"Steamer day" in San Francisco-the day of departure or
arrival of one of the biweekly Panama Route ships-was always a lively occasion,
with bands playing, flags flying, and enthusiastic crowds seeing off departing
friends or greeting new arrivals. The morning of Thursday, august 220, 1857 was
no exception, as more than 400 eastbound passengers and their friends and
well-wishers excitedly crowded the Vallejo Street Wharf. At the dock was the SS
Sonora, the ship that would take the passengers on the first leg of their
journey to New York.
It was a colorful group, representing every
level of San Francisco society. First-cabin passengers included Billy Birch,
the 26-year-old star of the famous San Francisco Minstrels, and his vivacious
wife, Virginia. The young couple had exchanged wedding vows the day before.
Another honeymooning couple, Adeline and Ansel Easton, arrived at the wharf
directly from their morning wedding, escorted by an entourage of high-society
friends. Addie was the sister of the banker Darius Ogden Mills, who later
founded the Bank of California and became one of the richest men in the state.
There were other prominent San Francisco residents making the voyage as well.
Other passengers, less prosperous (or perhaps more thrifty) had
purchased steerage tickets. Among them were 17-year-old Henry T. O'Conner, a
printer, and his widowed mother. George Dawson, a free African American who had
been working as a hotel porter, was also heading east. Oliver Perry Manlove, a
veteran of three adventurous years in the gold fields at the young age of 26,
was making his first journey by sea. With him, Manlove carried a sheaf of poems
he had written describing his adventures.
The fare for any type of
cabin was not cheap. In 1857, a first-cabin ticket on the Panama Route cost
$300 and a second-cabin ticket $250. Steerage accommodations sold for $150,
which was the equivalent of a month's wages for the average California gold
prospector, who made about $5 a day.
Thus, even those in steerage
class had money, and in 1857, money meant gold. Tons of the precious metals
that made up the shipments on the Panama Route. Some of the travelers entrusted
their personal gold to the purser, and others carried gold in closely held
personal luggage or in money belts and pouches.
On September 3, the
Sonora reached Panama City. Soon thereafter the passengers were transferred to
the Panama Railroad for the four-hour journey by land. Awaiting the travelers,
cargo, and mail at the Aspinwall dock was the ship that would carry them the
rest of the way: the United States Mail Steamship Central America. Built for
the Panama route during 1852-1853, at the New York shipyard of William H. Webb,
the United States Mail Steamship Company. Originally christened the George Law
after one of the firm's owners, the recently renamed ship had completed 43
round-trip voyages between New York and Aspinwall during its four years of
Forty-three-year-old William Lewis Herndon of the United
States navy commanded the vessel in compliance with the laws requiring all
steamers carrying the US Mail to be captained by a Navy officer. Commander
Herndon had achieved national fame in 1851 for leading the first scientific
expedition to explore the Amazon River from its source to its mouth. Passengers
no doubt looked forward to hearing about his adventures firsthand.