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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

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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.

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The Annals of San Francisco

Frank Soule, John H. Gihon. 1855

Written by three journalists who were witnesses to and participants in the extraordinary events they describe. The Annals of San Francisco is both an essential record for historians and a fascinating narrative for general readers. Over 100 historical engravings are included.

Partial Contents: Expeditions of Viscaino; Conduct of the Fathers towards the natives; Pious Fund of California; Colonel John C. Fremont; Insurrection of the Californians; Description of the Golden Gate; The Mission and Presidio of San Francisco; Removal of the Hudson's Bay Company; Resolutions concerning gambling; General Effects of the Gold Discoveries; Third Great Fire; Immigration diminished; The Chinese in California; Clipper Ships; Increase of population; and Commercial depression.

Click for a Selection of California History Books

"Historical Atlas of California"uses nearly five hundred historical maps and many other illustrations--from rough sketches drawn in the field to commercial maps to beautifully rendered works of art. This lavishly illustrated volume tells the story of California's past from a unique visual perspective. Covering five hundred years of history, it offers a compelling and informative look at the transformation of the state from before European contact through the Gold Rush and up to the present. The maps are accompanied by a concise, engaging narrative and by extended captions that elucidate the stories and personalities behind their creation.

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