One of California's problems today is quick and cheap transportation. The Panama canal will solve this problem, in a measure. But the problem of early days was to get any kind of transportation, and at any price. Happily for the rapid grogress of the state, the government before the gold discovery made a contract with the Pacific Mail Steamship Company to run a line of five steamers from New York to Aspinwall. They were to connect across the Isthmus of Panama with a line of three steamers from Panama to Oregon. The steamers were to make monthly trips.
The company was incorporated in New York April 12, 1848, with a capital of $500,000. They made money rapidly, and in 1866 capitalized for $20,000,000. The first Pacific Mail steamer was the California. This vessel was 203 feet in length, 50 feet in width, and registered 800 tons. Leaving New York October 6, 1848, the California pased through the straits of Magellan and touched at Panama January 30, 1849. At that point she made connection with the Falcon from New York. That steamer left port December 1, 1848. The California had accommodations for 100 passengers only, but she took on board neard 400 gold-seekers. Some of the passengers paid $1,000 for sleeping places on deck.
On arrival of the steamer at Monterey, February 23rd, the people went wild with joy, for they had not heard from the east for nearly six months. The cannon on the hill fired a welcome salute and William T. Sherman ran hatless to meet the steamer. The steamer ran short of coal and, says Sherman, for two days the vessel lay at Monterey to obtain a supply of wood. The captain paid soldiers and citizens $10 a day each to cut and haul the fuel.
The people of San Francisco were anxiously awaiting the appearance of the steamer. As the lookout on Telegraph Hill, February 28, announced the approach of a steamer, the news quickly spread over the town. The merchants closed their places of business and hurried to the sumit of the hill that they might get a view of the pioneer steamer, which was crowded with passengers. As the vessel came to anchor the frigate Ohio, the sloop Levant and the merchantmen in the harbor displayed their flags. The steamer was greeted with loud cheers, cannon salutes and music from the ship bands.
The entire crew of the steamer deserted and started for the gold mines. This caused a two weeks' delay before the captain could engage a crew for the return voyage to Panama. He was compelled to pay each seaman $200 per month. The darkey cook received $400 a month. The captain of the Oregon, the second steamer, heard of the desertion of the crew of the California. On arrival, March 31st, he ran the steamer alongside the Ohio. The crew was transferred to the frigate, and there held prisoners until the Oregon was ready to sail. The Panama, the third steamer, arrived April 30, 1849.
William Vanderbilt in 1851 established a spendid line of steamers by what was known as the Nicaragua route. It was 700 miles shorter than by the Panama route. Pasenger and freight rates were cut one-third and it was believed the opposition had come to stay. Bad luck, however, followed the new line. The North America, the finest steamer on the Pacific, ran upon a rock February 27, 1852, and was a complete loss. She had on board 1,010 passengers, among them the operatic singers Madames Celeste and Biscaccanti, who were under engagement to Thomas Maguire. Then came the loss of the 850-ton steamer Independence (a), February 15, 1853, followed by the wreck, two months later, April 6th, of the S. S. Lewis. These disasters following so closely each other so frightened the traveling public that they refused for a time to travel on the opposition line.
The Pacific Mail Steamship Company controlled the entire traffic of the territory, California, Oregon and Nevada. The California Steam Navigation Company incorporated March 1, 1854, held within its power the inland waters.
The first steamer to run upon the bay and river was the little side-wheel steamer Sitka, built at Sitka. She was thirty-seven feet in length, and in 1848 was run to Sacramento. She made the trip in six days and seven hours. The following year Captain Fernhan brought out from New Orleans a little iron boat called the McKim. He paid for the hull, engines and boiler $2,800; he sold her for $60,000. Her new owner ran her to Sacramento and made twice what he paid for the boat. In September, 1849, the splendid steamer Senator arrived at San Francisco, intended for the Sacramento trade. She steamed around Cape Horn, and at Panama took on 500 passengers. In October she began running on that route in connection with the New World. The fare was: Cabin, $30; steerage, $15; meals and berths, each $2. The Senator alone netted her owners $5,000,000 in four years.
