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The rush is on!

Packed to the gunwales with gold-seekers, the steamship Islander heads out of San Francisco, bound for Alaska, to one of the most remote regions in the Northern Hemisphere. Late in 1896, not long before this photo was taken, the steamships Excelsior and Portland had pulled into San Francisco packed with gold. George Carmack; his wife, Kate Carmack; her brother “Skookum” Jim; and their nephew Dawson Charlie had made a tremendous discovery near Skagway, up on Bonanza Creek. The first of the many early prospectors were bringing home their “poke.”

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Word spread along the San Francisco wharves like wildfire: gold! Within a matter of days, a fleet of steam-powered vessels filled chock-a-block with fortune hunters, rogues, desperados and a few old 49ers was steaming north. The great Klondike Gold Rush was on, and the fastest way — perhaps the only way — to get to the diggings was by steamship.

The Conestoga wagon, the stagecoach, the railroad — they’re all readily associated with the 19th century expansion of the United States. But the steam-powered ship played its part, too. Here was a transport that could move people and goods in great quantities with almost no infrastructure; the steamship required no road, no rail bed, ties or rails — only a wharf in a port at each end of a run.

Steam technology came along at just the right time. The early decades of the 19th century saw tremendous growth and movement of population and burgeoning business, and the commodious, dependable steamship — running on a schedule — made it an indispensable tool of commerce.

By the end of the Civil War it was ubiquitous on all of America’s great waterways, joining New Orleans and St. Louis on the Mississippi, New York and Boston on Long Island Sound, and Charleston and Baltimore in the Mid-Atlantic states.

January 2014 issue