Pacific Mail Steam Ship Collection

Reflecting our Pacific Basin Focus

As an outgrowth of Potash & Company's long association with the Bay Area maritime and trade industry and work promoting California's commercial ties with Asia, we have developed a fascination with the history and art of the Pacific Mail Steam Ship Company (PMSSC).

The history of the PMSSC (1848-1925) is synonymous with that of San Francisco, where the line was based; with Gold Rush transportation; and with Pacific Basin trade and migrations. The present collection comprises primarily 19th C. paintings and lithographs depicting these activities.

Original lithograph ca. 1867 of the wooden side-paddle-wheel steamer "China," built for Pacific Mail's pioneering trans-Pacific route between San Francisco and Yokohama, with service also to Shanghai. Lithograph by Endicott, New York. 
Chinese School painting ca. 1874 of US-flagged Pacific Mail steamer "City of Peking" shown in Hong Kong Harbor. Oil on board. Hull fragments were found in the mid-1980s in San Francisco during excavations near Candlestick Park.  
The "Tennessee" was on Pacific Mail's Panama-San Francisco run when she ran aground at Tennessee Cove in Marin County in 1853. This Sarony & Major litho, ca. 1850, belonged to Renee Pierre Schwerin of San Francisco, the company's VP and General Manager in the late 19th Century.

The collection includes Gold Rush steamers from the 1850s and beyond, as well as examples of the large passenger-freight liners that pioneered the trans-Pacific steamer trade in the late 1860s.

Artists represented include William A. Coulter and Alfred Farnsworth; 19th Century Chinese-School painters; and original PMSSC lithographs by N. Courier, Courier & Ives, Endicott & Company, Sarony & Major, and Britton & Rey. It also includes representation of PMSSC's successor companies, Capt. Robert Dollar's now-defunct Dollar Line in the mid-1920s; and American President Lines (now APL), begining in 1938.

Development of the collection began in 1979. Comparable pieces are housed in the California State Library, Sacramento; Huntington Library (Kemble Collection), Pasadena; the Bancroft Library, Berkeley; the San Francisco Maritime Museum; and in private collections.

Historical Notes

PMSSC was established in 1848 with lucrative U.S. mail contracts, and the first steamship to sail into San Francisco Bay was the PMSSC steamer CALIFORNIA, arriving on February 28, 1849.

Here is one of the great ironies of history: Departing from New York before the discovery of gold in California had become well known, the wooden side-paddle-wheeler stopped in Panama to pick up a few passengers on route to San Francisco. But at Panama, the ship instead found hundreds of gold-seekers waiting to board. They had made their way down the East Coast after hearing of the discovery at Sutter's Mill, and crossed the Isthmus. Upon reaching San Francisco, all the passengers disembarked for the gold fields east of Sacramento. To the captain's disdain, so did most of the crew!

By a quirk of history (the Gold Rush), Pacific Mail's success was assured!

In 1867, again supported by its U.S. mail contracts, the "mail line" launched the world's first regular trans-Pacific steamship service linking the United States with Asia. The initial route was San Francisco to Yokohama, with service to Hong Kong and Shanghai. The ships carried the fast-growing trade between East and West -- a trade that -- in our generation -- has surpassed in size even the trans-Atlantic trade that dominated America's foreign commerce since 1776.

Pacific Mail also became the principal means of transport to California in the 19th Century for Japanese immigrants, and for the Chinese immigrants who built the trans-continental railroad. Both migrations vastly enriched California's economy and culture. And PMSSC was vociferous in its defense of the rights of Chinese crew members and workers.

PMSSC in essence represents the origins of the steamship business on San Francisco Bay. But more important, the company -- born more than 150 years ago in Gold Rush days-- played a critical role in the development of San Francisco, the State of California, the United States, and the Pacific Basin.

Your Comments Invited

If you have interesting comments and/or images to share, we will be happy to post them or communicate with you individually. One of the goals of this site is to stimulate dialogue and exchange of new information in the field. Please email

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT - We wish to acknowledge the inspiration and invaluable contributions to our understanding of the Pacific Mail made by the late John Haskell Kemble, author of The Panama Route, 1848-1869, and other works on PMSSC; and by the late John Niven, author of The American President Lines and its Forebears 1848-1984. They were luminaries, respectively, of the history departments of Pomona College, our alma mater, and of The Claremont Graduate School, both of Claremont, California. It was a privilage to have been associated with them. Dr. Kemble's PMSSC art collection is held by the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California. --SJP

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