Sacramento history is all about the California Gold Rush and the thousands of gold seekers arriving in this area of northern California in the late 1840’s. When you tour Sacramento today, and in particular the Sacramento Old Town district, gold rush stories and historic buildings are aplenty.
Walk the streets of Old Town Sacramento and you’ll see names connected to the city’s earliest days. Sutter, Crocker, Huntington, Hopkins…these are just a few. The fact is that Sacramento grew tremendously because of it’s close proximity to the gold mines in the Sierra Nevada foothills and to the Sacramento River which was a natural waterway to both the port of San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean.
The Gold Rush Transformed the Sacramento
There was no other river than the Sacramento that played such an important role in the growth and development of northern California. It also played a key role in the history of Sacramento. There is no other river west of the Rocky Mountains that is as rich in history and adventure than the Sacramento.
The California Gold Rush changed this river from a sleepy waterway to a bustling transportation highway. Before the gold rush no steamboats actually worked San Francisco Bay. Before the gold rush, San Francisco was a relatively small settlement with a few shacks.
Steam Navigation on the Sacramento
By the year 1850 it’s estimated that there were no less than twenty-eight steamers operating on the Sacramento River. Each year added to these numbers. During the very early years a passenger might have paid up to $30 for a trip between San Francisco and Sacramento. Stiff competition would eventually drive down fares to about one dollar. The competition was so fierce and the steamboats numbers grew so high that safety was completely overshadowed in the quest for maximum profits. Steamboat accidents on the Sacramento were many.
The competition became so intense that as soon as one steamboat operator would lower fares the others would soon follow. Eventually, the steamboat operators met and formed a monopoly to stop the madness. This was the birth of the California Steam Navigation Company. Nearly all would claim that this was a monopoly and indeed it was. Ridiculously low fares were a thing of the past but so was the chaos. Transportation fares stabilized and river transportation benefited.
Those Great Sacramento River Steamers
Arguably, the most famous and popular steamboat ever to ply the waters of the Sacramento was the “Chrysopolis“. The steamers nickname at the time was the “Chryssie“. The 245 foot long Chrysopolis was built in 1860. The ship’s beam was forty feet and it’s depth ten feet. This magnificent steamboat had a 1,357 horsepower steam engine and huge paddle wheels that were thirty-six feet in diameter. This was an impressive steamboat which held the fastest speed record between San Francisco to Sacramento.
The Chrysopolis was built every bit as luxurious as the best steamboats on the Mississippi. Red plush upholstery, rosewood paneling,crystal chandeliers…the Chryssie had it all. In addition to the beautiful accommodations, the Chryssie offered passengers “all you could eat for one dollar“.
Constructed in 1862, the Yosemite was placed in service in 1863 by the California Steam Navigation Company to operate along with the Chrysopolis.
In 1865, only two years after she was put into service, the Yosemite suffered a fatal boiler explosion as she was pulling out of Rio Vista Landing along the Sacramento. Fifty-five people were reported killed and many more injured. The history books are filled with incidents of steam boiler explosions. Indeed, this was the dangerous part of early steamboating. In the case of the Yosemite, her boilers were said to be of the safer, lower pressure design. Obviously, the safer design was a failure, at least in this instance. The steamboat itself was not destroyed in the blast and she was eventually equipped with new boilers.
The Wilson G. Hunt
The side wheeler Wilson G. Hunt was built in New York in 1849. The steamer had a single cylinder engine powered by a low pressure boiler. Her dimensions were 185.5 feet long, 25.8 feet abeam and with a depth of 6.75 feet. The 250 horsepower steam engine could drive the boat at about 15 knots.
The Wilson G. Hunt, like most of the steamers of the 1850’s, traveled to the west coast via Cape Horn. This in itself was a dangerous journey. During her lifetime she saw service in Puget Sound, the Fraser River, the Columbia River and then on the Sacramento River. On the Sacramento, the William G. Hunt operated beginning in 1850 by the California Steamship Navigation Company.
Steamboat racing on the Sacramento River was forbidden. Too many boiler explosions occurred when steamer captains tried to race one another. By the same token, expediency was desired and regardless of the prohibition against racing, it did occur. One such incident involving the Wilson G. Hunt occurred just above Benicia California when the steamboat New World suffered a boiler explosion while racing the Hunt. It was not long after this mishap that the owners of the Hunt joined in with the California Steam Navigation Company.
Learn About the Great Steamboats
Here are few great venues to learn more about the steamboats that operated on the Sacramento River and offered ferry service during the gold rush era and beyond as well as on the great rivers of the northwest such as the Columbia.
The San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park is located adjacent to Fishermans Wharf. The vessels on display there make it the largest museum collection in the National Park Service. Walk onto the pier to visit the park’s collection of historic ships and for great views of the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate Bridge. The park is open year round. Nearby to it is the park’s Maritime Museum in a 1939 Streamline Moderne Bathhouse Building.
The Columbia River Maritime Museum is located in Astoria Oregon, northwest of Portland at the mouth of the Columbia River. The museum is open all year and everyday with the exception on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Here you’ll see a great display of ship artifacts including bells, fog horns, whistles and navigation equipment. Included within this excellent museum is the Ted M. Natt Research Library which contains a large collection of historical resources pertaining to the maritime history of the Columbia River and the Pacific Northwest. This is a world famous maritime museum with visitors from around the globe.
Two excellent books on this subject are Water Trails West by The Western Writers of America and Steamboats on the Western Rivers by author Louis C. Hunter and Beatrice Jones Hunter.
(Photos and images of steamboats are from the public domain. Photos of Old Town Sacramento, California Steam Navigation sign, paddle wheel and steamboat wheel are from author’s collection)