The Journal of San Diego History
July 1957, Volume 3, Number 3
Jerry MacMullen, Editor

By Arthur Woodward

One of the most famous steamers on the California coast in gold rush days was the old Senator. She was a handsome craft when she first arrived from New York and dropped anchor in San Francisco bay, October 21, 1849 after a voyage of a trifle over seven months.

At that time she was well fitted throughout. There were four bridal suites all handsomely furnished. The outside staterooms were done in rosewood and the decking of the main saloon was made of alternate panels of walnut and ash.

Backing down from Horton's Wharf, San Francisco-bound. The Senator was placed, almost immediately, on the run between San Francisco and Sacramento and was the first deep water steamer to reach the latter city on November 8, 1849. Her pilot at that time was Lieutenant James Blair, U.S.N., who had been an associate of the Aspinwalls in New York and came to California at the height of the gold rush.

This old side-wheeler was black hulled and brigantine rigged and from the beginning she was a money maker for her owners. Men were more than anxious to reach Sacramento in those days and steamer travel was much better than walking or riding in a wagon or on horseback. The fare from San Francisco to Sacramento was $30 and if one wished a berth, that was $10 extra, otherwise the unfortunates who had no berths stood up all night.

Freight rates were $40 to $50 per ton and during the first year the Senator was in service she showed net profits of $60,000 per month.

In 1869, the Senator was rebuilt for coastwise trade. At that time the deck was raised over two feet and she was lengthened to 226 feet. She had a beam of 30 feet, a draught of 9 1/2 feet, and was 13.5 feet deep. Her cargo capacity was 1,012 tons.

For many years the Senator was a familiar sight in all of the California coastal ports. Captain Coffin was in command when she first started on her coastwise run, later Captain Thomas W. Seeley was the commander. The latter gentleman was a great poker player and after the Senator dropped her hook off San Pedro, the Captain would leave the ship in charge of his mate, Mr. Butters, and straightway climb aboard the first stage coach for Los Angeles where he would put up at the Bella Union. Here he played poker continuously until the ship had gone to San Diego and returned to San Pedro. If at this time he was not flat broke or hadn’t won all of his fellow players’ cash, Captain Seeley would keep right on with the game, frequently delaying the sailing of his vessel for another twenty-four hours. Unfortunately the Captain was killed in the explosion of the Ada Hancock at San Pedro, April 27, 1863, and the coast lost another of its colorful characters.

In the middle ’60s the citizens of California took a violent dislike to the ships operated by the Steam Navigation Company because of its poor management of the vessels plying along the coast. The Senator in 1865, prior to its renovation, was frequently referred to as “the old hulk,” “the floating coffin” and “the rotten old Senator.”

In 1882 the old veteran was retired after thirty-three years service, her engines were removed and she ended her days as a coal hulk in New Zealand. Thus passed one of the most famous of our California craft.



MacMullen, Jerry, Paddle-Wheel Days in California, Stanford University Press, 1944.

Newmark, Harris, Sixty Years in Southern California, 1853-1913, The Knickerbocker Press, N.Y., 1916.

From a broadside printed by Los Angeles Westerners, 1951. Reproduced by permission.


From the San Diego Union of April 2, 1880:

Passing down Fifth street on our way to the steamer yesterday afternoon, we noticed an unusual number of drunken ‘Indians congregated in front of the vacant buildings on the corner of K street. On returning from the steamer we found the same Indians congregated in the yard in the rear of the premises alluded to, where a bloody fight was in progress, in which a young colored boy was in some way a party, but not understanding the Indian lingo, we could not tell who were the aggressors. One Indian – almost helplessly drunk – was pounded and kicked with heavy boots in a shocking manner – his face being a mass of blood and dirt. The fight was finally quelled by several white men, who rushed in and parted the combatants. It certainly seems too bad that such disgraceful scenes can transpire in our public streets in broad daylight. Of course liquor is at the bottom of the trouble. But who sells liquor to the Indians? That somebody does is certain.