From Folly to Fame

Scoffed at by skeptics who didn’t believe it could work, Robert Fulton’s steamboat revolutionized travel on the Hudson — and beyond



It was a queer-looking thing. Approximately 150 feet long, but only 13 feet wide, Robert Fulton’s long and skinny steamboat looked like nothing else on the Hudson River. It had a smokestack in the center that belched black clouds and sparks, and twin paddle wheels that would drench anyone in the vicinity. It was loud and lacking in creature comforts. The crowd that gathered on Manhattan’s lower west side on August 17, 1807 to watch one of the very first steamboats make its inaugural trip was understandably skeptical that this Hudson Valley-bound boat would even make it past the Bronx. Talk of “Fulton’s folly” filled the air.

Fulton, standing six feet tall and doubtless dressed in his uniform of ruffled shirt, white cravat, and cutaway coat, tinkered with the boat awhile, waited until 1 p.m. when the tide was in his favor, and took off. Some claim he brought along a party of specially selected upper-crust guests — and an ample supply of brandy. Others say it was just Fulton and his crew on board. What’s known for sure is that the crowd’s jeers were replaced by cheers.

En route north, spectators greeted the oddball boat with waving handkerchiefs and shouts of “huzzah!” Some people, however, were not so heartened. A sailor near Newburgh reported seeing “a backwoods sawmill... set on fire” heading north. Onlookers in Poughkeepsie regarded the boat as a sure sign of the judgment day. Those on board pulled an all-nighter — singing into the wee hours, probably to stay awake, or so the story goes. They arrived the next day at Clermont, the Columbia County country seat of Fulton’s business partner and co-visionary, New York Chancellor Robert Livingston. There, Fulton quite possibly spent time in the company of Harriet Livingston, the 20-something ward of the Chancellor who was to become his bride in a matter of months. Fulton set out again for Albany bright and early the next morning, this time with Livingston on board, and arrived in time for dinner.

Chugging along at speeds between four and five miles per hour, Fulton’s boat made the one-way, 150-mile journey in a record time of 32 hours heading north and 30 hours returning to Manhattan. It would have taken a sloop, at the mercy of the wind, as many as six days each way.

Robert FultonTrained as an artist, Fulton spent most of his life working as an engineer and inventor. Besides the steamboat, he designed the Nautilus, the world’s first submarine, for Napoleon Bonaparte

Fulton engraving courtesy of iStockphoto/Hulton Archive

“That particular steamboat trip in August of 1807 revolutionized the whole transportation industry in the U.S. and the world,” says Tracie Rozhon, president of Friends of Clermont and editor of Bob’s Folly: Fulton, Livingston and the Steamboat. “Though incredibly important in history, the steamboat — and this particular trip with Clermont as its first stop — is not as well publicized as it should be.”

Freed from dependence on wind, steamboats could offer reliable transportation schedules to the public. Soon after Fulton’s epochal journey, commercial steamboat service between Albany and New York was underway, courtesy of Fulton and the Chancellor. Surprise! There was no competition: Livingston, the former U.S. ambassador to France who had negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, had already obtained a monopoly on New York State waters — with aspirations to extend it west. Steamboat technology would soon open the interior of the country to transcontinental migration and eventually make international trade and travel a reality. But Fulton and Livingston suspected all that before it happened.

“Theirs was an incredible collaboration,” says Allynne Lange, curator of the exhibit “Robert Fulton 1807” at the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston. “Both were very future-oriented and had an international world view.” In fact, the partners had met in France, and both had spent ample time in Europe, where technological advances were ahead of those in the U.S. While Livingston was a financial backer of the steamboat and an enthusiastic experimenter himself (he held a patent for making paper from river reeds), what he mostly contributed was influence.

Fulton had his own money, which he had earned from a slew of other inventions, including an incline plane to haul canal boats; machines to cut marble, dig canals, and make rope; and even a painted panorama in a tower (which became a French tourist attraction). For this last endeavor, he drew upon his considerable painting background: He’d worked as a miniaturist portrait painter in Philadelphia, and studied under the American painter Benjamin West. While in Europe, he demonstrated the first practical working submarine in the river Seine, and had been involved in torpedo projects for the British government. Just one month before he sailed up the Hudson in the Clermont, he’d staged an elaborate demonstration of torpedoes in New York Harbor; he would go on to design the world’s first steam-powered warship.

There’s always someone in the crowd who will argue that Fulton didn’t invent the steamboat — others had been experimenting with them for decades. But Fulton’s was the first successful venture. “The problem with the other inventors is they didn’t have money to bring it to fruition,” says Lange. “The engines were very expensive. The engine Fulton used came from England and was top-of-the-line, and Fulton knew how to improve on it. He had the vision. He wasn’t an inventor of steam engines, but of a boat that could carry a steam engine.”

But there was something more: “Because he was an artist, he could think visually,” says Cynthia Owen Philip, author of Robert Fulton: A Biography. “Instead of having to build a model — which other people did — and put it in the river, he was able to design with a pencil and make it work. Even today people build from models.” Indeed, when Fulton sent in his patent application for the steamboat, he included a gorgeous drawing of his invention on the river, surrounded by stunning Hudson Valley scenery.

Sad to say, Fulton — and Livingston — didn’t live to see the heyday of the steamboat on the Hudson. Livingston died of a stroke in 1813. Fulton died of pneumonia after saving his lawyer’s life when he fell into the icy Hudson in 1815. By the 1840s — long after the duo’s monopoly had been broken by Cornelius Vanderbilt — steamboats had doubled in size and were the passenger transportation of choice. Eventually they ballooned to 300 feet, luring people with live music, elegant furniture, and tempting foods as they ran in a constant stream up and down the river. They abruptly disappeared in the late 1940s, when train and auto travel ultimately won out.

Look for these upcoming Fulton events:

► In addition to its ongoing Fulton exhibit, the Hudson River Maritime Museum holds its annual “Steamboat Days” exhibition on August 22, with free rides on hobbyist steamboats and children’s activities.
50 Rondout Landing, Kingston. 845-338-0071.

► On September 25, the FDR Presidential Library and Museum hosts a talk by Fulton biographer Cynthia Owen Philip.
4079 Albany Post Rd. (Rte. 9), Hyde Park. 845-486-7770 or www.hudsonrivervalley.org

► On October 10, “Clermont to Clermont: Carriageway to the River” takes place at the Clermont State Historic Site. The site’s newly restored riverfront trail is unveiled, and historical vignettes recreate Fulton’s historic arrival at the estate.
1 Clermont Ave., Germantown. 518-537-6622.

 

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