The Maritime Heritage Project

World Harbors from The Maritime Heritage Project in San Francisco.

Arrivals at the Port of San Francisco: 1800s



Clipper Ships at San Francisco

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West Coast Clippers (Built in San Francisco)

Annals of San Francisco 1852: Clipper ships

The Deep Sea Derby, 1852

The Fleet of 1857

Daily Alta California, May 26, 1851

Clipper Ships at Anchor.

Flying Cloud enroute to San Francisco.
The Clipper Ship "Flying Cloud"
Currier and Ives. 1852.

— In the tremendous wind of yesterday, which made the whole bay white with foam, and caused sizeable brigs and schooners to pitch and roll, as they lay at anchor, like chips pawing over rapids, it was a study to mark the difference between the sharp clippers and the old fashioned, tub-prowed ships, as they lay at anchor, facing the tide and wind. One of the large, sharp ocean giants lay directly in the full range of the gale as it swept up from the Golden Gate, yet there was not a ripple at her bows. A number of the full built ships lay near her, and at their bows it was all "feather white," like the waves as they dash down over a cataract. She had not even a "white bone in her mouth,'' while the rest of the fleet had whole skeletons. She lay at her anchor as quietly as if on a summer lake, and did not seem to give anchor or chain any trouble. There were ships of five hundred tons which gave their ground tackle more strain than did that immense ship of three or four times the tonnage. This shows how much more safe such ships would be on a lee shore, or in a gale of wind anywhere at anchor, than those of the former usual construction. Their length also, as well as their sharp model, giving them less motion, renders the chances of dragging anchors and parting chains much less. The clippers will prove one of the greatest improveraeuts of the age.

The Annals of the City of San Francisco, June 1852

It appears from records kept by the late harbor master, Captain King, that seventy-four vessels claiming and entitled to be called “clipper ships,” and averaging rather more than 1000 tons burden, had arrived in the port of San Francisco during the last three years. These records commence with the well known brig Col. Fremont, in May, 1849, and include the Aramingo, which arrived in May, 1852. The average passage was one hundred and twenty-five days. Some of the fleet, however, made much more speedy voyages. 

The Flying Cloud, which arrived in August, 1851, performed the distance from New York in eighty-nine days. The Sword Fish, also from New York, arrived in February, 1852, after a passage of ninety days. The Surprise, arriving in March, 1851, the Sea Witch, in July, 1850,—both from New York,—and the Flying Fish, in February, 1852, from Boston, respectively accomplished the voyage in ninety-six, ninety-seven, and ninety-eight days.

Ships, Shipping, Migration, World Seaports.Because San Francisco was so susceptible to becoming overstocked with goods from around the world, it was necessary to deliver merchandise as speedily as possible to her shores. Competition forced merchants and ship-builders interested in the California trade to invent new and superior models of vessels. Hence the clipper with her great length, sharp lines of entrance and clearance, and flat bottom. 

"These magnificent vessels now perform the longest regular voyage known in commerce, running along both coasts of the Americas, in about four months; while the ordinary ships of older models used to take seven and eight months to accomplish the same distance. The contrast is very striking between the short, clumsy vessels, of a few hundred tons burden, which brought the early European navigators to the coast of California, and the large and beautifully lined marine palaces, often of two thousand tons, that are now continually gliding through the Golden Gate. These are like the white-winged masses of cloud that majestically soar upon the summer breeze.

In another part of this work we have given an illustration of the galleon, or sea-going armed merchantman of Drake’s day; here we lay before the reader a representation of one of the finest modern California traders, a clipper ship bound for San Francisco. While these noble vessels have revolutionized, in every maritime country, the model and style of long-voyage ships, they have also introduced a much happier marine nomenclature. The old-fashioned, humdrum Julias and Mary Anns, the Trusties and Actives are fast disappearing. The very names of our modern clippers have poetry and music in them, and convey a wonderful sense of swiftness. They confer even dignity on the dry details of the 'marine reporter,' where simple words shine like golden particles in the Californian miner’s sands."

Clipperships in the port of San Francisco August 2, 1853 from Sacramento Daily Union.During 1852, 95 clipper ships along with ten clipper barques sailed from northeastern ports around the Horn for San Francisco and 17 of them made the passage in less than 110 days. This remarkable contest has been described by the historian Carl C. Cutler in Greyhounds of the Sea, as representing "the very crest of the clipper wave."

