Abstract: Pacific Mail, Industrial Empire: The Pacific Mail Steamship Company

Alicia Maggard


Auspiciously chartered in the spring of 1848, mere weeks before news of gold in California hills would reach Atlantic ports, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company (PMSC) rushed to keep up with a traffic that far exceeded its expectations.  The PMSC and its subsidiaries loaded passengers and mails at its New York headquarters; offloaded them at Chagres, Panama; used mule-drawn carts to transport them across the isthmus to Ancon; ferried them north to boomtown San Francisco; and swapped them for treasure and those who had given up hope of finding any.  Company agents sought insurance in London, labor for their slow-starting isthmian railroad in Canton, and coal everywhere from Wales to Pittsburgh, Australia to Brunei.  They licensed ticket vendors in New Orleans; staffed coal depots in Taboga and Acapulco; built California’s first engine works at Benicia; and trekked as far as the Puget Sound to test new fuel sources.  To connect Californians to correspondents and news in the eastern United States, the PMSC developed a global infrastructural network and intensified industrial development around the Pacific basin.  This paper draws on the papers of PMSC agents as well as the records of the Post Office and Navy Departments to demonstrate the impact of U.S. state-industrial relations on the expansion of American economic and politico-military powers in the Pacific world.  I argue that shifting procurement strategies gave rise to an agile, technologically sophisticated American state while anointing private corporations as key intermediaries in the contested spaces of the Pacific and as wielders of the nation’s industrial power.