Chapter 1: The North River
Monday, August 17, 1807, was another hot summer day in New York City, and most of the women of fashion on the pier, arms linked to laced and ruffled gentlemen, had their little pastel parasols up against the sun. It was not their custom to parade out in midday on a Monday, certainly not two miles uptown from the stylish promenades of Broadway, but they were here on the Hudson shore just by the little village of Greenwich, almost within the shadow of the imposing stone walls of the new state prison, because so much excitement had been stirred up in the city lately by the prospect of Mr. Fulton's strange and improbable boat today making its planned maiden voyage to Albany.
Interest was particularly high since the thing had successfully and dramatically puffed and roared its way here around the tip of Manhattan the day before, in clouds of smoke and spangles of sparks, its bizarre paddles churning at the sides, on view for the crowds that typically filled the tree-lined walks of the Battery park on a Sunday. Higher still because it was widely held that the whole outlandish contraption was likely to explode in a exhibition that would rival the fireworks of the annual Evacuation Day proceedings -- the grandest of any, since it celebrated the British departure from the city, in a calendar full of pyrotechnics.
No doubt some in that crowd had also been present just a few weeks earlier, on July 20, when the energetic -- and most inventive -- Mr. Fulton had put on something of a show of a different kind for the Battery audience, at least for those willing to stay past that afternoon's dinner hour. On that day he had promised a demonstration of a new device he called a "torpedo" -- the name taken from the torpedo fish, or electric ray -- that, he said, by moving silently along the water's surface would evade detection and then be carried by the tide to hit and explode into the side of any enemy ship, thereby making New York's harbor invincible and rendering naval warfare virtually obsolete. He had not, in truth, had very much success with this invention in Europe, where he had spent years trying to convince first the French and then the British of its utility, but he had recently managed to persuade the similarly inventive Thomas Jefferson, then in the fullness of his second term, to sponsor this experiment in New York harbor and to dispatch some senior naval advisors up to observe it.
Somewhere Fulton had dug up a decrepit old 200-ton brig and caused it to be towed to a point between Governors and Ellis islands, in full view of a shoreline crowd of several thousand. The turnout was so sizable because, as was explained by a young writer named Washington Irving, describing the "blow up" in the occasional magazine Salmagundi he had started in January of that year, "it was the first naval action ever exhibited in our port; and the good people all crowded to see the British navy blown up in effigy."
In the event, however, they were somewhat disappointed. The first two bombs just floated there, harmless, and another pair exploded, but a hundred yards from the ship -- as Irving noted, "the brig most obstinately refused to be decomposed." Long minutes passed as the afternoon waned, and "the dinners grew cold, and the puddings were overboiled, throughout the renowned city of Gotham," where, as throughout the new nation, the main meal of the day was generally eaten around two or three P.M. "All returned home, after having threatened to pull down the flag-staff by way of taking satisfaction for their disappointment."
Not quite all. Fulton and his crew remained, along with some of the more rakish elements who wanted the last laugh, and a third attempt was made, this time with mines directed close enough so that the brig became an easy, not to say charitable, target. At last, on toward seven o'clock, the recalcitrant new invention worked, the ship exploded in a satisfying shower of sparks and flames, and Fulton had his triumph, belated though it may have been. "It was rent in two and went to the bottom in 20 seconds," the inventor reported proudly afterward, thus proving "the practicability of destroying vessels by this means."
Of course, it seemed to have some limitations militarily, as was pointed out by one of Irving's friends, a certain Ichabod Fungus, who had stayed for the whole show: "Observe, sir, all that's necessary is that the ships must come to anchor in a convenient place -- watch must be asleep, or so complacent as not to disturb the boats paddling about them -- fair wind and tide -- no moonlight -- machines well-directed -- mustn't flash in the pan -- bang's the word, and the vessel's blown up in a moment." It did seem to demand, he felt, some measure of cooperation from the enemy ship in order to work.
Fulton was not dismayed. His torpedo project had been dear to his heart for years, and he would continue to press the American government for support, certain that with its success the world would gain the complete freedom of the seas and the benefits of untrammeled commerce. As for New Yorkers, though, the demonstration simply served to suggest that the new breed of inventors springing up around town -- "surely never was a town more subject to mid-summer fancies and dog-day whims," Irving reported, than "this most excellent of cities" -- was not quite as ingenious as it claimed to be. And for some to suggest in fact that Mr. Fulton's other project, his infernal steam-powered machine to ply the Hudson, was likely to prove as ridiculous a failure, and most probably end in the same sort of conflagration.
