Journey Times to San Francisco in the 19th Century

A look at travel in the 19th century to San Francisco

Looking recently at a map of still buried 19th century ships in the San Francisco Financial District, it struck me as to how long journeys took to the west coast at that time. These were the days, the 1840’s and beyond, of no train, very few stagecoaches, nor any type of telegraphic communication to assist our young nation in travel to its recently acquired territory and eventual state of California. Journey times between San Francisco and New York were slightly faster and safer by ship than by land. The duration of travel:

-       43 days – New York to San Francisco via Isthmus of Panama (1852)

-       51 days – San Francisco to New York via Panama (1854)

-       198 days – New York to Monterey, California sailing around Cape Horn (1847)

While travel times seem substantial to us today, at the time they were considered the norm, much to my surprise. I cannot imagine what it would take to spend so much time and effort (like crossing Nicaragua by foot) to get to California, but people did it.

As an example, I will attempt to trace William T. Sherman’s travel times during the 1850’s when he and his family resided here in San Francisco pre–Civil War. After the gold rush of 1849, most of the ships coming around the horn of South America were simply left to rot in the San Francisco Bay after their one-way journey.  Below is a map (from of the remaining buried ships in downtown San Francisco, along with an 1851 photo of over 200 or more ships anchored in the bay, most of which are abandoned and remain underground in downtown San Francisco.

Map of buried ships (left), buried ship in San Francisco (bottom right)

However not all ships during this time were abandoned, for there was an urgent need for two-way journeys from the east to west coast.  Not until the transcontinental railroad in 1868 nor the pony express prior to that in 1861 and the telegraph in 1863, would communication between the coasts become more reasonable.  

Several biographies of the Civil War general William T. Sherman depicted his comings and goings to New York when stationed as a young lieutenant in California. Without the railroad, cars, planes or even a telephone, how did he travel across the continent? This struck me as fascinating and is left out of a lot of descriptions of his life. It turns out he made the back-and-forth journey four times over his career during the 1850’s (not counting the one round trip Mrs. Sherman traveled on her own),mostly by route across Nicaragua.  William Sherman speaks of travel as if it were not a big deal, but it was a massive feat putting up with the hardships of travel in those times.  

Sherman’s first trip was an arduous one; 198 days around Cape Horn, departing New York on July 14, 1846. Before he became famous in the 1860’s, Sherman was a fresh graduate of West Point who had a burning desire to see the west, so when the opportunity came up while serving as a young lieutenant in Florida and Georgia (the area in which he was famous for later as in the “march to the sea”) to travel to the newly formed military post in Monterey, California, he jumped at the chance.  It took 198 days in total from New York on July 14, 1846. In Sherman’s autobiography, he describes the journey in a November 1846 diary entry onboard: “If you hear of a subscription opening to dig a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, you may put me down any amount for really I do not fancy a voyage of twenty-four thousand miles to accomplish a distance of less than two thousand.”

There were two stops along the way for supplies, one in Rio on the southern leg, and the other in Valparaiso, Chile on the northern leg. They also got stopped for a month stranded onboard the Lexington at Cape Horn due to bad weather. Illustrations below show the USS Lexington, Rio de Janeiro, and Valparaiso in the early to mid-19th century. Sherman enjoyed in his week in Rio, but detested his time in Valparaiso.

USS Lexington (top left), Rio de Janeiro (top right), Valparaiso (bottom)

This journey took Sherman to Northern California in 1846, arriving on January 26, 1847 in Monterey. He took other trips to New York and to visit his family in Lancaster, Ohio, (very near to where I grew up) until he returned permanently in 1858. On one of these trips Sherman accompanied his wife and 2-year-old daughter back to San Francisco in 1853 to join him at a house he rented on Green Street near the corner of Stockton Street (where I used to work, drawing geographical parallels to my own life). Sherman left in July 1853 from San Francisco to Lancaster Ohio to retrieve his family, and by this time he had left the military and became a banker in charge of the bank at Montgomery and Jackson (see photos below), now Stout’s Architectural Bookstore. He actually oversaw its construction. Back to the journey: 40 days total to Lancaster by ship to Nicaragua, mules and boats across Lake Nicaragua, more mules and walking to the Atlantic Ocean to catch a ship up the east coast to New York where he took a train to Ohio, subsequently returning with Mrs. Sherman and their 2-year-old Missy.  This trip was “only” 25 days, but getting across Nicaragua by mule while carrying a 2-year-old took several days, if nota week.  Once arriving at the Pacific Ocean it was then necessary to hire what he called “he men” to carry him, his wife and child through the surf to waiting row boats that transported them to awaiting steam ship.  Once onboard they bought tickets for the trip up the west coast to San Francisco. Sherman said in his autobiography that Missy never really recovered from the ordeal.  

March 31, 1906, Sherman's Bank at center (left), today (right)

Around 1855 Sherman built a frame house on Harrison Street, between 1st and Fremont, where the Harrison residential tower now stands.  There is plaque to commemorate this on the other side of the Bay Bridge abutment, quite a distance away from the actual location of the house on Harrison. This was the site of Sherman’s family’s residence before their last trip back to Lancaster Ohio after the failure of the bank at Jackson and Montgomery, just before the outbreak of the Civil War.

Current and original plaque location

All of Sherman’s trips passed through Nicaragua (except the first one in 1846 around the Horn)and averaged an unimaginable 23 to 40 days each way.

His trips are listed below in chronological order:

1.   198 days—July 14, 1846: New York to Monterey, CA, around Cape Horn

2.   31 days—January 1, 1850: Monterey to New York

3.   40 days—March 1853: New Orleans to San Francisco

4.   40 days—July 1853: San Francisco to Lancaster, Ohio

5.   25 days—September 20, 1853: New York(Lancaster to NY by train) to San Francisco with family

6.   Unknown days—April 17, 1855: Mrs. Sherman to Lancaster, Ohio by herself, and return by herself in November of that year

7.   Unknown days—May 1, 1857: San Francisco to New York with family, then onto Lancaster, Ohio

8.   23 days—January 5, 1858: New York to San Francisco

9.   25 days—July 3, 1858: Final departure from San Francisco to Lancaster, Ohio to reunite with family

Additionally in 1855 a railroad was completed across Panama cutting down the trip from 10 days on mules to a matter of hours. Unsure why trips 6 through 9 did not take advantage of this railroad instead of crossing by foot and boat at Nicaragua.

All in all these trips across our new country was no simple task, even though most of the literature I find on the subject gives little mention when discussing national and world events of the time. It assumes that people in California knew all about issues in the national capital.  Mail of course was carried in the same way as passengers: by steamship, so there was communication albeit slow. Things like national election returns and the breakout of the Civil War did not reach California in a timely manner. It was a completely different time and age.

Blog post written by David Tritt, Senior Architect.

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