San Francisco History

Chambliss' Diary

Chapter XXIII.

THE Panama route has the reputation of being the hardest steamship route in the world.

Having served one year as third officer of the City of New York on that line, I am prepared to corroborate a great many tales about various things which render life almost unbearable to those who earn their bread by filling the different official and other positions on the Mail steamers.

From the time the ship leaves the wharf at San Francisco until her return, two months later, the everyday vexations, annoyances and troubles to which all hands, from the captain on down to the sailors' mess-boy inclusive, are subjected, defy description. There are so many unheard of annoyances, which no one who has never made the trip as an employee of a steamer would ever think of. Not the least by any means of those hardships are the peculiar effects produced on different individuals by the rapid and continuous changes of climate as the ship goes south.

I have seen persons who were never addicted to drink in their lives lose all appetite for solid food by the time the ship passed Cape St. Lucas, on her south bound trip, and develop, in the place of natural appetites, an unquenchable thirst for everything in the way of liquids in the ship. It seems to be a form of insanity produced by the combined influence of the change of temperature and the peculiar motion of the steamer running on a smooth, calm sea, with a lazy, sleepy swell.

The steamers keep only a short distance off shore all the way down, and sometimes they roll heavily when there is no wind at all. This is not the motion that produces the dreaded malady which never kills, and which is called "seasickness." But it produced an effect on ladies who travel without their husbands that is said to be far more disastrous to family peace and happiness than the other form of seasickness. That is, if the husband ever happens to hear about it from some meddlesome individual who has no better sense than to tell.

One disagreeable thing about an officer's position on a Panama steamer is that he seldom gets a chance to go ashore at any of the ports down the coast. And then again, it happens sometimes that the steamer is late in arriving at San Francisco, and has to be discharged and reloaded on short notice. When this happens, all hands except the captain, chief engineer, surgeon, and purser are kept busy from the time of arrival up to sailing hour.

For instance, upon our arrival, May 11, 1890, we found that the Mail Company had made a new schedule for us, by which we had to discharge our cargo and load up and get away on the 14th, in consequence of which we had to stand regular sea-watches during the three days at the home port.

When we came into port here on the 29th of the following October, Mr. W. R. A. Johnson, general agent of the company, decided to promote our captain to the command of the City of Peking, of the China line. The Peking is the largest steamer in the Pacific Mail service. Dr. Walker, the surgeon, Mr. Burton, the purser, and several others, myself included, were detached from the New York and ordered to the Peking, along with Captain Searle.

Here is a sample of the orders usually issued in such cases:



SAN FRANCISCO, October 29, 1890.

To Mr. W. H. Chambliss, Third Officer S.S. City of New York, in Port:

DEAR SIR: You are hereby transferred from your position as Third Officer of the S.S. City of New York to a similar position upon the S.S. City of Peking, and will report for duty to Captain Searle at once.

Yours truly,


Acting General Agent.

The City of Peking was scheduled to sail for China on the 1st of November, and she got away promptly on time. From this it will be seen that we who were transferred from the New York had three short days in port.

I made five voyages to China and return, on the City of Peking, between the above date and the 10th of October, 1891. Those persons who imagine that the officers of ocean steamers have nothing to do except stand their usual deck watches at sea, have a very wrong idea. The first, second, and third officers, sometimes called mates, and the quartermasters, compose the navigation department.

A brief idea of what the deck officers or mates have to do in addition to standing their bridge watches of six hours on and six hours off, from one side of the ocean to the other, may be obtained from the following:

At about eight o'clock every morning, each officer is required to take his own observations of the sun with his sextant. These morning observations, or "time sights," as nearly all navigators term this very important part of nautical astronomy, are taken for the purpose of ascertaining the longitude, and correcting the time. A ship running on an easterly or westerly course is constantly changing her local time at the rate of four minutes to every degree of longitude. In order to regulate the local time the pilot house clock, which is the town clock of the ship, is corrected daily, usually at about ten in the forenoon, by setting the clock back at the rate of one hour for every fifteen degrees of longitude made west, and by setting it ahead at the same rate when you are sailing eastward.

At noon every day each officer must take his observations of the sun to ascertain the latitude. This noon observation is called the meridian altitude, and it is the shortest as well as the best method for finding the true latitude.

Having ascertained the position of the ship by nautical astronomical observations; having worked out the longitude by chronometer sights based on Greenwich mean time, and the latitude by meridian observations and the sun's declination; having, by means of his figures thus obtained, computed the exact distance in knots or nautical miles; having found the true course, made good by corrected standard compass, since the previous noon, and having found the error of the compass by observations of the sun taken with an azimuth circle (all of which work requires the attention of a clear head for at least two hours altogether on each day), each of the three navigating officers must make up his daily report, and hand the same in to the captain before 1 o'clock P.M.

The captain, who is, of course, the highest officer on board, and "master of all his surveys," having worked his way up through all the subordinate positions in the navigation department to his present high position, which is the very top rung of the merchant marine ladder, or, to use a pure nautical phrase the top ratline in the royal rigging, is so familiar with the fine work of navigation that he can tell at a glance if there is a single error in one of his officers' work.

Captain Searle. Mr. Mortensen. Doctor Bond. Mr. McClure. Mr. Chambliss. Mr. Kramer. Mr. Spencer. Mr. Sawdon.

