Description of the S.S. Golden Gate
by Andrew Czernek, aczernekATcomcast.net
The Golden Gate was one of a half-dozen ships operated by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company on the West Coast, primarily on the San Francisco-Panama run. When it burned and sank it was uninsured, though the $1.4 million in gold that it was carrying had been insured.
California's Bancroft Library has a color print, "Burning of the Steamship Golden Gate," made by Currier & Ives after the sinking.
The ship was originally commissioned as one of a pair ordered by Pacific Mail Steamship in 1850 using a new type of oscillating engines that gave the sidewheel steamer more space. The nearly-identical sister ship, the Illinois eventually went into service for U.S. Mail Company. The engines were designed by Novelty Works, with the ship being built by William H. Webb Shipyard in New York City. The ship was delivered in August, 1851 at a cost of $483,000 and made its first run from Panama to California in October, 1851.
Though the ship was not accident-free, both the Golden Gate and Pacific Mail management were considered safe. Ironically, the Daily Alta California, in reporting that Capt. Pearson would command the ship on this trip said, "He is not only a askillful navigator but a "lucky" one, for during this long period of almost uninterrupted service, he has met with few, if any, accidents of a serious character." The S.S. Golden Gate had three pumps aboard in case of fire and reportedly carried 1,500 life preservers (for a capacity of 1,200).
The ship had been aground once at Point Loma in 1854 and had come close to a collision with the Sierra Nevada, a ship of the Vanderbilt Co.
After coming to service in the Pacific, the Golden Gate continued to be improved by adding a condensor to the steam engine and increasing its steam pressure from 12 psi to 30 psi. Estimates were that the ship took about 60 tons of coal per day to run at top speed, but the ship was generally run more efficiently at lower speeds. In May, 1855 studies show that the cost of coal in Panama was $38,000 for a one-way voyage and $20,000 in San Francisco. Round-trip passenger income at that same time was $82,000, almost half of it coming from first-class fares.
The ship was 270' long; weight 2,067 tons; and had three classes of cabins and a total capacity of 1,200 people. On her last voyage there were 338, including crew of 96.
On the final trip it left San Francisco at 2:30 pm on Monday July 21, 1862 – in the midst of the American Civil War – as one of the fastest steamers then on the West Coast. It had 338 passengers and crew, plus $1.4 million in gold, bound for Panama.
The S.S. Golden Gate held the record for the trip of 11 days and four hours for its first four years on the route (1851-1855), covering the distance at an average of 12 knots. The owner, Pacific Mail Steamship Company, had an excellent record for safety in an era when at least one ship each day was reported lost in American newspapers. This trip wouldn't be completed – at least not for the 213 people lost when the ship caught fire and sank off Manzanillo, Mexico.
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