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Railroads Shipped by Sea
Railroad History, Bulletin 180, Spring, 1999. pp. 7-30.
By Wendell W. Huffman

Courtesy Railway & Locomotive Historical Society, William F. Howes, Jr., President.

R&LHS Copyrighted © 1999 by the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society, Inc., P.O, Box 1418. Westford. Massachusetts 01886. The R&LHS, founded in 1921, is the oldest organization in North America devoted to railroad history. Its object is to promote research and encourage documentation.  Source materials — printed, manuscript and graphic — are housed in the Society's archives in Sacramento, California.  For additional information, contact William H. Lugg, Jr, R&LHS Membership Secretary, P.O. Box 292927, Sacramento, California 95829-2927.

Wendell Huffman is a reference librarian at the Carson City Library in Nevada. He grew up in Sacramento and is presently working on a book about the Sacramento Valley Rail Road/Placerville branch of the Southern Pacific.


[1] San Francisco Alta California, 25 January 1851 and 20 April 1852; San Francisco Herald, 18 March and 31 July 1851; San Francisco Daily Evening News, 21 September 1855; Sacramento Union, 10 November 1855.

[2] The Western Pacific Railroad mentioned in this article had nothing to do with the railroad of the same name built some forty years later. In addition to the 195 identified locomotives, there are newspaper reports of the arrival in San Francisco of an additional 5 locomotives, which are unidentified and otherwise lost to history.

[3] San Francisco Alta California, I December 1853; Sacramento Union, 22 April and 6 September 1854.

[4] San Francisco Herald, 26 March 1855; Sacramento Democratic State Journal, 6 June 1855; Sacramento Union, 22 April and 6 September 1854; also, Journal of John A. Carroll, SVRR's car builder, in Sacramento Archives and Museum Center Collection, History and Science Division.

[5] Edwin B. Crocker to C. P. Huntington, 14 June 1866; Mark Hopkins to Huntington, 8 February 1867, microfilm, Huntington Collection, Syracuse University (hereinafter HCSU). The SVRR had built some flat cars of local lumber in 1856 (Sacramento Age, 28 and 31 October 1865).

[6] Hopkins to Huntington, 24 April 1867, HCSU.

[7]  Hopkins to Huntington, 7 January 1867, HCSU.

[8] Huntington to E. B. Crocker, I I September 1867, HCSU.

[9] It is not clear why Huntington never bought Baldwin locomotives for the CP, but it is probably because they could not agree on financial terms. Huntington is known to have considered buying at least two engines from Baldwin in 1867 (E. B. Crocker to Huntington, 31 January 1867, HCSU).

[10] Although Crocker practiced law, he had studied civil engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, graduating in 1833.

[11] Samuel S. Montague, Report of the Chief Engineer (Sacramento: Central Pacific Railroad Co., 8 October 1864), p. 11; and Hopkins to Huntington, 16 May 1866, HCSU. Hopkins identified these 2-6-0s as "Danforth, Cook [sic] & Co. I 10-wheelers"—perhaps thinking that any locomotive with six drivers was a Ten-wheeler—yet the first true Danforth Ten-wheelers were not received until August 1868.

[12] Hopkins to Huntington, 5 February 1867; E. B. Crocker to Huntington, 13 March 1867 and 16 January 1868, HCSU.

[13] Huntington to Hopkins, 22 February 1868, HCSU.

[14] Hopkins to Huntington, 12 March 1868; Huntington to Hopkins, 14 April 1868, HCSU.

[15] Hopkins to Huntington, 5 February and 22 March 1867; Charles Crocker to Huntington, 25 April 1867; E. B. Crocker to Huntington, 6 March and 29 July 1868, HCSU.

[16] Hopkins to Huntington, 5 February 1867, HCSU. Five additional Norris-built locomotives were purchased second-hand from other California railroads.

