VIPS in the Port of San Francisco

William Aspinwall

December 16, 1807-January 18, 1875

In 1832, William Aspinwall joined Howland & Aspinwall, a New York merchant firm founded by his cousins. They specialized in trade with the Carribbean, and, in 1835, when Aspinwall assumed control, expanded into South America, China, Europe, the Mediterranean.

John Willis Griffiths. Shipbuilders Manual.

After establishing the family in new ports, Aspinwall concentrated on ship design. Faster ships meant greater profits. Aspinwall was one of the first to commission the noted naval architect, John Willis Griffiths, to design what some have called the first clipper ship, Rainbow.

In 1845, Congress authorized a number of ocean mail contracts to be sold. The contract between Panama and the Oregon Territory appeared the least profitable - there were no great ports, no facilities, no industry of any kind, no coal, no repair yards. Admidst skepticism, Aspinwall acquired the contract and on April 12, 1848 the Pacific Mail Steamship Company was incorporated by the New York Legislature, with Howland & Aspinwall as its agent.

On the 12th of April 1848, the Pacific Mail was incorporated with a capital of five hundred thousand dollars, and contracts were entered into for the building of three steamers; the California, 1060 tons, the Oregon, 1099 tons, and the Panama, 1087 tons, the California was completed first and sailed from New York October 6, 1848, under command of Cleveland Forbes. She carried no passengers for California. Footnote: "The Pacific Mail was incorporated for the purpose of carrying mails between Panama and the Columbia river. The enormous business consequent on the discovery of gold in California caused the original design to be abandoned." (The Beginnings of San Francisco, Vol. II, Zoeth Eldridge, 1912; pg. 452-53)

Aspinwall ordered three new ships to inaugurate the trade. The California was the first steamer on the west coast. By the time she rounded The Horn, the word of gold had spread across the land. Because winter snows made overland travel impossible, gold seekers booked passage on anything afloat. Once on the Pacific Coast, the California, which was not set up as a passenger ship, was beseiged with men trying to reach the gold fields. She took on hundreds of passengers and entered San Francisco Bay on February 28, 1849.

Pacific Mail Steamship Company San Francisco for Panama.

April 1849, Alta California, San Francisco, California

THE Undersigned, Agents of the United States, Atlantic and Pacific Mail Line of Steamers, Forwarding and Commission Merchants, Panama, respectfully inform the public, that they have made arrangements for forwarding Specie, Bullion and Gold Dust confided to their care for transit across the Isthmus; their charges on treasure remitted from the Pacific to the Atlantic, will be one quarter of one per cent; and on that remitted from the Atlantic to the Pacific, one half of one per cent, which charge covers Commission and all expenses.

Coin and Gold dust should be put up in bags, and the bags carefully packed in boxes. Packages should not exceed in weight 125 lbs.: the seals on the boxes should be countersunk.

The undersigned are now making arrangements for, and will shortly be prepared to forward passengers, Baggage and Merchandise, with punctuality and despatch. Due notice will be given when their arrangements are completed.


Aspinwall Central America
The Train Starting for Panama.

The California was joined shortly by the Panama and Oregon. These three ships became the backbone of Aspinwall's empire as the California gold rush quickly catapulted the Pacific Mail to success. In 1852, the City of Aspinwall, on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus, was dedicated and named after him.

Aspinwall secretly developed plans to build a railroad across the isthmus of Panama to shorten the journey from coast to coast by avoiding the perils of Cape Horn. Construction proved extremely difficult and costly, but in the end the railroad was completed. The first train crossed the Isthmus on January 28, 1855. When Aspinwall inspected the railroad at Panama, he continued on to California. That trip marked the only time Aspinwall ever traveled on either his Pacific Mail line or the Panama Railroad.

American President Lines notes that he retired in 1856 and went on to become a founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) and, in 1869, a founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Pacific Mail Steamship Company still survives in the form of American President Lines, now celebrating 150 years of continuous service.