The Captain Sutter, the first steamer on the Stockton route, cleared her owner, Captain Warren, $300,000 in eight months. She first appeared in November, 1849. Before the close of 1850 the interior waters were alive with small steamers, from two to four steamers each day leaving Stockton and Sacramento for San Francisco. Competition was strong and sometimes passengers were carried for 25 cents, occasionally free. Racing on the river was common and boiler explosions with great loss of life was the result. There were nine boiler explosions within three years due to careless engineers and faulty boilers. Over two hundred passengers were killed and badly scalded. At that time there were no licensed pilots and engineers nor boiler inspectors.
The California Steam Navigation Company when incorporated purchased every steamer in the state and monopolized all river traffic for over twenty years. It was a splendid change for the public and merchant. They put on first class steamers and ran them with gentlemanly officers and experienced pilots and engineers. The usual run was from eight to ten hours, the boats leaving San Francisco at 4 p. m. The Antelope on one occasion ran from San Francisco to Sacramento, 120 miles, in six hours and forty-five minutes. The freight and passenger rates were fair, times considered -- $5 for passengers and $3 a ton for freight. The merchants were always complaining of high rates and the company had at times considerable opposition. Owners would start competition for the purpose of being bought off at an exorbitant price. The strongest opposition was on the Sacramento, James Kidd, the Nevada silver mine owner, putting on the route the Nevada and Washoe.
Stage lines ran to all of the mountain camps, Monterey, and Portland, Oregon. On the last named line the California stage company had sixty stations, employed thirty-five drivers and used 500 horses in the 710 miles of staging. The principal lines ran from Sacramento and Stockton, the stages carrying passengers, baggage, mail and express matter and from $10,000 to $20,000 in gold dust or coin. Stage robberies were frequent and over 400 robberies are on record. The longest mountain trip was Mariposa, 120 miles, a two days' journey. The fare in 1850 was $30, and in 1860, $12. The usual average fare was about 10 cents per mile. Staging was a long, tiresome trip, through the hot sun and deep dust of summer, and the heavy rains and deep mud of winter. Competition was rife for a time and many were the exciting races over the road (b). It finally merged into a monopoly, the California Stage Company controlling all of the northern routes and Dooley & Co. and Fisher & Co. the southern routes. The pioneer line of the state ran from Sacramento to Mormon Island in September, 1849. The fare was $16, distance fourteen miles. In April, 1850, a stage line was established between San Francisco and San Jose, fare $32.
During the first decade the mining camps consumed the greater amount of foodstuffs and material, and the transportation of freight gave employment to thousands of commission men, teamsters and animals. Stockton and Sacramento were then, as they are now, the terminal water points. From those places all articles were transported by pack mules or big freight teams. First pack mules were used and from 50 to 100 would complete a train. Each mule would carry a load of perhaps 400 pounds and safely he would travel over the long, narrow trails and up the steep mountain grades.
Then it was learned that at a much less cost and a saving in time and security freight could be transported in big wagons. The mountain trails were widened and graded and big wagons, known as "prairie schooners," (c) drawn by mules, were used in transporting goods. The traffic was heavy, especially from Stockton. Six hundred tons of freight was weekly carried to the southern mines, and over 800 teamsters were employed, handling 3,000 mules and horses.
The wholesale merchants for a few years carried on business in a hazardous and unstable manner. The prices of goods were so fluctuating that business was really a gamble. One week a staple article would be very scarce and its price would soar 200 per cent above its original selling price (d). The following week perhaps the same article could not be sold at any price because of a glutted market. Everything then used in California was brought into the state by steamer or ship. By steamer it took six months to send an order east and get returns. So high was the price of steamer freight, all heavy or bulky goods were shipped by vessel around Cape Horn. This took from eight to twelve months' time.