[17] Charles Crocker to Huntington, 29 October and I December 1868, HCSU. Huntington did order a few additional Schenectady engines before hearing of the success with the Gazelle. The fact that No. 84 was invoiced on 29 February 1868, while 60 (the next-acquired CP Schenectady 4-4-0) was not invoiced until 24 August 1868, demonstrates the often confusing pattern of Huntington's numbering.

[18] In his letter of 22 February 1868 to Charles Crocker, Huntington said it took "about three months to get up an engine," while in his letter of 17 August 1868 to Crocker he said it took four months to make and ship an engine.

[19] Huntington to E. B. Crocker, 9 March 1868, HCSU. Pressed to "buy tomorrow, or steal, twenty locomotives ... and send them here at the earliest day practical," Huntington vented to Hopkins "locomotives are not kept on hand like coffee mills" (Huntington to Hopkins, 21 August 1868, HCSU).

[20] These figures are for Elephant, from Sacramento Union, 5 October and 10 November 1855.

[21] These were the Rogers-built 4-6-Os Nos. 82-83, and 85-87.

[22] There is no evidence that any locomotive was shipped to California fully assembled. Some locomotives inventoried on ship manifests as "I locomotive" are proven to have been a collection of individual pieces by the inventories of merchandise unloaded from lighters at Sacramento.

[23] E. B. Crocker to Huntington, 29 October 1867, HCSU.

[24] Hopkins to Huntington, 12 September 1867, HCSU.

[25] Huntington, "Cash Book" Ledger, 24 and 27 February 1868, California State Railroad Museum, Sacramento (hereinafter CSRM).

[26] San Francisco Alta California, 21 December 1867.

[27] Huntington to E. B. Crocker, 12 and 17 February 1868, HCSU.

[28] The primary sources of shipping information are memoranda and manifests published in the San Francisco Alta California within a day or two of the arrival of each vessel and Huntington's "Record of Invoices" (CSRM) which document the vessel that carried each shipment. Between 1851 and 1870, approximately three times as many ships arrived at San Francisco from New York as from Boston.

[29] Portland Oregonian, 18 May and 9 June 1863.

[30] San Francisco Alta California, 16 June 1855 and 2 September 1863; Sacramento Bee, 17 July 1868 and 13 August 1868; Sacramento Union, I I January 1869.

[31] San Francisco Alta California, 4 June 1855; Sacramento Union, 6 June 1855.

[32] San Francisco Alta California, 17 January 1869; Huntington to Stanford, 5 February 1868, HCSU.

[33] Huntington to E. B. Crocker, 23 September 1867, HCSU.

[34] Central Pacific voucher 737, 1864, CSRM.

[35] With the exception of statements attributed to other sources, all details of voyages are taken from "Shipping Intelligence" published in the Alta California. The accompanying table provides the arrival date for each vessel that carried locomotives. Dates are given in the text to distinguish voyages for ships that made more than one passage with locomotives.

[36] Huntington to E. B. Crocker, 7 April 1868, HCSU.

[37] Huntington to E. B. Crocker, 22 October 1868, HCSU.

[38] Huntington, "Invoices" Ledger 1, p. 37, CSRM.

[39] Lewis M. Clement testimony, U. S. Pacific Railway Commission, Senate Ex. Doe., 50th Congress,1 sess., 1887-1888, p. 2576.

[40] Hopkins to Huntington, 16 July 1866, HCSU; and San Francisco Alta California, 15 August, 1866.

[41] These accounts were published specifically to report slow progress; it is difficult to say just what was a measure of good progress in a sailing ship. Since these reports were filed by mariners, it is likely that they recorded distances in nautical miles. The most direct string-on-a-globe distance from New York to San Francisco via Cape Hom is approximately 14,000 nautical miles. Assuming a course of 14,000 nautical miles, the fastest passage (97 days) required more than 144 nautical miles per day. On the other hand, an average passage (145 days) required only 96 nautical miles per day. However, it is doubtful that any sailing vessel ever followed the shortest course from New York to California, as it would have followed prevailing winds to make the best time. Thus, the actual distance covered was undoubtedly considerably greater than 14,000 nautical miles, and ships may be assumed to have regularly covered well over 100 nautical miles per day.

