Formed to carry mail from Central America to California, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company also carried many immigrants up the Pacific coast. During the early decades of Asian immigration to the United States, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company was the primary shipping line that carried Chinese and Japanese immigrants to the West Coast.
Between the time gold was discovered in California in 1848, and 1869, when the first transcontinental railroad was completed, a large portion of the people going from the East Coast to the West Coast of the United States traveled primarily by ship, usually crossing Central America by overland routes along the way. During this same period, increasing numbers of Asians–particularly Chinese–were coming to California to work in the mines and railroads. For a large number of these travelers, ships of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company provided not only oceanic transportation but also the mail service to communicate with families left behind.
The Pacific Mail Steamship Company was chartered in New York in April, 1848, by William Aspinwall. In October, the company was granted a contract by the U.S. government to carry mail from the Isthmus of Panama to San Francisco, in the recently acquired territory of California. The company went into service with three new paddlewheel steamers. In addition to carrying the U.S. mail, the company’s ships carried immigrants, businessmen, and gold seekers on the twelve- to fourteen-day voyage up the Pacific Coast. In 1855, completion of a railroad line across Panama made the overland part of travelers’ journeys quicker, safer, and more comfortable. However, completion of the transcontinental railroad across the United States in 1869 would eventually doom the company’s Panama to California service. However, between 1848 and 1869, the company’s ships carried 19,000 passengers per year to California.
Meanwhile, the company’s immediate future was assured in 1865, when it was granted a contract to carry U.S. mail between the West Coast of the United States and East Asia. After collecting mail in San Francisco, company ships sailed to Yokohama, Japan, and Hong Kong, China. By this period, large numbers of Asians, mostly Chinese, were coming to the United States and Canada to work. As Pacific Mail expanded its fleet, it carried tens of thousands of Asians to the United States, typically charging the immigrants forty dollars to make the passage in steerage class. By 1873, Pacific Mail was running forty ships on various routes. A large majority of them worked the Asian routes. The company also had smaller vessels running routes among U.S. and Canadian ports along the West Coast.
Federal restrictions on Asian immigration that began with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 gradually cut into the Pacific Mail’s Asian passenger trade, but the shipping company opened new routes to other regions, including Australia. However, over time, the company failed to keep up with competing lines. In 1893, it was purchased by the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, which resold it to another shipping company in 1916. In 1938, its ownership passed to the American President Lines, but by then the company existed only on paper. It was formally dissolved eleven years later.
Barde, Robert Eric. Immigration at the Golden Gate: Passenger Ships, Exclusion, and Angel Island. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2008. Chandler, Robert J., and Stephen J. Potash. Gold, Silk, Pioneers and Mail: The Story of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. San Francisco: Friends of the San Francisco Maritime Museum Library, 2007. Page, Thomas W. “The Transportation of Immigrants and Reception Arrangements in the Nineteenth Century.” Journal of Political Economy 19, no. 9 (1911): 732-749.
California gold rush
Transportation of immigrants