One of the great paradoxes of maritime history is that the invention of the steamboat by Robert Fulton actually played a significant role in the development of horse- powered ferries in nineteenth century America. Few people recall that Robert Fulton had been commission by Napoleon Bonaparte to develop the first practical submarine in 1800.
Fulton’s submarine earned him worldwide notoriety.
Robert Fulton returned to New York determined to build a steamboat to ply the waters of the Hudson River and New York Bay. Fulton teamed up with Robert Livingston who held a license for steamboat services on the Hudson River.
It is from Livingston that Fulton got the money to build the Clermont, AKA Fulton’s Folley. On August 18th, 1807, the Clermont set out from the old State Prison dock and promptly broke down in the middles the river, despite the grumbling of the passengers Fulton had his steamboat up and running in a half hour. She went on up the river to Albany in roughly 30 hours. The steamboat age had begun and in five years there would be Fulton/Livingston steamboats traversing a half dozen rivers and the Cheaseapeake Bay.
In New York, a man named Colonel John Stevens was granted a lease by the Common Council of New York City (February 5, 1811) for a ferry to run between a dock on Vesey Street in New York and Hoboken, New Jersey. Stevens owned most of Hoboken Island and was actively developing the area, which included the “76 House Tavern”.
The lease was granted for fourteen years with the stipulation that Stevens build and get running a working steamboat within two years. Stevens had his first steam ferry ready by the fall of 1811. The Julian carried as many as one hundred passengers per trips and on average made sixteen trips a day.
It first seemed like a great success story, but within just a year prospects diminished. It seems that while the Commerce Council of New York City had granted the rights for Stevens to operate a steam ferry, Fulton/Livingston had other ideas. Fulton/Livingston who held a monopoly on the rights to run a steamboat on the Hudson had granted Stevens a license to run a passenger ferry, they did not grant Stevens the right to carry cattle or freight. Fulton and Livingston were running their own cattle and freight transport and did not want any competition from Stevens. Stevens’ license to run a steam was canceled and he was ordered to dismantle his steamboat by decree in July of 1812. Fortunately, Stevens owned a prospering fleet of steamboats, which ran on the Delaware River and was not subject the Fulton license.
Not a man to accept defeat easily, Stevens decided to go with an idea suggested to him twenty years prior by John Fitch. The idea of horses propelling boats was not new but Fitch refined where it would be practical for ferryboats. Fitch’s idea was to build a ferry powered by a horse with no steam engine at all. Thus, eliminating the need for permission from the Fulton/Livingston folks to operate a steamboat in New York.
On February 2, 1914 Captain Moses Rogers was granted a patent for a horse ferry. It had its maiden voyage from a dock on Catherine Street in Brooklyn to Manhattan. Ironically, Captain Rogers was the skipper of the Savannah, the first steam powered to cross the ocean from Savannah, Georgia to Liverpool.
The Williamsburg was yet another horse ferry built by Charles Browne. Browne’s ferry was 80 feet long and 42 feet in beam with many luxury improvements. It ran between Delancey Street in lower Manhattan and Long Island.
In their book “When Horses Walked on Water”, authors Kevin J. Crisman and Arthur B. Cohn, (Smithsonian Institution Press) wrote “Horse boats may have begun as a substitute for steamboats, but their utility and cheapness made them attractive even to companies working under a Fulton/Livingston license.” The ferrying enterprise founded by Robert Fulton and William Cutting (officially known as the New York and Brooklyn Steam Ferry Boat Company), owners of the East River Steamer Nassau, is a case in point. Under the term of its lease with New York, this company was required to complete a second steam ferry as commodious as the first by 1819, but the operation simply could not afford to build another vessel the size of the Nassau. The directors therefore petitioned to build a large horse boat, citing the savings in construction and maintenance cost and service to the public that was comparable to the existing steam ferry. The potential savings for the company were impressive: The Nassau cost about thirty thousand dollars to build, whereas a horse boat, complete with extra horses and a stable on shore, was estimated to run about twelve thousand dollars, The city of New York agreed to the substitution on December 17, 1817.
Between 1814 and 1819 in New York City there were horse ferries at Spring Street, Vesey Street, Whitehall Street, Fulton Street Catherine Street, Walnut Street, Grand Street and Delancey Street. The sight of a horse ferry in New York City was quite common.
In the time between 1814 and 1818 there were at least a dozen patents issued for horse boats or team-boats. There were at least a dozen horse boat ferries on the Hudson River between Brooklyn, NY and Troy. In Troy, NY, Barnabas Langdon was becoming the go to guy for the machinery necessary to build a good horse boat. In 1819 Langdon built a boat of his own. Langdon patented a horizontal-tread wheel horse boat. It was reliable, well-built device, inexpensive and soon became the preferred way to propel a horse boat. There were two ferries in Troy using the Langdon machinery.
In 1824 the Marquis de Lafayette, famous for his Revolutionary War exploits on the American side, toured America and as part of his tour he crossed the Hudson at Troy. Crowds cheered as the hero crossed on a horse ferry.
In July of 1826 one of the horse ferries was replaced with a steam ferry. Within a short time, it failed and was replaced with another horse ferry.
Nestled at the bottom of northern Burlington Bay on Lake Champlain is the wreck of a “team-boat” or horse ferry measuring 63-feet-long boat and 23 feet wide. It like so many similar horse boats used human ingenuity and horsepower to accomplish the task of moving a boat through the water. The fact that in several cases after the steamboat had been perfected, there was many instances where the quiet, reliable and safe horse drawn ferries were preferred over the noise, and steamboats that were known to explode.