[42] The fastest recorded passage from New York to San Francisco was eighty-nine days—achieved by the clipper Flying Cloud in 185 1.

[43] Huntington to Hopkins, 10 June 1868; E. B. Crocker to Huntington, 31 July 1868, HCSU.

[44] Hopkins to Huntington, 21 January 1867, HCSU.

[45] Charles Crocker to Huntington, 22 August and 29 September 1868; Huntington to E. B. Crocker 10 September 1868, HCSU.

[46] Huntington, "Invoices," Ledger 1, p. 238, CSRM.

[47] Huntington to Hopkins, 6 July 1868; Huntington to E. B. Crocker, 15 August 1868, HCSU.  (The CP used rail in various lengths to keep the joints even on curves.)

[48] Huntington to Charles Crocker, 26 October 1868, HCSU. Testimony to the congressional Pacific Railway Commission in 1887 indicates that shipping these locomotives via Panama cost $4,692.50 each—$1,192.50 more than the cost reported to Crocker in 1868 (U. S. Pacific Railway Commission, 2576). The difference may represent an average of the extra costs figured in (for cutting boilers, etc.), and may also reflect the exchange rate between gold and paper currency. The cost of shipping locomotives varied considerably over the period of locomotive importation due to the fluctuations of the economy during the Civil War. At the time the CP was shipping locomotives by steamer, however, the company was paying $805.87 per locomotive shipped by sail (Central Pacific voucher 763,1869, CSRM).

[49] Huntington to E. H. Miller, Jr., 27 October 1868, HCSU.

[50] In 1887, CP secretary E. H. Miller, Jr., testified to Congress that two locomotives had been shipped via Panama during the Civil War, but no confirmation of this has been found in Huntington's invoice records, vouchers, or newspaper reports. Miller's testimony, while remarkably specific as to cost and locomotive description, likely represents either bad memory (some twenty years after the event) or a deliberate attempt to mislead Congress as to the expenses of building the transcontinental railroad.

[51] Newspapers report particular locomotives actually in operation before the last parts of those very locomotives were unloaded from river schooners.

[52] San Francisco & San Jose No. I was set up at a temporary facility 17 miles south of San Francisco, where the railroad approached tidewater and from which point tracklaying began northward to San Francisco. CP Nos. 146 and 147 were set up at the San Francisco shops of the SF&SJ and put to work on the WP line building eastward from Oakland.

[53] The Sacramento Bee of 29 September 1867 reported that five new engines were being set up at Rocklin, yet the only locomotives to arrive at Sacramento between July and September other than the Nos. 25 and 28 (which are accounted for in Sacramento papers as set up there) were the WP locomotives being delivered from San Francisco.

[54] See Wendell Huffman, "Iron Horses along the Truckee," Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, spring 1995, pp. 19-36.

[55] Sacramento Bee, 27 August 1867; Auburn Placer Herald, 21 June 1862.

[56] Central Pacific vouchers 255 and 761, 1869, CSRM.

[57] Huntington to E. B. Crocker, 21 March 1868, HCSU.

[57] San Francisco Alta California, 23 February 1868.

[59] To save wharf charges, the CP had cargoes unloaded directly from ships onto schooners.

[60] E. B. Crocker to Huntington, 11 February 1868, HCSU.

[61] Huntington to E. B. Crocker, 11 September 1867; E. B. Crocker to Huntington, 7 November 1867; Huntington to Rogers Locomotive Works, 27 June 1868, HCSU.

[62] E. B. Crocker to Huntington, 26 September and I I November 1867 and I I February 1868, HCSU. See Wendell Huffman, "Central Pacific's Rolling Stock from the California Central and the Yuba Railroad," S. P. Trainline 42 (winter 1994): 22-28.