To shorten the time of delivery a large number of vessels known as clipper ships were engaged in the California trade. They were first built in 1840 for the China tea trade. These vessels, known as the ocean greyhounds, with their immense spread of canvas would literally fly before the wind. They would carry from 1,000 to 3,000 tons of freight, according to size (e), and make an average run of 200 miles a day. The owner received $40 a ton for freight. In a single voyage he would sometimes make the cost of the vessel.
Eastern firms frequently sent consignments of goods to California. This sometimes would overstock the market, causing a heavy loss. Then again, it would give a fortune to the merchant who purchased the cargo. The merchants were ever on the alert, looking for these "soft snaps," and some of the merchants of San Francisco employed oarsmen and boats, ready at a moment's notice to pull out and meet the incoming ship (f).
We little appreciate the comforts and advantages we enjoy. We sit in our homes and offices and the letter carrier brings us our letters, papers, magazines. We give it not a passing thought, but sixty years ago to receive a letter was a delight, and a paper of a late date, six months old, was a treasure (g). In those days the only means of sending a letter east or receiving any news was by the merchant ships or whaling vessels that occasionally touched the coast. Each ship carried a mail bag and in mid-ocean they would heave-to in passing and exchange mail matter.
Kit Carson in 1848 accompanied by F. X. Aubrey and the trapper, Roubideaux, brought the first overland mail to California. It was a soldiers' line established by the Adjutant General. Starting in September, 1847, these brave and daring men traveled by the way of Fort Leavenworth, Santa Fe and Los Angeles to headquarters, Monterey, arriving in May, 1848. A soldiers' mail line was then established from San Francisco to San Diego, with intermediate stations at Monterey and Nepoma. Jim Beckworth, an old trapper, and Kit Carson were two of the mail carriers, and Lieutenant Sherman was the Monterey postmaster. On the steamer Oregon came John W. Geary. He had authority to establish a complete United States mail system, and soon postoffices were established in every town and the principal mountain camps. At that time letter postage was 40 cents for each letter. Wells-Fargo would deliver these letters for 50 cents each. The letters would be addressed to San Francisco and the agents would deliver them in the mountain camps.
In San Francisco when the mails arrived the people stood for hours in long lines, sometimes all night in a pouring rain, that they might be the first in the morning when the office opened. To hear from home men would pay five, ten, twenty dollars for places in line and others would make money selling food and drink to those who waited. And then such scenes, when the office opened, were never beheld before or since. "John Smith? No letter for you, sir," and the man turned away with tears in his eyes. A year from his family, six months no tidings, are they dead? The next receives a letter awaited for many months, but delayed by irregular mails. The family is all well and the baby boy now lisps his father's name. The father reads, his face shines with joy and he dances and hops about as one insane (h). There is another; his hand trembles violently as he opens a letter five months' old, with deep lines in black upon the envelope, and reads, "Wife died two days ago." He left that wife a bride and went to make his fortune in California. The next morning a dead man was found. The coroner said another suicide. 'Twas all they knew about him. The blow was too heavy and death ended all.
These are true pictures of common occurrences throughout the state for the first five years. Then the mail became more regular and the steamers usually brought a mail through in twenty-six days.
Some places were inaccessible to stage trvel and some, too small in population to pay stage expenses, and places such as this held mail communication with the world by means of express riders. These were light, wiry men, brave and strong, and the ever welcome guest of every miner. they carried the letters of some express company and Uncle Sam, money, valuables and newspapers. At first they were common carriers and received as high as a dollar and a half each for every letter they delivered to the address or deposited in the Sacramento or Stockton postoffices. On the journey they carried and sold the illustrated papers of Harper's Weekly, the New York Tribune, Boston Journal and New Orleans Picayune, receiving $1.50 apiece, each tavern taking five or more papers. In their trips they often endured many hardships and were in danger at all times from wild animals, Indians and highwaymen. Every rider carried his pair of revolvers ready for use upon the moment, yet many were killed, scalped or robbed.
The currency of the state, like the people, has seen many changes. First it was the gold era, nothing but gold. Then came the silver era, with tones of silver from Nevada. And now the copper era, in which the one-cent coin figures. In 1849 gold was so plentiful that everybody had his pockets full of dust.