This was the crest of the era of the clipper ships that reached its apex with the rounding of the Horn of those 15 ships. The economic boom that had brought these magnificent ships into existence and around the Horn in the first place was about to go through some changes and eventually go bust. With glutted markets, falling freight rates, played out mines, and too many clippers rising on the stocks in eastern shipyards.

Daily Alta California, January 16, 1853

Clipper Ships.

It was for a long time the conviction of the maritime community, that what was gained in point of speed, by making ships of sharp models, was sacrificed in point of burden; that the average difference between the two was not sufficient to warrant the sacrifice. That the port duties, pilotage and other expenses incident to greater custom house measurement and draught of water, would more than counterbalance the profit that would accrue from quickness of passage. It then became a desideratum to build ships that would combine these different excellences; in consequence vessels were constructed that were not exactly "clipper," neither did they exhibit that rotund model usually seen in the Dutch galliot, and which were invariably distinguished in the sea-faring community by the euphonious soubriquet of "Cotton Boxes."

The ship builders of New York were appealed to by the different owners of the Liverpool, London and Havre lines, and presto! we had such ships as the Siddons, Garrick, Rochester, Henry Clay, Stephen Whitney, Louis Philippe, Ville de Lyons, and a host of others which, both in Europe and America, were the admiration of all nautical men. Their models were sought after with avidity, and copies of them taken in various shipbuilding ports of our country and Europe. To Bremen, however, belongs the credit of the nearest approximation, for a long time, to the New York style. All efforts appeared vain the bow, run, shear and general appearance seemed unattainable, and a New York ship could be picked out of a fleet with unerring certainty by a good sailor.

Capt. Stevens of Boston, declared that the ship builders of that place could put as fine a craft on the ocean, as ever was launched from a New York yard. He ordered and superintended the construction of the Martha Washington on the best New York model, and so determined was he to make her equal to anything afloat, that he even went to the expense of putting down the deck plugs with brass instead of yellow pine. She was finished, launched and taken to New York, where she was hauled into dock alongside the finest packet ships. The comparison proved victorious to the New York builders. On the death of Mr. Isaac McKim, of Baltimore, his clipper ship the Ann McKim, was purchased of New York merchants, and put into the Canton trade. The ship, it is said, was bogged, but her superiority in point of speed was soon profitably manifest, over the other vessels then engaged in that line of trade. This instituted competition, and we saw such vessels as the Witch of the Wave and others, built expressly to beat the Ann McKim, and they did it.

It soon became apparent to ship builders that the old idea, that a ship could not be made a clipper and be at the same time ss profitable as a carrier, was a fallacy; and improvement on improvement followed with a rapidity illustrative of skill and mechanical knowledge, that has elicited the approbation and admiration of the whole world. The whole ship building fraternity, throughout the length and breadth of our land, seemed to have wakened up from a sort of Hip Van Winkle sleep, and we are every day astonished at the productions of these great men's minds and hands, that are constantly entering and clearing from our port whose broad and glistening canvas now whitens every sea, are the theme of praise and wonder to the very country from which we sprung, (the most commercial on the globe), and a subject of remark and awe even to the barbarians of farthest "Ind."

Another source of pleasure is the happy appositeness of the names bestowed oa these magnificent proofs of our commercial greatness The Flying Cloud, the White Squall, the Trade Wind, the Hurricane, the Sea Witch, the Southern Cross, and a host of others equally expressive, evince the taste and judgment ol those who presided over the baptism of their entrance on the bosom of the great deep. Many of these beautiful creations are the product of Boston builders. The precise medium seems to be at length attained. They carry enormous cargoes, and the speed of these Leviathans, when sporting with the winds and the waves, is almost terrific, it is in fact so great, that could power enough be brought to bear on the hull of an old fashioned ship, as to force her through the water at the same rate, it would crush her to pieces. Would that the shade of Christopher Columbus could gaze on the immense forest of tall masts to such craft as cow environ the Beele Bay City, on the Western verge of that great continent of which he saw the first and long anxiously hoped for realization from the forecastle on the little Pinta.