Having compared the reports of all three of his "deck officers" with private figures obtained from observations which he has incidentally taken as a safe precaution, the captain proceeds to make up with his own hands the Daily Bulletin. Copies of the Bulletin are posted in the main saloon, in the officers' messroom, and in the smoking room, so that all hands may know just exactly where they are "at."

Here is a sample of a Daily Bulletin, which will be recognized by all tourists and "globe trotters" who may chance to see it:


Sunday, August 16, 1891.

Latitude, 29° 02' 15'' north.

Longitude, 144° 13' 30'' west.

Course south, 58° 46' west.

Distance, 256.4 knots.

(Signed)   ROBERT R. SEARLE,


The above Bulletin is taken from an entry in my private log book, made on the date given while en route from San Francisco to Hong Kong via Honolulu and Yokohama.

Here is another, posted en route to Sydney, via Honolulu, Apia, and Auckland.


Wednesday, April 11, 1888.

Latitude, 31° 44' 51'' north.

Longitude, 139° 25' 00'' west.

Course, south 48° west.

Distance, 316.9 miles.

(Signed)   H. M. HAYWARD.


And yet such good-for-nothing nincompoops and landlubbers as the Cooke-Hume-Cosgrave- Blueway-"Birdie"-Irving- Fruit-Picker combination of fake society reporters, free-lunch counter bums, and fake advertising agents, who have not an astronomical or nautical idea above a "cold deck," or a five-cent "schooner of steam beer" with a hot sausage "on the side," have the impudence to refer to the captains, mates, and engineers of these great ocean liners as "old salts" and "old Jack Tars."

When the quiet citizen sits back in his armchair at home and reads the glowing "society column" reports of vultures like those mentioned above, and in the same paper sees contemptuous and cowardly references to such estimable gentlemen as Captain Seabury, Captain Ward, Captain Morse, Captain Mortensen, Captain Clark, Captain Friele, Captain Searle, Captain Cavarly, Captain Pearne, Captain Smith, Captain Randle, Captain Haskins, Captain Dow, and other commanders and their officers who navigate ships, little does he know the truth about what he reads.

Most of those hardy old officers are as far superior, morally and intellectually, to the vultures who criticize them, as is a bank accountant to an African freed savage, in mathematics.

The shallowness, the petty meanness, the corruption, the arrogance, the false pretentions, the mock modesty, and the general all-round insincerity and utter uselessness of the everyday life of the Parvenucracy have an effect upon a sea captain similar to that which the pitching of a ship in a gale produces on a landsman.

It is against those unprincipled wretches who pose as "gentlemen of leisure," and "leaders" of the upstart element,--nearly the entire crew of which is a curse to society and civilization,--that I have taken occasion to warn my many esteemed friends in the navy as well as in the merchant marine. (See Chapter XI.) I know what I am talking about, and I want my friends to accept this in the spirit of a man who is writing for the good of society.

I have seen those vultures around the hotels, poker clubs, race tracks, faro dens, "family boarding houses," "bachelor quarters,"* and many other places where I have gone--for the purpose of studying their ways--that I might know whereof and of whom I write, for the benefit of those who would like to know the truth. The society barbarians against whom I write are to good society and virtue as were the pirates of old to the commerce of the world. Freebooters, gamblers, card sharps, and libertines. They pose in claw-hammer coats, purchased with ill-gotten gains, and wrech the homes, the happiness, and lives of honorable men, by taking advantage of female weakness.

[*Note: Bachelor quarters,--so called,--or "bachelor apartments," are rooming houses where married "men" keep their mistresses. Some of the wealthy he members of the Parvenucracy, who keep "bachelor quarters" under assumed names, have female agents regularly employed to kidnap schoolgirls and drag them into their harems to be kept for a time and then thrown on the town as "street walkers."]

Not satisfied with having destroyed the peace and happiness of innocent men, women, and children, these marauders of society boast of their doings, in order that the world may know all about it, except the names of the pirates who did it.

The very minute an honest citizen exposes one of those ruffians, the latter, who possess no honor at all, sets up a piteous wail about it being "dishonorable" for the honest citizen to expose him.

A man who boasts of his "gallantry" with other men's wives, or of his perfidy with trusting women, is to be dreaded more than the burglar who enters your bedroom and steals your purse while you sleep.

Who steals my purse, steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'twas mine; 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name,
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

-- Shakespeare.

When those infamous knaves run short of true tales to tell to one another and to all who will listen to them, they seldom hesitate about inventing bare-faced lies about innocent people. Nine times out of ten their tales of their "gallantries" are false. But such stories, having once been uttered against a female, can never be recalled. And, whether false or true, if names are used, they have about the same effect on the man of the world who hears them.

Some of my acquaintances will undoubtedly object to this; but my friends (and I have a good many) will not. We all know that human nature is weak. When one hears a man boasting of his "gallantries" and carryings-on with the respectable portion of the weaker sex, it is perfectly safe to shun him, and treat him with the same degree of contempt that is being served out to Oscar Wilde.

Source: Chambliss, William H. Chambliss' Diary; Or, Society As It Really Is. 1895: New York.  Library of Congress, "California as I Saw It:" First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900.


Return to San Francisco Genealogy
Public Commons License