delight to behold.
San Francisco Post Office
her elegant lines, California had been designed with utility
in mind. Built of choice oak and cedar, her hull was reinforced
with diagonal iron straps to better withstand the pounding of her
paddle wheels. Rigged with three masts and a full suit of sails,
she was classed as a brigantine. But wind was meant to be only an
auxiliary source of power and she was expected to carry a full head
of steam at all times while underway.
side-lever engine, built by a firm with the unusual name of Novelty
Iron Works, was driven by steam generated by two return-flue boilers
that used salt water. Her paddle wheels were 26 feet in diameter,
and she generally cruised at eight knots to conserve coal.
|A Mailbag from California's maiden voyage.
May of 1848, California passed the government inspections
required by the mail contract in the fall. The steamer departed
New York on October 6 under the command of Captain Cleveland Forbes.
She and her crew of 36 left with 500 tons of coal, which was all
she could carry. Also on board were provisions to last a year, a
complete set of spare machinery, and only a handful of passengers
destined for Rio de Janeiro and Valparaiso.
crossed the equator without ceremony, although Captain Forbes tried
an old trick on the ships doctor. On October 24, the
Captain endeavored to make me see the line by fixing a small stick
across the spy glass, but I eluded the hoax, the doctor reported
in his journal.
Click on image for vessel information.
When the steamer
arrived in Rio de Janeiro after just 26 days, she set a new record
for that run. On December 12th, after successfully transiting the
Strait of Magellan, California and her crew began the journey
northward amid the long Pacific swells. These would be the last
few days of calm for all concerned. Unfortunately, Captain Forbes
had taken ill during the course of the voyage, and by the time the
ship reached Valparaiso he could no longer carry out his duties.
He took on an assistant, a Captain Marshall, from one of the sailing
ships in the harbor, and the California departed for Callao,
Peru, where she arrived on December 27.
In Peru, word
had spread about the Gold Rush, and the ships agent persuaded
Captain Forbes to take on 17 cabin and 80 steerage passengers, eager
for a try at the California goldfields. But problems were only beginning
for the California. When she reached Panama on January 17,
1849, there were at least 700 gold seekers eagerly awaiting the
arrival of the northbound steamer. When they learned that the steamer
had taken on passengers at Callao, a near riot erupted.
revolvers and knives, the mob demanded that the foreigners be removed
and native-born Americans take their place. To placate the Americans,
the Pacific Mail agent ordered the Peruvians to sleep on the deck
and all available beds were furnished to the new passengers. The
California departed on January 31 with 365 passengers almost
twice the number she had been designed to accommodate and
all the coal she could carry. Most bunks were occupied by two gold
seekers, and every inch of deck space was taken.
9 the steamer entered Acapulco to replenish its supply of fresh
water. All hands welcomed the chance to go ashore, stretch their
legs, and take on private stocks of food, practically stripping
the town of fruit, bread, and sugar.
Early San Francisco
forward, the captain had to deal with insubordinate crew, a stowaway,
and a dangerously low supply of coal. Orders were given to cut up
all available wood on board. Almost everything flammable went to
feed the furnace spars, bunks, and bulkheads. Then,
in a lucky discovery, 100 sacks of coal were found, which got the
California as far as Monterey. There she took on 30 cords
of wood, and on February 28 entered the Golden Gate, 145 days from
New York, and the first steamer to be seen at San Francisco.
But the Californias story did not end there. All but one of the crew deserted for the
goldfields. Captain Forbes, back on duty after his illness, kept
watch over the ship. In April, he received a fresh supply of coal
and had to assemble a new crew at inflated wages averaging $150
monthly for the journey south. On May 1, the California left
for Panama with 54 passengers and $346,653 in gold specie aboard.
with permission from the article by Bill Kooiman, a retired maritime
purser who works at the
San Francisco National Maritime Museum Library.