Every bank and every merchant had his gold scales setting upon the counter, and the merchant weighed the gold by the ounce or measured it by the quantity in payment for goods. Its value was changeable. An ounce of gold in San Francisco was worth twice what it was in the mines. A big pinch of gold in the mines was called $16. Its actual value in San Francisco was $24. In September, 1848, the San Francisco merchants agreed to call an ounce of gold $18.
Coins of any kind or denomination were very scarce. Those fortunate enough to possess coin could obtain twice its face value in gold dust. As it was almost impossible to carry on business without some coin value, several persons began the manufacture of coin. They turned out $2.50, $5.00, $10.00 and $20.00 pieces. The actual value of each coin was from twenty to forty per cent less than its commercial value. Wm. D. Kohler, a jeweler with some knowledge of metals, started the business, and later he took in as partner D. C. Broderick. The firm made plenty of money (no joke) and in December, 1849, they sold out to Baldwin & Co. from Australia. The new firm began alloying the gold to such an extent as to make it worthless. In 1853 it was thrown out of the market. Wass Moliter & Co. at this time were also coin makers. They turned out such fine work and of true value that Adams & Co., bankers, insisted that their coin be kept in circulation. At this time the solid gold known as the "slug" was put in circulation. It was of octagon shape, three and a half by one-half inch and worth $50. In 1854 the San Francisco mint was established. From that time on gold coin was plentiful.
Soon, however, there was a demand for smaller coin. Some sharp foreigners supplied the demand. They shipped into the state barrels of foreign coins. Then the people carried in their pockets half dollars from Mexico and Peru, the French franc, the Russian rouble -- and for pocket pieces the China cent, with a small square hole in the center. Then some citizen, afterwards a famous banker, imported several barrels of ten-cent pieces. The merchants would not handle anything, however, smaller than twenty-five cents. Soon there was plent of United States coin and the banks began to drive out the foreign coin by depreciating its value. The French twenty-five cent franc fell to eighteen cents value only. the merchants for a long time, however, held on to the Mexican half dollar and the twelve and one-half cent piece. It made exact change in 2's, 4's, 6's and 8's. They called the smallest value a "bit," hence our term today, "two bits."
During the Civil war neither banks nor merchants would handle the United States paper money (greenbacks) if possible, although none were more patriotic or liberal in giving for the Union. At one time greenbacks were worth fifty cents on the dollar. Even in the flush of victory they did not go above seventy-five cents. They were taken at par for all custom house duties, court fines and judgments, and for government contracts.
In 1880 the government unwisely coined what was known as the China trade dollar. It contained a few grains more of silver than the American dollar. The object of its coining was to induce the Chinese in their native country to put it in use in trading with Americans. As soon as they learned of its increased value they began sweating it; that is, wearing off the extra silver by shaking in a sack. The San Francisco banks beat them to it, however. They declared a discount on all trade dollars. The public lost heavily. It went into the bank vaults. Then it was shipped to China, melted and recoined and thirteen cents profit made on every dollar. Now California's king, gold, has been dethroned. Nevada's silver queen has fallen and the long despised nickel is in circulation, and even the one-cent copper is often seen. These were at first introduced by a dry goods firm.
The pioneer bankers, Naglee & Swinton, opened their bank in San Francisco in January, 1849. Before the close of the year the banks were five in number. In 1854 there were fifteen banks with branch offices in every valley, town and important mining camp. The constitution prohibited the Legislature from passing any law chartering banks. It permitted their organization under the general laws only for the purpose of receiving or lending money. The only money the banks had to lend was that deposited by citizens. This money, with their own individual coin, was loaned out at one per cent a month. As their loans were made upon real estate and merchandise that had a heavy fluctuating value, and with men that were wealthy today and penniless tomorrow, through fire perhaps or bad speculation, or debts, banking was a wild-cat speculation.
