Central Pacific Railroad

Railroads Shipped By Sea
The High Seas
By the 1850s, sailing to California from the East Coast was almost commonplace and about as routine as sailing the high seas could ever be. Yet, sailing through two hemispheres meant that every voyage experienced all four seasons, and almost every ship sailing between the East and West Coasts encountered at least some severe weather. The Atlantic Ocean was generally the roughest part of the entire passage to California. Lawrence (in December 1867) and Sovereign of the Seas ran into heavy gales just after leaving New York and in both cases lost sails, spars, water casks, and boats. Under strong winds, Lawrence was on her beam's end for nearly four hours, flooding the cabin. In most cases, damaged vessels were repaired at sea but Helvetia, carrying rail, returned to New York demasted and leaking after encountering a North Atlantic storm in 1868. 

One ship carrying a locomotive, Cremorne, sailed through a hurricane in October 1865, while another storm completely de-masted J. F. Chapman and left her leaking. Under jury-rig, she put into Rio de Janeiro for repairs, only to have her rudder swept away by yet another storm, forcing her into Talcahuano. Storm damage forced Criterion into Rio de Janeiro twice on the same voyage. The delays made the passages of J. F. Chapman and Criterion the longest of any ships carrying locomotives, at 354 and 357 days, respectively. Although such stops for repairs were uncommon, in October 1868 five vessels carrying rail were at Rio de Janeiro at the same time being repaired from storm damage. In 1866, Carlyle put into Rio in such bad condition that she was condemned and her cargo of railroad spikes and other goods had to be reshipped. 

Gales in the South Atlantic swept away Swallow's rudder and broke a mast in 1867; they split sails, smashed boats and the forecastle door on Electric Spark the following year. The vessel St. Joseph was capsized by a South Atlantic storm in 1869. With her cargo shifted, she lay on her beam's end for fifteen hours; her crew had to cut away masts and rigging to right the vessel perhaps the closest any ship carrying a locomotive to the West came to being lost at sea. 

Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America, was notoriously perilous, and prevailing winds blew hard against the California-bound vessels. In rounding the Horn, many of the ships carrying locomotives reported mountainous seas, icebergs, snow, and hail. The vessel Haze broke both her rudder and stem on icebergs in 1866. The following year, Cutwater endured forty days of successive westerly gales near the Cape, which rent sails, carried away spars, crushed boats, and filled the cabin with water, while sailors on Intrepid a few days later suffered frostbite. In August 1868, gales with snow and freezing temperatures left the deck and rigging of Golden Fleece encased in ice. Two months later Golden Rule and Escort each experienced two weeks of gales, icebergs, hail, and snow off the Cape. Heavy weather off the Cape in March 1869 washed everything loose from the deck of Simla, and stove in her forecastle door and hatch houses, while in the same season St. Lucie struggled off the Cape for sixteen days in heavy weather. Governor Morton, carrying rail, was so badly damaged near Cape Horn that she had to return to Rio de Janeiro for repairs. 

While storms failed to claim any ship carrying locomotives, individual seamen were not so lucky. Winged Racer, carrying the first locomotive for the Sacramento Valley Rail Road, lost a man overboard, and sailors were blown Yom the rigging of Sea Lark and Lawrence in 1866. All of these accidents occurred in heavy storms off the Horn when rescue was impossible. Sailors faced disease as well; upon reaching San Francisco, Sea Lark reported nearly the whole crew sick, and two sailors of locomotive-carrying ships died of consumption while en route to California. 

During the Civil War there was fear that Confederate raiders might attack ships carrying railroad material to California. After all, the CP railroad was supported by Congress in part as a strategic ploy to keep the West—with its gold and silver—allied with the Union. The war increased insurance premiums, but, in fact, no railroad material was ever reported lost from this cause. 

Even without the attack of a hostile warship, however, fire from lamps or cooking stoves was a serious danger on board wooden ships. In 1866 the ship Hornet burned at sea, going down with rail, spikes, and chain belonging to the CP. Reunion, on her voyage to California with locomotives in that same year, chanced upon a burning British ship and rescued her crew. 

On the long voyage to California everyone must eventually have suffered monotony. Seminole, Ella Norton, Majestic, and Edith all reported voyages with fair winds the entire way. While this must have been better than the alternative of dangerous storms, it meant there was little work to keep the crew busy. In a long period of fair weather, John Tucker sailed fifty four consecutive days without furling skysails on her 1865-66 passage, a record almost matched by Swallow in 1867, which only had to furl skysails once in fifty consecutive days. 

Monotony doubtless gave way to frustration when the winds died or grew fickle. Santa Claus lay becalmed seven days, Intrepid eight days (in 1866), and Prima Donna went fourteen days without a breeze (also in 1866). Winds often died in the tropics, but John Tucker (in 1867), Guardian, Favorita (it 1868), and James R. Keeler actually found themselves becalmed for a day or so each off Cape Horn. Light winds could be just as aggravating as no wind at all. For fifty seven consecutive days, light winds pushed Electric Spark fewer than 100 miles per day. The fact that light winds were often encountered off California—when crews were most anxious to reach port and supplies were low must only have compounded the frustration. The bark Emma C. Beal was within 850 miles of San Francisco for thirteen days, while Derby and Favorita (in 1869) were within 600 miles of San Francisco for eleven and fifteen days, respectively. 

The quickest passage of a vessel carrying locomotives from the East Coast to California—that of Seminole--took 97 days. The average voyage, however, was 145 days, almost five months. The longest (not counting the repair-delayed voyages of J. F. Chapman and Criterion) was the 205-day passage of Ellen Southard. She was held back 48 days off Cape Horn by persistent westerly storms—so long that she had to put into Juan Fernandez Island to replenish drinking water. 

Excerpt from an article by Wendell W. Huffman.
Copyrighted © 1999 by the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society, Inc.

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