What’s in a Name? Minturn Street

Sonoma Heritage Collection Charles Minturn

On Oct. 27, 1849, the sidewheel steamer Senator entered San Francisco Bay with Charles Minturn aboard. Over the next 25 years until his death in 1874, Minturn left his mark on the transportation industry all around San Francisco Bay.

The Senator had left New York more than seven months earlier on March 10, 1849, with just one paying passenger, Jack Anderson, aboard. Credible word of the Jan. 24, 1848, discovery of gold had not reached the East Coast until President James K. Polk’s December 5, 1848, message to Congress.

The other men aboard the Senator made up the crew and Minturn, who was representing his brother Edward’s interest in the adventure of bringing a 754-ton steamship around Cape Horn.

Charles and Edward were members of a family who traced their roots to Dorchester, England. Richard Minthorn, who came to the United States in 1682, settled on Long Island. The family later moved to Rhode Island and then back to New York, first to the town of Hudson and later to New York City, where Charles and his brother, Edward, were born.

The brothers owned a shipping business that plied the North Atlantic between Liverpool, England, and New York City. By 1845 they had sold out to their cousin Robert Minturn.

In 1849 Edward learned that Navy Lieutenant Lafayette Maynard was looking for investors to back his idea of bringing a steamship from New York on a treacherous journey around Cape Horn to California.

Edward bought in with the condition that his brother, Charles, be given the job as the steamer’s agent. The company outfited the Senator with a pair of masts with brigantine sails and got underway.

The trip did not go well. The Senator ran out of wood to fuel the steam engine that drove its walking beam. The crew had to stop in the Straits of Magellan to stock up on logs to feed the hungry steamship.

The Senator’s luck changed on Oct. 4 when it stopped at Panama. The passengers were treated to newspaper accounts of their ship’s demise and rejoiced over reading their own obituaries.

They then learned that some 200 passengers who had made their way across the Isthmus of Panama were willing to pay $500 each for passage to San Francisco. When the Senator entered the Golden Gate, Minturn found himself a wealthy man, the agent of a company that had collected $100,000 — some $2.8 million in today’s money — from passengers eager to reach not just San Francisco, but the Mother Lode in the Sierra Nevada beyond.

Minturn’s company had the Senator’s masts removed and outfitted the sidewheller to take passengers to Sacramento. The Senator was the first steamer to carry gold-seekers to Sacramento. The ship’s owners set the price for passage and often grossed $50,000 — $1.8 million in 2015 dollars — in a single trip. "The Senator probably earned more money that any sail or steam vessel ever known," Richard C. McKay —wrote in South Street: A Maritime History of New York.

In 1851 Charles turned his attention to other routes on San Francisco Bay. His river packet Red Jacket with Captain L. B. Edwards began carrying passengers from Oakland to San Francisco.

In Narrow Gauge to the Redwoods, Bray Dickinson tells us that Charles later refitted Red Jacket. Irish singer Kate Hayes was entertaining San Franciscans at the time. P.T. Barnum had brought her to town, billing her as "The Swan of Erin."

Charles must have been smitten. When he finished working on Red Jacket he put the packet back to work, rechristened as the Kate Hayes. Charles’ new creation accommodated passengers who wanted to take their horses and carriages along for day excursions in Oakland and the village of San Antonio, which was centered on today’s San Antonio Park at 16th Avenue and Foothill Boulevard in East Oakland. Charles told the readers of the Alta California newspaper that he had rebuilt Kate Hayes "especially for this route."

In 1853, Charles formed the Contra Costa Steam Navigation Company with stops on the "Creek Route" at Oakland and Hibbard’s Wharf at the foot of today’s Grand Street. He had the ferry Clinton built expressly for service on "San Antonio Creek," as locals called today’s Oakland Estuary.

In 1857 the ferry Contra Costa began operating between San Francisco and the "Creek." Charles’ company took over James Larue’s San Antonio Steam Navigation Company with its ferries San Antonio and Oakland. Larue put himself in direct competition with Charles when he formed his company at the foot of today’s 14th Avenue in Oakland. Larue had taken over Antonio Peralta’s wharf to serve the loggers extracting the redwoods in the hills above Oakland.

The San Francisco and Oakland Railroad purchased Charles’ company in 1865. By then he had already turned his attention to helping Petaluma’s poultry farmers get their wares to markets outside of Marin County. In Redwood Railways Gilbert Kneiss tells us that Charles’ 1864 Petaluma & Haystack Railroad was the county’s first. Charles built the two-and-one-half-mile-long iron road from Petaluma to Petaluma Creek’s head of navigation — a spot locals called "Haystack Landing."

Contact Dennis Evanosky at editor@alamedasun.com.