From 1848 to 1854 were flush times in California; then came a reaction. Men young in years and in business experience purchased high prices lots, erected costly residences and stores, contracted for large quantities of eastern goods, paid exorbitant interest and rents, heavy taxes for street and other improvements, lived in extravagant luxury and speculated wildly, expecting that if they lost money they would in a few months again be flush. In 1854 the gold output fell short five millions. Then came the cry, "the mines are exhausted," and miners by the hundreds hurried from the gold fields to the towns, many going east. The estern checked the western immigration nearly one-half. The consequence was a failure in business in camp and town. The mountain merchants lost their customers, many of them leaving unpaid bills, and the merchants failed. As the Stockton and Sacramento merchants had credited largely the mining camp merchants, they also failed, and with them the San Francisco jobbers and wholesale dealers, who had consigned goods to the dealers named. Coin now became very scarce. The laborers who had been getting $16 a day in '49 could not now obtain work at any price. Rents of stores, rates of interest and goods in price fell rapidly, and out of a thousand placed ob suiness in San Francisco fully two-thirds had "To Rent" upon their doors.
The hard times of 1855 were followed by the mercantile crash. Every bank in the state was compelled to suspend save the banks of Parrott & Co., Wells-Fargo & Co. Bank and Express, Lucas, Turner & Co., and Palmer, Cook & Co. (i). The bank last named was the political bank of the state. They entered deeply inot the political contests and successfully backed Senator Fremont, Broderick and Gwin and Representative Wright. This gave them government patronage and they amassed a fortune. In 1857 they again back Broderick but met with a heavy loss and soon suspended.
The bank to first suspend was that of Page, Bacon & Co., They were the "king pin" of banks and they made good their title by buying in a single year $20,000,000 worth of gold dust. The California house sent east monthly to the main office at St. Louis a cool million. Nevertheless that house became involved. To avert the anticipated suspension, if possible, one of the eastern firm, quietly coming to California in February, 1855, began sending east all the gold he could get. The news of the failure of the eastern firm was learned accidentally as soon as the Oregon (February 19th) arrived (j). The report spread like wild fire and immediately a run was made on every bank in the city and for a time great excitement prevailed. The heaviest run was made on page, Bacon & Co. Men with baskets on their arm broke their way through the windows that they might get their coin. Men battered their way like rams through mahogany doors and returned triumphantly with their hats full of slugs. That night Page, Bacon & Co. sent their silent partner, Henry H. Haight, to the other banks for assistance. They all refused help. The bank refused to show their books. The run continued until February 23rd, the bank having in the meantime paid out $600,000, closing their doors with the announcement, "In want of funds, must suspend for a few days.' So severe was this shock to public confidence they refused to part with their money at any price, although offered ten per cent a week interest, their security United States mint certificates, redeemable at par after ten days' notice (k).
Another bank and express that went down in the crash was Adams & Co. Their suspension was caused principally because of the rascality of one of the firm, Isaac S. Woods, who stole a good part of the dust (l). In the employ of the firm at this time was James King of William (m). He knew of the robbery that was being planned, but a mistaken idea of honor kept him quiet. The bank closed its doors. Immediately the courts appointed A. A. Cohen, a lawyer, as receiver. That night Cohen transferred the coin in the vaults to the bank of Allsop & Co. As his reason for this act, Cohen said he feared a mob would break in and take possession of the money (n). A second court declared Cohen's appointment as receiver illegal. Palmer, Cook & Co. were then appointed assignees, and the coin, $600,000, transferred to their vault. The case came to trial and Cohen and Edward James of Palmer & Co. were imprisoned for contempt of court, they refusing to tell what became of the money. Cohen was tried for embezzlement and it then came to light that $269,000 supposed to be in his possession was missing. The books of the bank could not be found. One day, however, they were discovered floating in the bay and upon being recovered, the days' transactions of February 21st and 22nd had been torn out. About the same time I. L. Woods suddenly departed for Australia, and to this day it is not known what became of the money stolen from the depositors in Adams & Co.'s bank, the full amount being nearly two millions of dollars.
