Monday, March 12, 2012

The Short, Tragic Life of Robert Fulton, 1: The North River Steamboat


Monday, August 17, 1807, dawned hot and humid in the bustling little city at the lower tip of Manhattan Island. It promised to be another sweltering dog day for which the lower Hudson Valley is famous in summer.  
Gentlemen uncomfortable in their swallow-tailed coats and their ladies twirling pastel parasols to protect them from the sun made their way by carriage or brougham two miles north to the village called Greenwich.
Their destination was the Christopher Street pier jutting into the Hudson River, in an area still largely given over to fields and orchards. Nearby loomed the massive walls of Newgate, the new state prison at the foot of Amos Street (now West Tenth Street).
 The occasion was the demonstration of inventor Robert Fulton’s new--and as yet unnamed--steamboat. Only the day before the vessel had been moved to the Hudson from a shipyard at Corlear’s Hook on the East River, causing excited comment from strollers near the Battery. Word of the vessel’s impending maiden voyage up the Hudson the next day spread rapidly through the city.

An Odd-looking Craft
Riding gently on the Hudson swells alongside the pier was an ungainly 79-ton cigar-shaped wooden boat measuring 142 feet long and a ridiculously narrow 14 feet wide.  With one tall mast and an awkward 15-foot smokestack extending high in the air, the flat-bottomed, straight-sided ship riding low in the water was a far cry from the sleek sailing sloops that busily plied New York’s vast harbor.
Powering this unusual craft was a large upright single-cylinder engine with an assortment of cogs, rods and wheels to drive two giant wooden paddlewheels, 15-feet in diameter. The latter lacked protective housings, making any passengers standing near them on deck likely to be doused with water. A supply of coal, Fulton's fuel of choice, was stored below deck, assuring 192 hours of running time.
Robert Fulton had spent more than twenty years in England and France, working first as a portrait painter and then as an inventor, unsuccessfully peddling inventions designed to sink ships with underwater mines.
Derisively called “Fulton’s Folly” as it was being built, the vessel owed much to British craftsmen who had flocked to the vibrant former colony. Charles Brownne, a skilled London shipwright, built its hull. Apparently, he avoided British restrictions on the emigration of skilled workers by changing the spelling of his given name, Brown.
Scottish millwright Robert McQueen built the ironwork of the paddle mechanism to Fulton’s design. The boiler Fulton had ordered from England was never shipped, so the vessel’s boiler was made by a local coppersmith named Marshall. The British firm of Boulton and Watt built the 24-horsepower engine to Fulton's specifications.
An initial unsuccessful attempt to get the new-fangled steamboat under way at about one o'clock drew taunts and smirking remarks from spectators on the shore. The few passengers stood ill at ease on the vessel’s open deck. Undaunted, Fulton and his British-born engineer, George Jackson, tinkered with the engine. Finally, Davis Hunt, the vessel’s captain, was given the signal to begin the voyage. 
Its engine hissing steam and its ungainly smokestack belching black smoke and sparks, Fulton’s North River Steamboat moved into the river and headed north past  Spuyten Duyvil and Westchester. At a speed of about four miles an hour, the slim vessel cut smoothly through the water, steadily overtaking and passing sloops and schooners beating their way northwards under full sail.
Fulton's ultimate destination was Albany but the first stop would be at Chancellor Robert R Livingston’s estate, Clermont, 110 miles north of the city. Prosperous and politically connected, he had been a member of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase.
Livingston, a lawyer and Fulton’s partner, bankrolled the steamboat venture. Fearful of competition, he obtained a monopoly on steamboat travel on the Hudson from the New York legislature. The Chancellor would join Fulton on board for the final 40-mile leg of the journey to the state capital.
Despite the hoopla about the first Albany-bound voyage of his steamboat, Fulton left no written record of the passengers, nor was there any local press coverage. Later accounts place eminent New Yorker and U.S. senator Dr. Samuel Latham Mitchill, aboard. Mitchill was chairman of the senate defense committee. Representing the Chancellor were his younger brother and a distant cousin, both named John Livingston.

