Today, we meet a harbinger of the modern West. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In January, 1847, during the
Mexican-American War, Captain John Montgomery
planted an American flag on a California peninsula.
He renamed it San Francisco. That October, a boat
showed up in the bay. It was a remarkable little
bark, 15 days out of Sitka, Alaska. The
Russian-America Company had built it in Sitka. It
was only 37 feet long.
The piston and cylinder from a railroad engine set
this boat apart from any other. It was the first
steamboat on the California coast. Her five-man
crew consisted of a captain, a Russian engineer, a
cook, a deckhand, and a fireman. At San Francisco,
they also borrowed an Indian pilot from Sutter's
San Franciscans called the boat the
Sitka. For a while, the
Sitka took passengers on excursions.
Then, in November, she set out for Sacramento to --
and I quote -- "astonish the natives." The trip was
supposed to take a day. Actually, it took almost
seven. Weeks later, it still wasn't back in San
Francisco; so newspapers began speculating. One wag
claimed it'd sailed into the California Mountains
to rescue a lost party.
That was gallows humor. The Donner party had been
snowed into the Sierras the winter before. Rescue
parties went out from Sacramento to look for them.
Meanwhile, they either died of starvation or lived
by eating their dead. Of course, Donner survivors
in San Francisco read the local papers.
The Sitka did get back to San
Francisco, only to be swamped by a storm. She sat
in the shallows of the bay, with her smokestack
sticking out of the water. And we read this in the
Should she be resuscitated ... we sincerely hope
that none of our citizens will trust themselves
with a passage beyond the 'flat' she now rests
A year later, she was refitted as a
sailboat and renamed the Rainbow. Her
old engine found service grinding coffee.
The Sitka sank in February, 1848 --
just after one of Sutter's men found gold near
Sacramento. That October, the steam packet
California set out from New York,
around Cape Horn, to begin commerce with the
suddenly-rich Bay area.
My great-grandfather was with Sutter when the
Sitka visited Sacramento. He knew some
of its passengers. He had come over the Sierras on
foot, just ahead of the ill-fated Donners. Four
years later, in 1850, he went back. But now he had
only to book passage on the steamer
Great-grandpa's memoirs don't mention the
Sitka. He didn't see what that
primitive little boat meant. None of the pioneers
did. They didn't know that it signaled a rush of
high technology that would far outreach anything
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Kemble, J.H., The Genesis of the Pacific Mail
Steamship Company. California Historical
Society, Vol. XIII, No. 4, 1934, pp. 386-406.
Kemble, J.H., The Frist Steam Vessel to Navigate
San Francisco Bay. California Historical
Society, Vol. XIV, No. 2, 1935, pp. 143-146.
Lienhard, J. Heinrich, A Pioneer at Sutter's
Fort (M. Wilbur, translator and editor). Los
Angeles: The Califia Society, 1941.