Post Haste

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Reaching out and touching someone hasn’t always been easy—especially if it was necessary to hand that person something in the process. Yet there have always been Americans who absolutely and positively had to have it the next day, week, month, at any cost, and this in turn has always drawn others with the dollars and determination to make it happen. The history of the race with time to physically transfer documents—business or personal—constitutes a key element in the two-century communications revolution that has drawn together our sprawling nation, tying the two coasts and everything between in a network of rapid communication. The continuing drama of a need that was as powerful and important a century ago as it is today may best be captured by tracing the successive ways an urgently awaited document or package has been raced across the country, from a century and a half ago until the present day.

 

It has always been a highrisk business, both physically and financially, but not simply a matter of venture capital and entrepreneurship. And the U.S. government itself has consistently played an important role as a customer, subsidizer, or partner, or, in the case of the earliest air-mail service, the principal actor. Indeed, there has been a sense of mission about the challenge. As far back as 1794, Postmaster General Timothy Pickering wrote, “Half the post offices in the United States would be broken up, if the postmasters were not influenced by motives other than those of a pecuniary nature.”

 
 

The best part of the story begins in the 1840s, when the vast Southwestern and Western territories added by Manifest Destiny and the Mexican War transformed the Republic into a transcontinental nation, and the discovery of gold in California sent thousands scurrying toward the Pacific. It was a “gold rush” indeed, for the principal aim of these migrants was to get there as fast as possible. While many literally walked the distance, by far the fastest means was by sea. Some sailed into the Gulf of Mexico, struggled across the Isthmus of Panama, and reembarked by packet to California. The most dramatic route was around Cape Horn and all the way up the Pacific coast of South and Central America to the United States.

This was the way of the clippers, the massively oversailed seaborne racers that were the first in the line of American priority-cargo carriers. Their narrow hulls, sharp lines, and towering suits of sails made them specialty vehicles, frankly aimed at getting a select bill of lading to its destination as fast as possible.

The romance surrounding the clipper ships disguised their inadequacies as reliable links between East and West. Not only were they expensive to operate, but their sailors tended to jump ship and join the gold rush upon arrival, stranding a number of clippers along with hundreds of other packets in San Francisco Bay. Worst of all, despite their speed relative to other vessels of the time, they were still too slow a means of getting mail and other information back and forth —thanks mainly to the distance around the Horn (the longest domestic trade route in the world). In 1854 the storied Flying Cloud ran from New York to San Francisco in an unprecedented eighty-nine days and eight hours, and the same year Comet made the return voyage in seventy-six days. That was not nearly enough; a shorter path was clearly needed.

The obvious alternative was the trans-Isthmian route. As a means of encouraging it, Congress provided operating subsidies of approximately three hundred thousand dollars per year to both the United States Mail Steamship Company, which plied the Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, its West Coast equivalent, while stabilizing postage rates at a nominal ten cents per letter. The completion of the Panama Railroad in 1855 added considerably to the safety and speed of the route, bringing the total time of passage down to around thirty days. Yet only one in five of those emigrating to California between 1849 and 1859 passed this way, primarily because even with the railroad the Isthmian crossing exposed passengers to a variety of often fatal tropical diseases. So it remained a low-volume cargo operation dedicated to the movement of the mail and gold dust.

 
Clipper ships were specialty vehicles for moving cargo such as mail as fast as possible.

The eagerness with which the Pacific Mail steamers were awaited in San Francisco is hard to overstate. When one of these ships was expected, a continuous watch was placed on Telegraph Hill with a semaphore to signal the arrival, inevitably leading to a stampede on the post office. Just how great a part of San Francisco life this semaphore became was illustrated one night at a local theater during the performance of a tragedy. One of the actors, standing against a curtained backdrop with his arms outstretched, uttered the line “What does this mean?” He was answered from the audience, “Side-wheeled steamer,” instantly bringing down the house.