The Maritime Heritage Project

World Harbors from The Maritime Heritage Project in San Francisco.

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.

After establishing the family in new ports, Aspinwall concentrated on ship design — faster ships meant greater profits — and 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.

Pacific Mail Steamship Company San Francisco for Panama.

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.

Alta California, April 1849

Buy at Art.com
Gold-Seekers arriving in San Francisco. 1848

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.

ZACHRISSON, NELSON & CO.

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.

Aspinwall The Train Starting for Panama.
Aspinwall Central America
The Train Starting for Panama.

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.


Recommended Reading

If you cannot find recommended books locally, consider the links provided to Amazon.com or AbeBooks
both of which have proven to be reliable on service and delivery.

The Mammoth Book of Life Before the Mast:
Sailors' Eyewitness Stories from the Age of Fighting Ships
Life Before the Mast.Ships, Life Before the Mast.
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 the gore of the great age of naval warfare. They epitomize that era 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 not by the impersonal power of technology but by sheer human wit, courage, and endurance. Culled from memoirs, diaries, and letters of celebrated officers as well as common sailors, the collection includes exciting 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 revealing glimpses into the hardships suffered daily 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.Ships, Shipping, Migration, World Seaports.
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 well 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 accounts 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 1841Ships, Shipping, Migration, World Seaports.
John C. Dann

Great Stories of the Sea & ShipsSea 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. Not only does it showcase the fiction of such classic writers as Daniel Defoe, Jules Verne, and Jack London, but the entries also feature historic first-person narratives including Christopher Columbus’s own account of his famous voyage in 1492. Every page offers 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 NavyShips, Shipping, Migration, World Seaports.

James T. deKay
The Rebel Raiders.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 riveting 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.

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Recommended Reading

Early California.
Roaring Camp:
The Social World of the California Gold Rush
Roaring Camp.
Susan Lee Johnson

Up and Down California, William H. Brewer.
Rush for Riches:
Gold Fever and the Making of California

J. S. Holliday

Up and Down California
The Journal of William H. Brewer


Fourth Edition, with Maps
William H. Braewer

Mud, Blood and Gold.
Mud, Blood, and GoldSan Francisco 1849.
San Francisco in 1849
Rand Richards

EmbarcaderoSea Adventures 1849.
True Tales of Sea Adventure
1849 to 1906
Richard Dillon

Spars and Rigging.
Spars and Rigging:
From Nautical Routine, 1849

(Dover Maritime)
Spars and Rigging.
John M'Leod Murphy, W. N. Jeffers

Jedediah Smith 1826.
The Southwest Expedition of Jedediah Smith: His Personal Account of the Journey to California, 1826-1827Journey to California 1826.
Jedediah S. Smith

 

Ancient America.
The Lost Colonies of Ancient AmericaLost Colonies of Ancient America.
A Comprehensive Guide to the Pre-Columbian Visitors Who Really Discovered America
Frank Joseph
"A delineation of foreign cultures with the Americas which transcends mere coincidence. The work documents connections to Sumerians, Egyptians, Minoans, Romans, Kelts, Hebrews, Chinese, Japanese, Africans, Southeast Asians, Norsepeoples, Knights Templar and Christians." -- Dr. Joseph S. Maresca
"Frank Joseph's decades of research and exploration has uncovered evidence that rewrites history books. A vital reference for anyone seeking knowledge of America's forgotten past." --David Jones, editor, New Dawn Magazine

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