search   index   by subject   by year   biographies   books  SF Activities  shop museum   contact

"Steamer Day" at the Post Office in the Early 50's

Great crowds gathered to meet the incoming steamers for they always carried, beside the letter mail, huge quantities of New York papers, which gave the local residents the news of the world at large. The New York agents of the twelve daily newspapers published in the city in 1853 sent out condensed batches of world-wide news all prepared for the publishers here, and there developed a keen rivalry among them to see which genius would get on the street first with this Eastern news.

In 1858 the Overland Stage Line between San Francisco and St. Louis was established. This overland line consumed 21 days and made no reduction as compared with the regular steamer time, but it largely improved mail facilities. There were eight monthly arrivals by stage against two by steamer. The famous Pony Express was established in the same year between this city and St. Joseph, 1,800 miles. This service carried two mails per week, and the letters, written on fine tissue paper, were charged $5 each for every half ounce. This private correspondence overland contributed at times very important information to the local newspapers.

"Steamer day" was an institution, and developed a business system unique in several particulars. It astonished visitors, and was the wonder of Eastern correspondents. The system arose from the isolated position that San Francisco occupied on the commercial map of the world. For all practical purposes, San Francisco in the late '40's and early '50's was an island surrounded by a great ocean. Its only direct connection was with New York, via Panama, 4,000 miles away by water. Once every fortnight, the beginning and middle of every month, the city at large passed through the feverish excitement of "steamer day." A week before the 1st and 16th of each month practically every resident prepared his mail for the outgoing steamer. Gold dust running into the millions was shipped East, some of it to the Philadelphia mint to be coined. Letters, newspapers, business communications and the like matter had to be prepared for "steamer day." The system dragged along and died of inanition in the '80's.

In 1844 in Yerba Buena there was about a dozen houses and 50 people. In 1846 the Hudson Bay Co. sold their holdings and left, thus largely cutting down the number of settlers. But for some reason, the new site proved a magnet for nomads and sailors deserting vessels, and toward the close of 1846 there were some ninety buildings, shanties, adobes and frame houses, and about 200 inhabitants. By the end of April 1848, when the rush of residents to the gold fields began, the town had some 200 buildings, and the population was nearly 1,000, practically all Americans and Europeans. Every day brought new arrivals.

In January, 1847, the first printing press was established, and on the 7th of the month the first paper, "The California Star," a weekly, was published, a small sheet of four inches, 15 by 12 inches. Sam Brannan was the owner. Prior to that issue "The Californian," also a weekly, had been established in Monterey as early as August 15, 1846, by Messrs. Colton and Semple. This was the first paper published on the Pacific Coast, March 20, 1847. "The California Star" changed its date lines from Yerba Buena to the new title of the city, San Francisco, January 30, 1847, a year before gold was discovered.

San Francisco News Letter
December 5, 1925

Return to top of page