Following the swindle of the bank, the gigantic rascality of Henry Meiggs, planned and succssfully carried out, is probably the greatest on record. Meiggs, arriving in San Francisco in '49, engaged in the boldest of speculations and began what proved to be the heaviest of forgeries. Meiggs, who was born in New York in 1811, in middle life engaged in the lumber business. Loading with lumber a packet ship, he reached San Francisco in July, 1849. He sold the lumber and cleared $50,000. Then building a saw mill at North Beach, 500 men cut logs for him in Contra Costa county, floated them to the beach, and they were cut into lumber. Clearing a profit of half a million dollars, he now began speculating on a large scale, building fine residences, churches, a large saw mill in Mendocino county, factories, music hall and Meiggs wharf, which was two thousand feet long. Then he began to invst heavily in North Beach real estate, believing that was to be the wealthiest part of San Francisco, and he spent large sums in improving, grading and leveling sand hills. In his expectations Meiggs was disappointed, and when in 1855 the depression in business took place, he could not realize on his property the half that it had cost him. Then came heavy street assessments and Meiggs found himself a bankrupt. He kept up his high style of living and expenses, and as he was generous, kind and obliging, none knew or noticed that he was deeply involved. One way he could redeem himself, he believed, and that was to forge city warrants. At that time city affairs were very carelessly managed and it was the custom of the mayor and auditor to sign a large number of warrants and leave them until required for use. Meiggs knew this, he having been a councilman in 1851, and obtaining a large number of warrants he began paying his debts. As he handled large sums of money none surmised that he was forging city funds, and before they began to suspect him, Meiggs had signed warrants and promissory notes aggregating some $800,000. At last they began to see that something was wrong, and Meiggs then collected about $10,000 and, with his wife and children, suddenly sailed from San Francisco for Chili. His departure created a scene among his creditors and the city officials and everybody, from the butcher and baker to clerk and judge, found that they held the worthless paper of Harry Meiggs.
Meiggs in Chili began a new life. A man of high intellectual ability, strong mind and self-confidence, he now began railroad building and took a contract to build the Santiago & Valparaiso road at a cost of $12,000,000. It was a most difficult piece of engineering, but in two years the road was finished, Meiggs making a million. He then went to Peru and built over 800 miles of road and received over a hundred million of dollars for railroad work. In 1873 an agent coming to San Francisco paid every one of Meiggs' debts, principal and interest. Then his old friends petitioned the Legislature of 1874 to pardon "Harry, the exile from home and country," and March 23rd they passed the remarkable law, commanding any of the state courts having any jurisdiction against Henry S. Meiggs prior to January, 1855, to dismiss them. Governor Booth vetoed the bill and returned it to the Legislature. They, by a two-thirds vote, passed it over his head, although unconstitutional, the pardoning power not being vested in the Legislature, lawyers said. Meiggs, however, feared to return to California and four years later (September 29, 1877) he died.
Four days later, March 6, 1853, the Tennessee of the P. M. S. S. Co. ran aground four miles north of the Golden Gate, the first officer losing his bearings in the heavy fog. Fortunately the steamer swung round lengthwise and Mate Dowling then swam to shore with a rope and was successful in fastening it. boats were then lowered, and cowardly men attempted to enter. At the point of a revolver Thomas Gihon, then Wells-Fargo agent, kept the men back until the one hundred women and children were safely landed. Of the 600 passengers not one was lost. The spot was later named Tennessee cove.
Losses were just as heavy as profits. Lumber, at one time worth a dollar a foot, dropped to $400 a thousand. Tobacco was scarce and it went up to $2 a pound. Merchants then ordered large quantities from the East. They overstocked the market. It could not be sold at any price, and the merchants that winter actually threw boxes of tobacco into the mud to make stepping-stones across the streets. Potatoes were worth $1 a pound. In came large consignments, and they were left upon the beach to rot. Rents were very high, interest 10 per cent a month, and it did not pay to store goods and hold over for a rise in price. The market was too uncertain.
"Good news from home,
Good news for me,
Has come across the deep blue sea,
From friends that I've not seen in years,
From friends that I have left in tears."