Gold Rush Steamboats

steamboatBefore 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 transport over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. 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. The first steamer to puff up the Sacramento River 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, which brought the news of California’s admission to the Union to San Francisco and then sped upriver to deliver the news to Sacramento; 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.


6 thoughts on “Gold Rush Steamboats”

  1. We’re making a film about Mark Twain who took a steamer from San Francisco to Stockton on his way up to the Gold Country where he spent 88 days. We believe he took the Cornelia. Are there any pictures of that boat? Was it a side wheeler or a stern wheeler? Any information you might have would be helpful!

      1. Just to close the loop. We discovered that Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) took the California Steam Navigation Company steamer Cornelia or Julia on December 1st or 2nd, 1864 from San Francisco to Stockton on his way to Angels Camp where he would hear someone tell a story about a jumping frog…

    1. Hi Riccardo … Sorry, I don’t have a photo of the New World, which brought the news of California’s admission upriver to Sacramento. The ship that brought the news to San Francisco (a day earlier) was the Oregon.

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