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Robert Fulton - His Life and Its Result - Part V

The "American Citizen" of August 17, 1807, says:

"Mr. Fulton's ingenious steamboat, invented with a view to the navigation of the Mississippi, from New Orleans upward, sails today from the North River, near State's Prison, to Albany. The velocity of the steamboat is calculated at four miles an hour. It is said it will make a progress of two against the current of the Mississippi, and if so it will certainly be a very valuable acquisition to the commerce of Western States."
What would this sanguine editor have thought, had he been assured that the "Clermont " was the pioneer of a fleet that should include steamships of ten thousand tons, or even as the "Great Eastern," of thirty thousand tons displacement; ships that should make a speed of twenty miles an hour at sea; small torpedo boats carrying out the idea of Fulton, and pursuing their enemy with their destructive little weapons at speeds approaching thirty miles an hour; and river boats passing over the very route chosen for Fulton's first trial trip at the speed of twenty-seven miles an hour, and at their "slow speeds," running from New York to Albany in ten hours or less? What would he have thought, had he dreamed of steaming from New York to Newport, to Fall River, or to Providence in ten to twelve hours? Of going from St. Louis to New Orleans in four days? Of crossing the Atlantic in six?

The engine of the "Clermont" was similar to that of Fulton's French boat, and of rather peculiar construction, the piston, being coupled to the crank-shaft, by a bell crank, and a connecting rod, the paddle-wheel shaft, being separate from the crank-shaft, and connected with the latter by gearing, The paddle-wheels had buckets four feet long, with a dip of two feet.

The voyage of the "Clermont" to Albany was attended by some ludicrous incidents. Mr. Colden says that she was described "as a monster, moving on the waters, defying wind and tide, and breathing flames and smoke."

This boat used dry pine wood for fuel, and the flames rose to a considerable distance above the smoke pipe; and mingled smoke and sparks rose high in the air. This uncommon light first attracted the attention of the crews of other vessels. Notwithstanding the wind and tide were averse to its approach, they saw with astonishment that it was rapidly coming toward them; and when it came so near that the noise of the machinery and paddles was heard, the crews (if what was said in the newspapers of the time be true) in some instances shrank beneath their decks from the terrific sight, and left their vessels to go on shore; while others prostrated themselves, and besought Providence to protect them from the approach of the horrible monster which was marching on the tides, and lighting its path by the fires which it vomited."

Fulton used several of the now familiar features of the American river boat, and subsequently introduced others.

The success of the "Clermont" on the trial trip was such that Fulton soon after advertised the vessel as a regular passenger boat between New York and Albany. A newspaper slip in the scrap-book of the Author has the following:

"The traveler of to-day, as he goes on board the great steamboats 'St. John' or 'Drew,' can scarcely imagine the difference between such floating palaces and the wee bit punts on which our fathers were wafted sixty years ago. We may, however, get some idea of the sort of thing then in use by a perusal of the steamboat announcements of that time two of which are as follows

September 2, 1807. "'The North River Steamboat will leave Pauler's Hook Ferry [now Jersey City] on Friday, the 4th of September, at 9 in the morning, and arrive at Albany on Saturday, at 9 in the afternoon. Provisions, good berths, and accommodations are provided."

Mr. Fulton's newly invented Steamboat, which is fitted up in a neat style for passengers, and is intended to run from New York to Albany as a Packet, left here this morning with 90 passengers, against a strong head-wind. Notwithstanding which, it was judged she moved through the waters at the rate of six miles an hour.

During the next winter the "Clermont" was repaired and enlarged, and in the summer of 1808 was again on the route to Albany; and, meantime, the two new steamboats, the "Raritan" and the "Car of Neptune," had been built. In the year 1811 Fulton built the "Paragon."

Fulton patented novel details in steam-engines and steam-vessels in 1811, and thus secured some valuable property, though by no means sufficient to insure control of his routes. This he retained for a few years; but up to 1812, at least, there were continual attempts to establish rival lines, and vessels of all kinds, driven by engines of all sorts, practicable and impracticable, were built or proposed by ambitious inventors and "grasping capitalists." In the winter of 1812 an injunction was obtained from the courts in such terms that a perpetual injunction could be served on all the opposition lines, and Fulton was for a brief period allowed to pursue his own course in peace. A number of boats were now built for the rapidly increasing traffic of the rivers of the United States, and he placed some even on the "Father of Waters," where he fulfilled the prediction of his unfortunate predecessor, Fitch, whose remains now lie quietly beside one of its tributaries.

"Steam," says the "Gentleman's Magazine" for December, 1809, "has been applied in America to the purpose of inland navigation with the greatest success. The passage boat between New York and Albany is one hundred and sixty feet long, and wide in proportion for accommodations, consisting of fifty-two berths, besides sofas, etc., for one hundred passengers; and the machine which moves her wheels is equal to the power of twenty-four horses, and is kept in motion by steam from a copper boiler eight or ten feet in length. Her route is a distance of one hundred and fifty miles, which she performs regularly twice a week, and sometimes in the short space of thirty-two hours." An amazing tale!


Above Work Selected Extracts From:
"Robert Fulton - His Life and Its Results"
Robert H. Thurston
Dodd, Mead, and Company Publishers
New York

Main Page on Robert Fulton
American inventor and engineer, who brought steamboating to commercial success.

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