San Francisco News and Stories: 1800s

The High Cost of Passage

Daily Alta California, San Francisco, March 15, 1853

MINERS' MEETING ON THE PLAZA. ? ?A large number of miners, nearly three hundred, met on the Plaza yesterday to take into consideration the most feasible means to be adopted by them to reach the Atlantic States. It appeared that these men had come in from the mines anxious to return to their homes and families after a long absence, in consequence of an advertised reduction in prices by the different steamship companies in this city.

They had incurred a considerable expense in getting here, and on their arrival found that the different lines, instead of taking them for $100 each, as advertised a short time since, had put their prices up to $325 for the first class cabin passage, and the steerage passages $110, in the P.M. Steamship Company's ships, and $200 on the Vanderbilt line.?

Immigrant Ship.
Immigrants waving farewell and their ship leaves a
European port for for America

It was resolved amongst them, that rather than submit to pay their prices taking into consideration the fact that no pains had been taken by means of advertising or otherwise, to inform the mining public regarding the subsequent raising of the price ? that such raising was inconsistent with the principles of common justice and fairness ? and that it would be better for them to associate together and either charter a clipper ship or go home across the Plains. Over two hundred men signed their names to these resolutions.?

Without a wish to censure the different steamship companies, we must remark that there is certainly much truth in the complaints of injustice, unburthened at this meetings of miners. Not two weeks ago the rates of passage were published throughout the country, at such reductions from regular prices as encouraged men of small means, desirous to return to their old homes, to make the arrangements for their departure. They accordingly relinquish their mining interests, and come forthwith to this city, prepared to take passage, when lo! the steamers on both lines are announced to have gone back to their old rates of fares; and thus many a poor man is disappointed, and his situation made truly perplexing.?

Emigrant ships.
Below Decks on an Emigrant Ship, 1849

It shows the necessity for a fixed and (as near as can be) standard rate of passage, from which there shall be no deviating; and as California owes its prosperity to the immigration that has occurred and is still occurring, it is a matter of vital importance to have some criterion by which such immigration shall know how to guide its movement.

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Emigrants below decks for meals

October 19, 1854, Sacramento Daily Union

The New Arrangement

In speaking of the late combination of the steamship lines between San Francisco and New York, the Times and Transcript adds: It will appear to many that the prices of passage are fixed at too high a rate, but on the other hand it should be remembered that the two companies will be now enabled to meet the most essential wants of the community in furnishing safe, frequent, speedy and certain transportation on both routes, and that the difficulties and disappointments which have hitherto been experienced are not at all likely to recur.

It is due to both these lines that their endeavors heretofore to meet the frequent trying emergencies of the service should be properly appreciated. Under their present management there has been evinced a proper desire to deal justly and liberally with all who have had transactions with them. The Agents are identified with the interests of California, and occupy a position as representatives of well established and permanent companies, which enables them to comply with every requisition upon their resources. Supplied with a large reserve fleet of steamers on both sides, no accident can occur which will place it out of their power to remedy in the most expeditious manner.

Three-fourths of the travel between California and the Atlantic States is in the steerage, the inducement of low fares making this the preferred portion of the steamer, and the price of through tickets, including the Isthmus transit, placed at $150, has been settled upon as the lowest rate at which the business of transportation could be sustained on a remunerative basis. The impartial and unprejudiced will be led to conclude that health and security are considerations of quite as much magnitude as would be measured by the difference in the cost of travel between the present scale and that which has recently led to so much embarrassment and confusion.

We do not regard the new arrangements of the two steamship companies as dictated by a spirit of monopoly, but rather as a necessary measure of self preservation, and should it prove that they can reduce the rates and still sustain themselves by the increase of travel, we believe that they would unhesitatingly make such a change. A combination is necessarily a monopoly, and it is preposterous to suppose that prices of passage by long and expensive routes, such as those between San Francisco and New York, can be maintained at anything like the rates which have recently ruled.

The Times and Transcript does not regard the new arrangement as dictated by the spirit of monopoly; we deem it the legitimate result of that spirit. Every such combination is essentially and absolutely a monopoly. They are combinations of capitalists to protect themselves and insure a positive return of so much per cent, monthly upon the money invested. We admit that monopolies are not necessarily injurious to the communities in which they may be located; but the history of associated capital, the world over, proves that the tendency of all combinations to monopolize, is, to wring as much profit as possible from the necessities of those who are compelled to apply to them for accommodations.

The stockholders in these two famous steamship lines expect to be benefited by this combination. Are we asked how? Does it not give them the absolute control of the passenger travel from San Francisco to New York? Does it not enable them to fix the prices at such figures as will insure them a fine profit on their capital? Do they not own all the lines between California and New York? Did they not buy the Independent line of boats at an enormous price, and pay Mr. Vanderbilt $100,000 as a consideration for his not putting on another opposition line? Did not the combination intend when this was done to compel the traveling community to and from California to pay back this $100,000? Does not the fact that the companies possess the absolute power to do this, prove that they do possess as naked a monopoly as ever was created?

Emigrant Passage Ticket fom Chicago to San Francisco.

If the two companies were to buy up all the flour and wheat in the State, and fix upon the price of its sale to the hungry people, would it not be rightly called a monopoly? Where is the difference in principle between buying up all the flour to control its prices, and buying up independent opposition lines to control the price of tickets to New York? The only distinction we can see is in degree; in one case we should be urged by hunger to buy the flour, in the other, we might refuse to buy tickets, and remain in or out of the State.

Capital invested in steamships should pay to its owners a good interest; this we grant, it is no more than justice. Abstractly, its owners possess the right to combine for the purpose of making it pay five to ten percent, per month ? provided they can find a community willing or obliged to bleed thus freely. But we insist that capital in steamboat lines should take its chances for profit an it does in other branches of human enterprises. It will hardly do to say that these companies have not made money by the hundreds of thousands. The Nicaragua line was sold by Vanderbilt to the present company, before he went to Europe for some $300,000, and in less than one year it was advertised that the profits of the line had paid this enormous sum of money, and that, too, against an active competition. In fact, these two steamship lines have been and arc now the best paying of any in existence . . .

Dispatching a steamer weekly will prove advantageous to the State ? a plan which should have been adopted long since; but, as an offset, we pay a half per cent, advance on exchange and nearly or quite fifty percent, advance on passage. It will be seen at a glance that California is to be the sufferer. Her citizens pay the advance on exchange, most of the advance on passage, and, in addition, numerous families will be prevented from coming to the state, which is more to be regretted than either of the other considerations. Men in the State who were striving to earn means to send for their wives and children, will now give up in despair, and, as the only chance left them, will take a steerage passage, return to their families and abandon the State. As a matter of policy, we are confident the combination will find it for their interest to reduce the fare from New York to California. We are confident they would realize more money by adopting such a policy, and we know such a change would be greatly beneficial to California.

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Miners arriving in California during the Gold Rush
C.H. Dewitt

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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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