"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
Paddle Wheelers Took Men to the Gold In a Style They Would Not See Again


by Don Baumgart

As the California gold fields attracted more and more young men from across the country and even around the world, the problem of getting them to the gold fields and supplying them also grew.

They needed everything. Gold pans and fresh eggs, shovels and beans. Roads were either rough and troublesome and barely worthy of the name, or non-existent. So, northern California's system of natural waterways became the major roadway. The boat that became most successful on the Sacramento River was the paddle wheeler.

The West was young and the vessels needed for California river travel had to endure the long journey from the east coast, around Cape Horn, and up the coast to San Francisco, where they attracted curious crowds when they arrived in port.

"River boats were graceful craft," writes Donna Landerman in the Territorial Dispatch, "their lean hulls capable of an excellent turn of speed."
Day and night the steamboats ran from the San Francisco Bay, past the Sacramento River delta islands, toward the hill country where riches surely awaited. Most of the riches, however, fell into the hands of the merchants whose goods arrived by ship and were quickly snapped up by hungry and threadbare miners.

Cargo and eager would-be gold millionaires were the main source of revenue for the riverboat captains. While on board the future miners feasted on fresh game and fish, roasts and vegetables washed down with champagne and red wine; meals of which they would dream later as they spent their day's take on beans.

An era dawned that saw big steamers on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers while more modest boats traveled the smaller tributaries. Steamboating in California lasted a hundred years but toward its end only one stern-wheeler remained active. Railway and truck competition finally ended the need for river travel.

"On California's rivers the subdued chunking of paddle wheels and the pipe organ notes of the steam whistle have given way to the blat of the compressed air horn and the annoying 'boom-boom-boom-boom' of Herr Doktor Diesel's highly efficient but unromantic and smelly invention," Jerry MacMullen writes in his book "Paddle Wheel Days in California".

It is as fitting an epitaph as any to a stately form of transportation that once took eager young men to their searches for gold.

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2007


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