The Mammoth Book of Life Before the Mast:
Sailors' Eyewitness Stories from the Age of Fighting Ships

Jon E. Lewis, Editor
Firsthand accounts of the real-life naval adventures behind the popular historical sagas of Patrick O'Brian and C. F. Forester. Twenty true-life adventures capture the glory and gore of the great age of naval warfare from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century -- the age of the French Revolutionary War, the Napoleonic Wars, and the War of 1812 -- when combat at sea was won by sheer human wit, courage, and endurance. Culled from memoirs, diaries, and letters of celebrated officers as well as sailors, the collection includes accounts of such decisive naval engagements as Admiral Horatio Nelson's on the Battle of the Nile in 1798 or Midshipman Roberts' on the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and also offers glimpses into daily hardships aboard a man-of-war: scurvy, whippings, storms, piracy, press gangs, drudgery, boredom, and cannibalism.

Life of a Sailor (Seafarers' Voices) Ships, Shipping, Migration, World Seaports.Life At Sea.Life Before the Mast.
Frederick Chamier
Chamier went to sea in 1809 as an officer in the Royal Navy. Like his contemporary, Captain Frederick Marryat, he enjoyed a successful literary career and is remembered for his naval novels. This book, his first, is usually catalogued as fiction, although it is an exact account of his naval experiences, with every individual, ship, and event he described corroborated by his service records. Told with humor and insight, it is considered an authentic account of a young officer's service. From anti-slavery patrols off Africa to punitive raids on the American coast during the War of 1812, Chamier provides details of many lesser-known campaigns. His descriptions of British naval operations in America, which reflected his objection to bringing the war to the civilian population, were highly criticized by his seniors.

The Nagle Journal: A Diary of the Life of Jacob Nagle, Sailor, from the Year 1775 to 1841Diary of the Life of Jacob Nagle, Sailor..
John C. Dann

Great Stories of the Sea & Ships Sea Stories and the history of America.
N. C. Wyeth
Sea Stories and the history of America.More than 50,000 copies of this collection of high-seas adventures are in print. It showcases the fiction of such classic writers as Daniel Defoe, Jules Verne, and Jack London, and the entries also feature historic first-person narratives including Christopher Columbus’s own account of his voyage in 1492. Vivid tales of heroic naval battles and dangerous journeys of exploration to the stories of castaways and smugglers. The variety of works includes “The Raft of Odysseus,” by Homer; Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Mermaid”; “The Specksioneer,” by Elizabeth Gaskell; Washington Irving’s “The Phantom Island”; and “Rounding Cape Horn,” by Herman Melville. Eighteen extraordinary black and white illustrations by Peter Hurd add to the volume's beauty.

The Rebel Raiders
The Astonishing History of the Confederacy's Secret NavyRebel Raiders. James T. deKay.

James T. deKay
During its construction in Liverpool, the ship was known as “Number 290.” It was unleashed as the CSS Alabama, the Confederate gunship that triggered the last great military campaign of the Civil War; yet another infamous example of British political treachery, and the largest retribution settlement ever negotiated by an international tribunal: $15,500,000 in gold paid by Britain to the United States.

This true story of the Anglo-Confederate alliance that led to the creation of a Southern navy illuminates the dramatic and crucial global impact of the American Civil War. Like most things in the War between the States, it started over cotton: Lincoln’s naval blockade prevented the South from exporting their prize commodity to England. In response, the Confederacy came up with a plan to divert the North’s vessels and open the waterways–a plan that would mean covertly building a navy in Britain, a strategy that involved a cast of clandestine characters.

The Project

Ship Passengers, Sea Captains, Maritime Nations, Merchants, Merchandise into San Francisco during the 1800s.



America and the Sea. A Maritime History.
America and the Sea
A Maritime History

Benjamin W. Labaree, William M. Fowler, Jr., Edward W. Sloan, John B. Hattendord, Jeffrey J. Safford, Andrew W. German.

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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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