[63] Uncertainty about what was being shipped also prevented a full accounting of what was lost with the burning of the Hornet (Hopkins to Huntington, 16 July 1866, HCSU).

[64]A ship has three masts carrying square sails, a bark carries no square sails on its mizzen mast, and a brig has only two masts, each with square sails.

[65] Alban A. Towne to Huntington, 16 December 1871 and 17 July 1872; Charles Crocker to Huntington, 26 October 1877, HCSU.

[66] Richard V. Dodge, "The California Southern, a Rail Drama of the Southwest," R&LHS Bulletin 80 (May 1950): 26.

Click to see table:
 Vessels/Voyages That Delivered Locomotives to California and Oregon, 1850-1869, Listed in Order of Arrival.

Click to return to text of article.

Illustrations for Article Railroads Shipped by Sea
Click here for the Illustration index.


> Wendell Huffman wrote* on 9/7/2004, Re: Shipping [Locomotives] to West Coast [after the Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad] ...

It would be very interesting for verified evidence of locomotives going via Panama after 1869 (and before the canal).

The advantage of overland shipment was speed of delivery. The advantage of maritime shipment was lower cost.

Until vessels got bigger, and hoisting gear stronger, maritime shipments were limited to disassembled locomotives. That required extra time (and expense) at the factory packing parts (I was never albe to resolve the question of whether ship shipped locos were fully assembled and then disassembled, or merely completed in sections), and extra time at the receiver's end to assemble the locomotives. Nevertheless, shipment by sea was cheaper than overland shipment – which required a "watchman" to supervise the shipment of the loco, oiling as necessary, etc. With the CP engines, locomotives were often shipped in pairs with one watchman assigned to both engines. For the overland railroads, at least part of that expense went into their own pocket. Independent lines had to pay the full price for shipment the whole way.

In my article I focused on the era of the construction of the first Pacific railroad. I was surprised how little the transcontinental railroad really changed: Passengers continued to travel by Panama, bulk cargoes continued to travel via Cape Horn. What did change initially was express and some second class passenger travel began to move over the completed railroad. Locomotive shipment generally fell into the class of express, but as I pointed out in the article, some locomotives continued to be shipped by sea.

The biggest expense of shipping locomotives via Panama was the extra cost of unloading and reloading the crates and boiler on either side of the isthmus. For the CP there was also the added expense of cutting boilers and tender tanks in two to fit into the Panama steamer holds. That may have changed in later years with the larger vessels.

> Kyle Williams Wyatt, Curator of History & Technology, California State Railroad Museum wrote* on 9/16/2004 that ... the Baldwin Record of Locomotives Built (original at the Smithsonian, microfilm copies at various locations including California State Railroad Museum) lists shipping information. Generally in 1873 I believe most locomotives were shipped by rail to California. ... The Central Pacific and the Southern Pacific generally purchased locomotives from Schenectady and Cooke in the 19th century, rather than Baldwin, although a few specialty Baldwin locomotives were purchased by CP and SP. This I believe was a matter of preference, not the result of some snit Huntington might have had with Baldwin. CP and SP were scarcely the only major railroads to favor builders other than Baldwin.

> Wendell Huffman comments* that the Central Pacific ordered most of their locomotives without smoke stacks because they liked the ones they made locally better than anything coming out of the East.

> Wendell Huffman comments* that ... it is my contention that locomotives shipped to California were stowed below deck. Only two were reported to have gotten wet with sea water (it was feared that had ruined the locomotives). Yet deck loads would all have been awash in the heavy seas routinely encountered in those voyages. Clear deck space was necessary to work ship. Furthermore, it was essential in any voyage where heavy seas and strong winds were to be encountered to keep the center of gravity below the center of bouyancy. ... As deck loads–above the center of bouyancy– ... locomotives poised a danger. ... All of the locomotives shipped to California were disassembled–kits, if you will. In pieces–even to the size of the boilers–they fit through hatches. ...
*[from the R&LHS Newsgroup]

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