February 2019

Early mail between the US West Coast and Great Britain


After the discovery of gold in California on the west coast of the United States in 1849 and the gold rush that followed, there was a dramatic jump in population in and around San Francisco. The increased population, of course, led to increased demand on postal services to and from the east coast of the US and on onwards to Europe.

Julian Jones, Chairman of the TPO & Seapost Society, looks at early examples of mail between the US west coast and Great Britain.

Mexico ceded California to the USA on 2 February 1848 after gold had already been found at Sutter’s Mill in January. News of the find, near to present-day Coloma, led directly to the 1849 Gold Rush and consequent growth around San Francisco. There were two main mail routes from Britain to California at that time: via the West Indies to Panama and up the west coast to San Francisco by ship; and via New York, then to Panama and then up the west coast. The West Indies route was not listed by the US Post Office – although letters prior to Sept 1850 were carried privately from San Francisco to Panama and handled by British Post Office agents there. Mail boats from New York and Britain landed at the mouth of the Chagres River on the Caribbean coast, then known as New Granada. Mail and passengers then took a 45-mile journey by canoe up the Chagres River from its mouth to Las Cruces. From there, the traveller made use of the old Spanish Gold Road (El Camino Real) and hired mules for the 18-mile, one-day trip to Panama.

An unpaid entire, dated 29 November 1849, carried by favour from San Francisco to Panama City where it was mailed via Chagres to Southampton by West Indies packet. It is addressed to Whitehaven and contains the sentence, ‘A friend who goes to Chile by Steamer takes this as far as Panama, where he will post it.’ The ‘PACKET LETTER /SOUTHAMPTON’ mark was applied in blue at Southampton where the letter was charged ‘1/-’ for the single West Indies packet fee due. This fee was brought into effect from 16 March 1848 by the GB Postal Convention with New Granada, using closed mail bags between Panama on the Pacific Coast and Chagres on the Atlantic Coast.

Early in 1848, the US Congress authorised the organisation of two steamship lines to transport US mail between New York and San Francisco. The first company was The United States Mail Steam Line, running between New York, Charleston, Savannah, Havana (Cuba), New Orleans, Chagres and return. The second company was The Pacific Mail Steamship Company, which ran between Panama, San Francisco, Astoria, and return. By 1849 the service was being heavily used by passengers from the east rushing to the goldfields in the west.

Anglo-American Postal Treaty

In July 1849, details of the Anglo-American Postal Treaty for the territories of California and Oregon were listed along with other foreign countries which could send mail via the US to Britain. The Treaty, effective from February 1849, specified rates via New York of 59c. per ½oz. (equivalent to 2s.5½d.). Of this 59c., 40c. was due to the US as a domestic mail charge. Of the balance, 16c. covered the passage from New York or Boston to Liverpool (payable to either the US or GB postal authorities depending on who had contracted the mail packet ship carrying the letter) and 3c. to the British Post Office for its domestic mail charge to destination.

California became the 31st state admitted to the United States on 9 September 1850. Until that time, partial pre-payments for mail to the US east coast for onward transmission to Great Britain were allowed by the Treaty.

A single-rate cover carried from San Francisco to Panama and from Chagres to New York by sea, crossing the Isthmus of Panama by mule. It departed San Francisco on 1 March 1850 on the Pacific Mail Steamship Oregon, arriving at Panama on 20 March. It left Chagres on 26 March on the Cherokee, owned by the Howland & Aspinwall Atlantic Line, arriving at New York on 5 April. It departed there on the Cunard Line’s Europa on 17 April, arriving at Liverpool on 29 April.

At San Francisco, the letter was pre-paid 40c. to New York where it was forwarded unpaid to Liverpool in a closed bag for London, where it was charged 9½d. due (19c.). The GPO did not announce the matching rate of 2s.5½d. (59c.) via New York until April 1850, and rates of 2s.9d. per ½oz. via the West Indies in October 1850.

A paid single-rate cover sent from Nevada City, California, via San Francisco, Panama, Chagres and New York to Huntingdon in February 1851 at the 59c. rate. At the New York exchange office the cover was marked ‘19’ as a credit to the GB exchange account for ocean passage (16c.) and internal postage (3c.). On arrival at Liverpool the letter was struck with a packet mark ‘PAID IN AMERICA/LIVERPOOL / 5 AP 5’.

