Pacific Mail, American Empire: State-Industrial Coordination in the Eastern Pacific, 184767

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 1:30 PM
Crystal Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Alicia Maggard, Williams College
Having won federal subsidy to transport troops and the mails between California and the Atlantic via Panama in 1847, the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. sent its first vessel into Pacific service in 1848. From the travails of this first journey, the directors learned two enduring lessons about the business of steam navigation: fickle mechanical systems were wont to break down in inconvenient places and marine engines were insatiable coal gluttons. Over the next two decades, repair, maintenance, and fuel concerns occupied every company agent from executives in New York and managers in San Francisco to firemen feeding boilers en route from Acapulco to Mazatlan. This paper tells the story of the wharves, foundries, engine works, coal depots, and supply chains that were constructed to meet the maintenance and fueling needs of Pacific Mail steamships.

In attending to steam navigation infrastructure, this paper argues that building the power of “the state” was a simultaneous, mutually-constitutive political project and material undertaking. Subsidized by a federal contract, Pacific Mail performed what had come to be an essential act of American governance—delivering the mails. This contract put operational limits on Pacific Mail, but it did not make the company handmaiden to the state. The infrastructure the company built and the practices company agents developed around its use followed from their own interests and logics. Even so, this nominally private steam infrastructure opened new avenues for American diplomatic posturing, provided the military with logistical support, and expanded the reach of American markets. The human and material pathways Pacific Mail agents assembled to keep their vessels afloat were at once entry points for U.S. power in the Pacific.

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