May 13, 1854, Sacramento Daily Union, Sacramento, California, U.S.A.

American Clipper Ships and Steamers

The Boston correspondent of the Times and Transcript thus writes of American clipper ships and steamers. The superiority of American clippers is conceded by British merchants, when they buy them in preference to English built vessels:

Our clipper ships are now attracting considerable attention on the Atlantic race course. A large number of them, owing to the dullness of the California trade, are loading for Great Britain at the principal ports. The extraordinary passage of the Lightning from this city to Liverpool, in a little more than thirteen days, has caused quite a sensation. Her log shows that she run from Boston Light to Eagle Island, on the coast of Ireland, in ten day. On the first of March she made the extraordinary run of four hundred and thirty-six miles in twentyfour hours, going through the water at an average speed of over eighteen miles per hour on that day.

The American clipper ship Red Jacket, that also made the run to Liverpool in less than fourteen days, has been purchased for about £30,000, by Messrs. Pilhington & Wilson, of Liverpool. Both the Red Jacket and the Lightning are now owned by English houses, and have been placed on the berth for Australia. — At the last accounts the admirers of the two respective vessels were betting heavily on their passages.

The admirers of the clipper ship Nightingale, now loading at New York for Melbourne, are also determined to match her against either the Lightning or the Red Jacket. In fact a bet has been made that she will make a quicker passage from New York to Melbourne than the Lightning will make from Liverpool to same port. The proceeds of the bet will be applied to having pictures of the two ships painted on the wall of Father Taylor's' Bethel, the winning ship ahead with all colors flying, the vanquished ship astern with colors struck, and below them a record of their performances. A part of the bet will also be applied for the purchase and outfit of a pew in the Bethel for the use of clipper captains. Capt. Forbes, the commander of the Lightning, has made 11 some remarkable passages to Australia in the English ship Palo Alta, and while here was converted by the preaching of Father Taylor, which explains the singular, disposition to be made of the bet.

Ariel and Tapeing reprints available by clicking on images.Ships, Shipping, Migration, World Seaports.

Montague Dawson, the painter of Ariel and Taeping (above), was the son of a keen yachtsman and the grandson of the marine painter Henry Dawson (1811–1878). Dawson was born in Chiswick, London in 1895. Much of his childhood was spent on Southampton Water where he was able to indulge his interest in the study of ships. For a brief period around 1910 Dawson worked for a commercial art studio in Bedford Row, London, but with the outbreak of the First World War he joined the Royal Navy. While serving with the Navy in Falmouth he met Charles Napier Hemy (1841–1917), who considerably influenced his work. In 1924 Dawson was the official artist for an Expedition to the South Seas by the steam yacht St. George. During the expedition he provided illustrated reports to the Graphic magazine.

His paintings are included throughout this site to illustrate these exquisite ladies of the sea.

Snow Squall: The Last American Clipper Ship
Snow Squall: The Last American Clipper Ship.Nicholas Dean's book is a series of unusual volunteer archaeological expeditions in the aftermath of the Falkland War.

Snow Squall's story is pieced together with information gleaned from shipping lists, newspaper accounts, disaster books, and diaries. Her world turns out to be a fascinating one, from the laying of her keel to her captain's heroic efforts to repair his badly damaged ship after going aground near Cape Horn in 1864.

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Recommended Reading

The American Clipper Ship.
The American Clipper Ship
1845-1920: A Comprehensive History, with a Listing of Builders and Their Ships

Glenn A. Knoblock
A comprehensive account of the fastest and most beautiful sailing ships ever built. It explores the quest for speed on the seas from the early 1800s through the fast-paced times of the 1850s spurred on by the California Gold Rush of 1849. Not only are the careers of such noted ships as Flying Cloud and Challenge discussed, but they are also in context with the times in which they operated. Their builders in East Coast states from Maine to Florida are in detail, as are the men, and a woman in one instance, who commanded and manned these ships. The book documents the roles that owners and shipping agents played, what kinds of cargo the ships carried worldwide and the unusual trades in which they participated.


American Clipper Ships,
1833-1858: Adelaide-Lotus
Ships, Shipping, Migration, World Seaports.
Octavius T. Howe, Frederick Matthews
Invaluable reference work for those seeking details on clipperships, including extreme clippers, duing the mid 1800s. Includes details of ships and builders, sailings, length of passage and some images.

