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The Birth of Steamboats

August 12, 2017

In its operation, the Nation’s first steamboat resembled an Indian War Canoe. Built during the early-1780s by John Fitch, a native of Windsor, Connecticut, the skiff was equipped with two pairs of 3 paddles, on both sides of the vessel. Mounted on a shaft that alternately moved the forward pairs followed by the aft paddles, they were powered by a 3-inch cylinder steam engine. On July 26, 1786, Fitch successfully demonstrated his invention on the Delaware River.
By 1788, Fitch had built his first passenger boat. Operated on the Delaware River, the 60-feet long and eight-feet beam vessel was propelled by oars that pushed outward from the stern. Its steam engine had a twelve-inch cylinder. Financial difficulties however, never allowed Fitch to profit from his inventions. Though he is said to have died in poverty, he predicted that “time will come when all of our great lakes, rivers and ocean will be navigated by vessels propelled by steam.”
At about the same time, Maryland resident James Rumsey took a different approach for propelling his 50-foot vessel. He installed steam engine operated water pump that had a 4-inch square pipe running out to the stern, just below the rudder. The force of the exiting water managed to move the vessel forward at a speed of about 4 miles per hour. Others, including Benjamin Franklin, had suggested waterjet propulsion for a vessel, but no-one else of that era was able to develop the approach.
In December of 1787, Rumsey demonstrated his “jet-propelled steamer” on the Potomac River, above Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The following year, he traveled to England to obtain backing for his ideas. But four years later, on the evening before the scheduled demonstration of his new steamboat, the Columbia Bay, he died unexpectedly. He was buried in London at Saint Margaret’s Church. Back at home, his wife and three children were reportedly left penniless.


In 1793, Samuel Morey began operating his sternwheel steamboat on the Connecticut River. Morey also developed a concept for using sidewheels on a steamer and he later produced one of the first internal combustion engines that he patented under the name of “Gas or Vapor Engine” (April 1, 1826).  However, like his predecessors, he was not able to enlist the necessary funds to further pursue development of his inventions.  
During his early teens, Robert Fulton began to paint landscapes and portraits on commission. As still a teenager, he traveled to England to improve his skills. Once there however, he developed a new interest, the possibility of propelling a ship using a steam engine.
Unlike those before him, Fulton managed to obtain considerable funding for his ideas.  His main financier, Robert Livingston was at the time, the U. S. Minister to France. With Livingston’s interest and support, they were able to obtain a monopoly franchise for steamboats navigating the Hudson.
While in Paris in 1804, Fulton had run trials of his steam engine boat, the Nautilus, on the Seine. Everything went well. However, when he tried to interest Napoleon in his endeavors, the French emperor showed no interest.
Fulton returned to New York and during the spring of 1807, his new steamer, the Clermont, was launched from an East River boat yard.  The 130 feet long, 18 feet beam vessel was driven by a single engine built in England. During the late summer of that year, the Clermont was made ready for a run on the Hudson River. Expecting the trial to fail, some river-bank spectators jeered as final preparations were made. But jaws dropped as the vessel quickly pulled away pulled away from shore. Amazed with what had just been witnessed, the crowds then began to cheer and applaud.
On its maiden
voyage from New York City to Albany, a distance of 150 miles, the Clermont arrived at its destination in 32 hours. It easily passed schooners and sloops that were sailing up river. On the following day, the Albany Gazette published an article about the new steamer. “Provisions, good berths and accommodations are provided,” they reported. The fee for travelers from New York City to Newberg was set at 3 dollars, Poughkeepsie 4 dollars, Esopsus 5 dollars and 5.50 dollars to Hudson and Albany.
By 1816, eight steamers, all of which were owned by Fulton and Livingston, traveled the Hudson River route.  Fulton also looked forward to running steamers on Long Island Sound, but the War of 1812 (fought between the United States and the United Kingdom) postponed any attempt. The inventor’s first steamer on Long Island Sound set out in March of 1815, a month after he died. The ship called Fulton ran from New York City to New Haven, Connecticut.
In the shadow of Fulton, the names of earlier steam-engine vessel pioneers (some not mentioned) have all but disappeared. But as John Fitch had accurately predicted, the steamships became vital in carrying goods and passengers on all of the major waterways.

John Fitch is remembered via the John Fitch Steamboat Museum, Warminster, PA
James Rumsey Steamboat Museum, Shepherdstown, WVA
Samuel Morey, Vermont road marker, Fairlee, VT
Robert Fulton, Hudson River Maritime Museum, Kingston, NY

 

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