Sutter’s Mill 1849

My inspiration for The California Run came when I first studied the historical background of the California Gold Rush itself, and quickly realized that there was more to this story than met the eye.

There was a connection here that I had not seen before. A nautical connection, and this in itself made it worth studying further.

It’s not very often that one solitary moment in history can be found from which an entire wave of consequential events spread outwards like ripples across a becalmed sea. That’s usually the job of qualified historians, at some later date, to plot and track these causes and effects and to finally conclude that one particular event was indeed the catalyst that led to so many others.

But in the case of James A. Marshall no such meticulous study would ever be required. Because from the very moment this otherwise nondescript carpenter stooped down one January morning in 1848 to clean a blocked sluice at his place of employment, Sutter’s Mill in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and found in his hand not only washed gravel but also several gleaming nuggets of pure gold, a singular, momentous and self-perpetuating ripple was created that would expand unopposed and in plain sight around the entire globe and would initiate a sequence of events in places and in ways that extended far beyond this humble man’s wildest imagination.

The California Gold Rush had begun, and there was no stopping it. Even before the news had reached the small sleepy coastal settlement of nearby Yerba Buena, soon to be renamed San Francisco, it had gained such momentum that the only possible response was to allow it to run its full course.

California Miners 1850

In the twelvemonth leading up to April of 1848 only 13 ships from the East Coast had arrived in San Francisco, which had then boasted a population of almost one thousand. In the year of 1849 a total of 775 ships entered the Golden Gate and, combined with those lesser-affluent folk who stampeded westwards overland, helped to swell this ill-prepared town’s population, by the close of that year, to more than 20,000.

These Forty-niners, as they would later be called, would stop at nothing in their quest for easy riches and they would gladly pay the price to get themselves there; as much as $1,000 for the 15,000 mile, 200-day voyage around Cape Horn. From the very outset speed was the overriding factor and whenever any particular ship, whether by mere good fortune or by the superior skills of her captain, managed to trim a few days from this average voyage time, then immediately her rates would soar and she would attract more passengers and freight than she could ever hope to accommodate.

In 1849 there existed, still in its infancy, a new class of ship. Modeled on the sleeker lines and narrower beam of the Baltimore Clipper, which had gained its notoriety with blockade running and privateering in the war of 1812, these ships were also designed with the concept of speed taking precedence over tonnage capacity. They were originally constructed for the China to New York tea trade, where prices for the first of each season’s crop attracted prime rates from those who considered freshness of paramount importance. With their sharpened, concave bows flaring outwards at deck level and their steeply-raked masts dressed high with canvas, less than a dozen of these new Yankee Clippers were yet in existence, as many considered them, in view of the ongoing development of steam power, to be already obsolete. Yet with steam power itself being so recent a discovery, the unrefined paddle-wheeler, with its natural clumsiness on the open ocean, was further confined by its own vast appetite for coal which could only be found in a couple of ports south of Central America. So barely a handful of these vessels were able to cover the lengthy passage around Cape Horn in anything approaching a respectable clip.

Then, on August 28 1849, the tea clipper Memnon arrived off the Golden Gate from New York after an astonishing voyage lasting only 122 days, nearly half the time of any other ship, sail or steam, and from this day onwards another rush was underway.

Suddenly shipyards all along New York’s East River, down east in Boston and to the farthermost reaches of Maine found themselves overwhelmed by a sudden backlog of rush-orders. An entire fleet of new Yankee Clippers, especially strengthened now for the California run and further refined with wall-sided, flatter-bottomed hull constructions to allow the maximum weight of cargo without any compromise in speed, began descending the slipways, many of which on their maiden voyages alone would earn enough in profit to pay for their own construction costs.

But no longer filled with passengers, as already a quicker route had been established via steamboat and Nicaraguan mule portage across the Panama Isthmus, but instead laden with much-needed freight.

A $5 barrel of flour purchased in New York would sell on arrival in San Francisco four months later for ten times as much, and during the famine of early 1850 for thirty times as much. A $20 keg of nails would sell for an average of $80 or, if landed close on the heels of one of the many fires suffered by this growing city of tents and wooden shacks, could fetch as much as $200. A one cent New York newspaper, four months old, would easily sell for a dollar, and cheese, butter, tea, coffee, spices and all manner of other perishables could demand prices depending on its freshness and, in one record-breaking run in July of 1850, Sea Witchmade the passage from New York in only 97 days, to sell her cargo for a profit of almost $200,000; four times her own construction costs.

Speed was now absolutely everything and, with such clear proof now that steam power did not, by a long shot, yet hold dominance over sail, there was no stopping the growth of the clipper industry any more than those Forty-niners who had started it all.

And outward still the ripples spread; to China, where several of these new clippers, now discharged of their Californian cargoes, sought another for quick profit, voyaging well beyond the reaches of any commercial steamship, for coaling stations throughout Asia were near to nonexistent. Very quickly the China to New York tea trade became saturated so they instead sought out new markets, looking to Europe and in particular to the tea-thirsty British, who had only recently repealed their Navigation Acts which had prohibited all tea imports by foreign vessels.

And when, in December 1850, the Orientalarrived in London laden with 1,600 tons of premium teas after a record-shattering run from Hong Kong of only 97 days, the fever spread rapidly into the shipyards of Great Britain, and with the further refinement of lengthier hulls for even more speed and with a maximizing of sail area on all three raked masts; square sails, staysails and studdingsails filling every available square-inch of space aloft, these ships would all but fly across the world’s oceans, reaching speeds of up to twenty knots and it would be another quarter of a century at least before steam power, with the refinement of the screw propeller, came anywhere close to competing.

And so it might be said, that from a single handful of wet gravel a new age came into being.

The age of the clipper ship.