Clipper Ships ~
References, including:

The American-Built Clipper Ship
1850-1856: Characteristics, Construction, and Details
Ships, Shipping, Migration, World Seaports.
by William L. Crothers.
° Greyhounds of the Sea
° Flying Cloud: America's Most Famous Clipper Ship
° Clipper Ship Captain: Daniel McLaughlin
° Clipper Ships and Captains
° The Clipper Ship Strategy
° Bluestocking Guide
° Ship Models: How to Build Them
° Clipper Ship Days
° American Sailing Ships: Plans


Barbara Fenton
Crossing the Line.

Clipper ships of America and Great Britain, 1833-1869Ships, Shipping, Migration, World Seaports.
Helen La Grange, Jacques La Grange

The Era of the Clipper Ships:
The Legacy of Donald McKay

Donald Gunn Ross III

Glasses etched with clipper ships.Era of Clipper Ships.

American Ship Models and How to Build Them
(Dover Maritime)
American Ship Models and How to Build Them.
V. R. Grimwood

Clipper ships, American Heritage Junior Library.Ships, Shipping, Migration, World Seaports.
Clipper Ships and Captains
(American Heritage Junior Library)
Ships, Shipping, Migration, World Seaports.
Jane D. Lyon

When America First Met China.
When America First Met China:
An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail
Tea, Drugs, Money in the Age of Sail.
Eric Jay Dolin
Ancient China collides with America in this epic tale of opium smugglers, sea pirates, and dueling clipper ships. Brilliantly illuminating one of the least-understood areas of American history, best-selling author Eric Jay Dolin traces our fraught relationship with China to its roots: the unforgiving nineteenth-century seas that separated a brash, rising naval power from an ancient empire. It is a prescient fable for our time, one that continues to shed light on our modern relationship with China. Indeed, the furious trade in furs, opium, and bêche-de-mer -- a rare sea cucumber delicacy -- might have catalyzed America's emerging economy, but it also sparked an ecological and human rights catastrophe. Peopled with fascinating characters -- from Robert Morris: Financier of the American RevolutionFinancier of the American Revolution. to the The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong, who considered foreigners inferior beings--this saga of pirates and politicians, coolies and concubines becomes a must-read for any fan of Nathaniel Philbrick's MayflowerMayflower. or Mark Kurlansky's CodCod, the fish that changed the world.. Two maps, 16 pages of color and 83 black-and-white illustrations.


Greyhounds of the Sea: The Story of the American Clipper ShipThe American Clipper Ship.
Carl C. Cutler
A rare and invaluable book for all who love the sea and ships.


Clipper Ships and the Golden Age of Sail: Races and Rivalries on the Nineteenth Century High Seas
Sam Jefferson
More than 200 paintings, illustrations, and thrilling descriptions of the adventures and races on the water. First-hand accounts, newspaper reports and log entries.


The American-Built Clipper Ship, 1850-1856: Characteristics, Construction, and Details
William L. Crothers

Pacific Marine Review:
The National Magazine Of Shipping, Volume 19

Pacific American Steamship Association

China Tea Clippers
George Frederick Campbell
The history of the China tea clippers is examined, especially their struggle in the 19th century for economic survival in the face of the steamships. It also details advances made in design, hull construction, rigging, sail plans and deck arrangements.


American Clipper Ships
1833-1858

Adelaide-Lotus
Octavius T. Howe


American Merchant Ships
1850-1900

(Dover Maritime)

Frederick C. Matthews


American Merchant Ships
and Sailors

Willis John Abbott
(Kindle Edition)

The Old Merchant Marine
A Chronicle of
American Ships and Sailor
s
Ralph Delahaye Paine

The Clipper Ship Era
An Epitome of Famous American and British Clipper Ships, Their Owners, Builders, Commanders, and Crews
1843-1869
Arthur Hamilton Clark

Kindly

Coming to America.
Coming to America:
A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life
First Immigrants to America.
Roger Daniels

Rare Books.
First Migrants
Ancient Migration in Global Perspective
Ancient Migrations.
Peter Bellwood

Your story begins as far back as you can imagine.