Robert Fulton did not invent the steamboat. There were perhaps 20 others who worked toward the same goal before the North River Steamboat, later known as Clermont, left the dock in the city of New York for Albany on August 17, 1807.
He was not the first to operate a steamboat. There had been many experiments with steamboats in the 1700s, at least 16 had been built in America alone before Fulton. Fifteen, designed by eight different men, had operated under their own power.
Cadwallader D. Colden, who followed the early development of steamboats, noted the biggest difficulty in developing them was the expense for a vessel that just didn’t go fast enough and was further inconvenienced by having a fairly useless steam engine taking up so much of the boat. “Nothing in the success of any of these experiments [before Fulton] appeared to be sufficient compensation for the expense, and the extreme inconvenience of the steam-engine in the vessel.”
“The boat was too frail to stand the weight of the engine and boilers and they had broken through the bottom of the craft during an overnight storm and sunk in the river. Others had tried before him. James Rumsey in 1784 on the Potomac sought to propel a boat by forcing a jet of water from the stern with pumps worked by steam. Some of his experiments with the boat were witnessed by General Washington and other officers of the Army, but they were failures. John Fitch had tried his boats on the Delaware at Philadelphia (1790), and on the Collect Pond, N. Y. (1796), and failed. Elijah Ormsbee, with his “goosefoot” paddles, had attempted the same thing at Pawtucket, R. I. (1792), and John Stevens [John Stevens III] crossed the river from Hoboken to New York (1804) in a boat fitted with a steam engine of his own construction, but all of these efforts were barren of practical results.”
What Fulton did have was connections. In 1798, Robert R. Livingston, Jr. (1746-1813), known as “The Chancellor,” had requested and received a monopoly from the New York State Legislature granting him the exclusive right to operate steamboats on any navigable water in the state. That right had previously been granted to John Fitch in 1787, who operated a small steam powered craft on the Collect Pond in New York.
Livingston, who became Fulton’s partner, was among New York’s most famous men. He had been a member of the Continental Congress, helped draft the Declaration of Independence and the New York State Constitution. He served for 25 years as New York’s first Chancellor and administered the first Presidential oath to George Washington in the city of New York in 1789. While serving as Minister to France from 1801 to 1804 (where he met Fulton), he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase. In 1798, the year he was granted the steamboat monopoly, he ran unsuccessfully for Governor against John Jay.
Fulton wasn’t even Livingston’s first choice of partner. In 1797, Livingston entered into an agreement with John Stevens III (whose father owned the land on which Hoboken was built) and Nicholas J. Roosevelt to construct a steamboat, the engine for which was to be constructed at Roosevelt’s foundry in New Jersey. Stevens’ design was for a paddle wheel at the rear of the boat, but The Chancellor preferred another plan:
“I would recommend that we throw two wheels of wood over the sides, fastened to the axes [axis] of the flys [fly wheels] with eight arms or paddles; that part which enters the water of sheet iron to shift according to the power they require either deeper in the water, or otherwise, and that we navigate the vessel with these until we can procure an engine of the proper size.”
Stevens largely demurred, and Livingston ended up with Fulton, securing an extension on his exclusive privilege to operate a steam boat on New York waters in 1803. In 1807 it was extended again.
“The Clermont was much like a schooner,” according to Buckman, “built with two masts and an exceedingly large funnel, for she burned pine wood under her boilers. She poured out volumes of black smoke, which at night assumed a more startling effect, on account of the sparks that flew out with the smoke.” A farmer who saw Fulton and Livingston’s boat is said to have proclaimed that he had “seen the devil going up the river in a sawmill.”
Fulton described the first trip in a letter to a friend:
“I had a light breeze against me the whole way, both going and coming, and the voyage has been performed wholly by the power of the steam engine. I overtook many sloops and schooners, beating to the windward, and parted with them as if they had been at anchor. The power of propelling boats by steam is now fully proved. The morning I left New York, there were not perhaps thirty persons in the city who believed that the boat would ever move one mile an hour, or be of the least utility, and while we were putting off from the wharf, which was crowded with spectators, I heard a number of sarcastic remarks. This is the way in which ignorant men compliment what they call philosophers and projectors. Having employed much time, money and zeal in accomplishing this work, it gives me, as it will you, great pleasure to see it fully answer my expectations.”
Regular passenger service began on September 4, 1807 and that winter the boat was rebuilt and reregistered as North River. Later, two more were constructed, Car of Neptune and Paragon. In the fall of 1812, Fulton’s Fire-fly began service between Troy and Albany.
It wasn’t until 1824 that the Livingston – Fulton monopoly was broken (read about that here). The following year nearly twenty steamboats were operating on the Hudson.
That fall, three main lines were operating between Albany and New York daily, Monday-Saturday: The Hudson River Line (Consitution, Constellation, the only line also operating on Sundays); The North River Line (James Kent, Chancellor, $4 Fare, and also Richmond, $2 Fare); and Troy Steamboat Company (Chief Justice Marshall, New London, running only four days a week from Troy with a stop in Albany – an improvement from the summer of 1825, when they were running only three days a week from Troy,). There was also the Swiftsure running four days a week from Albany.
If you’d like to see a scale replica of Fulton’s North River Steamboat, visit the Hudson River Maritime Museum to see a six-foot-long model in the East Gallery.
Illustrations, from above: The 1909 replica of the North River Steamboat (Clermont) at anchor; Robert R. Livingston by Gilbert Stuart; Robert Fulton, 1806 portrait by Benjamin West (Fenimore Art Museum); and an advertisement for The North River Steamboat in an 1808 issue of the Hudson Bee.