Gold Rush Steamboats

Before the California gold discovery, steam engines propelled riverboats over inland waterways, but ocean-going vessels were ships under sail. Yet when the siren call of gold beckoned, speed was the prime consideration—and very quickly steam-powered ships were upgraded and pressed into service as ocean transport. Before destructive gold mining methods clogged the watercourses with silt and debris, many of these ships chugged through the Golden Gate and on up through the northern California rivers, bearing passengers, mail, and hulls filled with gold nuggets on their return voyages. One of the first steamers to puff up the Sacramento River in 1849 from San Francisco Bay was the small, privately owned Washington in 1849, followed by the Sacramento later that year (which eventually became a ferry boat between Sacramento and Yolo County). The diminutive Mint made several trips in late summer, outclassed in both amenities and speed that November by the magnificent, 530-ton side-wheeler Senator, which charged one way fares of $30 from the Bay to Sacramento.  Formed in 1854, the California Steam Navigation Company’s ocean-going, United States mail delivery vessels and subsequent river monopoly ended cut-throat competition between smaller rival lines. The names of some of the company’s more famous ships include the New World, the Confidence, the Wilson G. Hunt, the Helen Hensley, the Urilda, and the Cornelia.  One of their steamers departed San Francisco’s Pacific Street Wharf daily for Sacramento and Stockton, where passengers and freight could connect to Marysville, Colusa, and Red Bluff.  The Maine-built, independently owned sternwheeler Governor Dana, shipped in pieces aboard a sailing vessel around The Horn to California in the early 1850s, traveled exclusively between Sacramento and the Feather River District.

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