Arrival at Clermont
Under a full moon, Fulton's steamboat chugged north through the night and reached the Livingston estate early in the afternoon of the next day. It had covered the distance at an average speed of 4-1/2 miles per hour. Livingston came aboard for the remainder of the journey to the state capital.
Arriving at Albany the following day, Fulton decided to turn the experimental voyage into a commercial venture and posted a sign on his steamboat’s railing announcing a return fare of seven dollars, more than twice what sailing sloops were charging. So great was the locals’ fear of a boiler explosion, only two French travelers booked passage on the return trip.
Although widely described as its inventor, Robert Fulton did not invent the steamboat. He was, however, the first to successfully operate a steamboat commercially in regular passenger service.

A Steamboat Business Is Born
Back in New York by Friday, August 21 with the successful round-trip voyage behind him, Fulton immediately registered his vessel officially at the port of New York office as the North River Steamboat--the only name by which it was known during its existence.
North River was the more common name for the Hudson River during the Dutch colonial period of the 17th century. The practical Dutch called the Delaware, the south boundary of New Netherland, the South River. Near the colony’s northern boundary, was the North River, or Hudson.
In his correspondence, Fulton referred to the river as the North River and the Hudson River, but in his advertisements, as in his registration of the craft, he called it the North River Steamboat. Confusion over the name of Fulton’s vessel began with biographer Cadwallader Colden, whose 1817 Life of Robert Fulton mistakenly called it the Clermont. This error, repeated by subsequent biographers and writers, continues to this day.
Fulton began regularly scheduled trips to Albany and back two weeks later on Sept.4, starting from the Jersey City ferry dock at the foot of Cortlandt Street
(near the site at which the World Trade Center would be erected. His boat arrived in Albany the following day after a record-setting trip of 28 hours and 45 minutes.
Accidents deliberately caused by jealous sloop captains were a constant worry. Blaming these on Capt. Hunt’s carelessness, Fulton replaced him with Andrew Brinck of Esopus (Kingston). Hunt was later said to have been bribed by sloop captains.
“You must insist on each one doing his duty or turn him on shore and another put in his place,” Fulton told Brinck. But Brinck turned out to be no more satisfactory than Hunt, and within a few weeks his place was taken by Samuel Wiswall of Hudson, who proved to be faithful and energetic.
Nevertheless, Fulton continued to complain to partner Livingston, “Our Hands are too numerous, their Wages too high, our fuel more than half too dear and the quantity may be economized.”
Service continued until November 19, ending with the freezing of the Hudson south of Albany. The following April, Livingston induced the New York legislature to extend the time period of the partnership’s monopoly on the Hudson.
During the winter, Fulton moved the North River to Red Hook, a protected cove south of the Clermont estate, where he set up a workshop and spent much of his time improving the vessel. He built a new hull, making it longer and wider, installed a new deck and windows, and created cabins holding 54 berths. The paddle wheels were enclosed in wooden housings to prevent them from splashing water on the deck. Coal was abandoned in favor of less expensive and more easily available resinous pine logs.
Fulton also found the time to court Harriet Livingston, the Chancellor's second cousin. They were married by a Dutch Reformed minister on January 7, 1808, in her family’s parlor her family’s estate at Teviotdale, eight miles northeast of Clermont. Fulton was 42; his bride was 24.
By the end of the 1808 sailing season, the two partners had cleared a profit of $16,000. They contracted with boat builder Charles Brownne for another steamboat, the fancifully named Car of Neptune. Three years would elapse before Fulton had another steamboat built for Hudson River service. At 331 tons--more than four times the displacement of the original North River--the 170-foot-long Paragon was huge, a veritable floating palace.
An illustrated account of the Paragon published in the new monthly magazine Port Folio described a dining room capable of serving dinner on fine china for 150 passengers and 104 berths “so wide as to conveniently admit two persons, when the boat is crowded.” Fulton added, almost with a wink, “and it is agreeable to the parties.”
Two smaller boats also were built, the 81-foot Firefly, which served the New York to Poughkeepsie run and the Jersey, an ingenious 78-foot catamaran ferry running between Manhattan and Jersey City. The new steamboat mogul was on his way.

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