Reduced rates

The Treaty rate was reduced to 29c. along with the US domestic rate change of 1 July 1851, with the equivalent GB rate becoming 1s.2½d. As a result of changes in the rates via the US, the West Indies rates were lowered to 2s.4d (with 10d. equivalent to 20c. for the US west coast part of the fee.

The GPO tried to make this its default route until 1856 as it obtained greater revenue. However, eventually the route became slower than that via New York and was used only if specified by the sender. Mail for Hawaii could only be paid to San Francisco. The Hawaii post office agent there made arrangements for onward delivery by Hawaiian vessels.

The Panama Railroad

On the Atlantic side of the Isthmus of Panama the city of Aspinwall (today part of Colón, Panama) was founded in May 1850 at the mouth of the Chagres River in honour of William Aspinwall who had incorporated the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. on 12 April 1848. By November 1851, the new Panama Railroad Company had extended its line from Las Cruces to the town of Gatun, the first overnight stop on the Chagres River, located only seven miles from Manzanillo Island on the coast near Chagres. The 47-mile railway line to Panama City (on the Pacific Coast) was completed on 27 January 1855. The railway had 170 bridges and culverts; one of the bridges was over 600 feet long. The trip across the Isthmus now took about seven hours. It was possible to arrive at Aspinwall in the morning, cross the Isthmus during the day, and board the ship to San Francisco that evening. The United States Mail Steam Line operated to Chagres until about March 1852 when it switched to Aspinwall to make use of the Panama Railroad.

Unpaid mail

Unpaid mail from San Francisco was also sent directly in closed bags via New York to Liverpool, with the necessary accounting performed between the exchange offices. This required a special accounting mark depending on whether the mail was carried by American or British packet.

A letter sent from Utah Territory via San Francisco to Birmingham, England, in September 1857. It was sent unpaid westwards via the Chorpenning contract mail service to San Francisco (where ‘29’[c.] was applied), then via Panama and Chagres to New York. (George Chorpenning ran the contract mail service between Salt Lake City and California, from July 1854 to June 1858.) On arrival at Liverpool the letter was rated 1s.2½d. on the front but on the back were added ‘ART – 5’ and ‘ART-5 / U.S.PKT.’ to indicate the accounting required including carriage by US Packet. The usual ‘AMERICA / LIVERPOOL / 18NO /57’ packet mark was also applied. On routing to Birmingham an experimental three-ring dotted c.d.s. ‘LIVERPOOL 18NO 57 A1’ postmark was also added on the front.

An idiosyncrasy of the 1s.2½d. rate is that there were no GB stamps available for it! The GB halfpenny stamp did not become available until 1870. Thus most letters from GB are paid in cash. When stamps are used the cover is either overpaid (Fig 11) or there is a double rate involved (Fig 12).

Further rate reductions

In 1863 US domestic rates again changed and the Treaty rate became 24c. (or 1s.), the same as from the rest of the USA to Great Britain under the Treaty.

A letter sent unpaid from London to Virginia City, Nevada, via Liverpool and San Francisco in April 1864. At Liverpool the black ‘19 CENTS’ accountancy mark was applied to claim 19c. from the US account as Britain’s portion of the ‘24’ (c.) due applied for by the San Francisco exchange office for collection on delivery at its destination. The letter was carried on Cunard’s Europa from Liverpool to Boston in closed bags for San Francisco.

Since the Europa arrived in Boston on 2 May it is likely that the letter was sent via Aspinwall and Panama rather than the transcontinental railway, to arrive in San Francisco by 27 May.

The rate fell again to 12c. (6d.) in January 1868 and to 6c. (3d.) in January 1870, in line with the US East Coast Treaty rates, which remained in force until UPU regulations came into force in June 1875 (when the single rates became 5c. and 2½d.).

A 3c. postal stationery cover uprated to 6c. (3d.) and posted in San Diego in March 1872. It was routed via the San Francisco exchange office on 21 March where it was bagged for Britain and sent by rail to New York. There the mailbag was put on board Guion Line’s Minnesota, which departed 27 March to arrive at Queenstown, Ireland, on 8 April, where the bag was offloaded and delivered in Glasgow the same day.

Thus, in just 24 years mail transit times from San Francisco to the UK had fallen from some 64 days to just 18 as a result of investment in railways and improved shipping speeds across the north Atlantic.

This article is from Gibbons Stamp Monthly, the UK’s best selling stamp magazine.

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