New York City in the year 1807 was a place of some 83,000 people, 1,776 of them slaves, clustered into less than a square mile at the foot of Manhattan Island. Shipping, and the commerce it transmitted, was the city's life -- for, as James Fenimore Cooper was to attest a few years later, "Nature herself intended the isle of Manhattan for the site of one of the greatest commercial towns of the world," giving it "a vast harbour, an unusually extensive natural basin, with two outlets to the sea, and a river that, in itself, might contain all the shipping of the earth." Which is why even then New York was surpassing the long-established ports of Philadelphia and Boston to become the most important entrepôt of the new nation, with exports of $16.4 million, more than five times what they had been just four years earlier.
The wharves themselves (here called "slips"), which stuck out into the harbor like little beckoning fingers all around the tip of the island -- for two miles along the East River, a mile along the Hudson -- were centers of hivelike intensity throughout the day, every day but Sunday. "All was noise and bustle," wrote an English visitor that year. "Everything was in motion; all was life, bustle and activity. The people were scampering in all directions to trade with each other." Bales and barrels, hogsheads and chests, boxes and cases and amorphous packages were piled everywhere on the docks. The sound of axes and hammers, the ringing of blacksmith anvils, the cries of sailors and stevedores, merchants and hawkers, were in the air. "Every thought, word, look, and action of the multitude seemed to be absorbed by commerce; the welkin rang with its busy hum, and all were eager in the pursuit of its riches."
Commerce there was in Baltimore and Boston, in Charleston and Philadelphia, but nowhere was it so much the culture, the oxygen, of the city as it was in New York. Nowhere else was it the prevailing talk of the pubs and taverns (about 1,400 of them in 1807, of which 160 were licensed for "strong drink"), the street corners and promenades, the parties and balls, and nowhere else was there the tumultuous three-story brick building at the corner of Wall Street and Water that housed the Tontine Coffee House, America's stock exchange, where from late morning to dinnertime every weekday, inside the noisy rooms gray with cigar smoke and outside on the capacious railed porch, deals of every kind could be made. Only in New York, "the great mart of the western hemisphere" as young Cooper saw it, a place where "exchanges can be regulated, loans effected, cargoes vended in gross, and all other things connected with trade, transacted on a scale commensurate to the magnitude of the interests involved in its pursuits."
On any given day the city would be surrounded with masts, a bare forest of spikes poking up from the slips, as tall as the roofs of the downtown buildings, and the harbor would be full of schooners and sloops and brigs, sails billowing, freighted down and riding low in the water, back and forth past the harbormaster's offices on Staten Island. Some made good speed -- the faster ships could sail in seven or eight weeks from New York to London, and about fifty hours from New York to Albany if the winds were strong and the weather fair -- but imagine what realms of commerce might be opened if those times could be cut by a half, or more, and with a vessel that would move at a steady pace without regard to the variable elements.
Imagine what might be opened if the powerful engine recently perfected by Mr. Watt, in England, could finally be installed on the right kind of boat, with the right kind of propulsion, with the right kind of technologist to oversee it.
It is hard to know where the memorably derisive phrase "Fulton's Folly" originated, but the primary biographers agree that it was in the air in the weeks before the initial launch. Clearly some such sentiment was prevalent in the town, as even Fulton knew, for in a later account he said:
As I had occasion to pass daily to and from the building-yard, while my boat was in progress, I have often loitered unknown near the idle groups of strangers, gathering in little circles, and heard various inquiries as to the object of this new vehicle. The language was uniformly that of scorn, or sneer, or ridicule. The loud laugh often rose at my expense; the dry jest; the wise calculation of losses and expenditures; the dull, but endless, repetition of the Fulton folly. Never did a single encouraging remark, a bright hope, or a warm wish, cross my path.
Certainly the appearance of the boat, riding there in the Hudson off Greenwich village, gave no reason for optimism. It was awkwardly long and thin -- 142 feet by 14 feet, capable of fitting very neatly into one of the narrower streets of lower Manhattan from corner to corner and curb to curb -- and looked more like a scow than the stately sailboats that filled the harbor. It was flat-bottomed and square-sided, straight across at the stern and gently rounded at the bow, with a deck only a few feet from the water's surface. In the middle -- nakedly open on this first, experimental craft, but with many parts later decked over -- were a large copper boiler with a fifteen-foot smokestack, a large upright cylinder that was the steam engine itself, and an assemblage of levers and rods and cogs and wheels whose purpose seemed entirely unfathomable. On each side, about three-quarters of the way along the craft, were two fifteen-foot circular wooden paddlewheels, unhoused and liable to splash any passengers nearby, and at each end were large oak masts rigged for sails, as if the inventor was not quite sure his elaborate steam gadgetry would work and had decided to hedge his bets. "She was a queer-looking craft," one eyewitness wrote, in something of an understatement, "and like everything new excited much attention, and not a little ridicule."
And, to be sure, some fear. It is doubtful that any in the fashionable crowd of several hundred gathered to see the launch would have known much about the previous experiments in steam propulsion that had taken place on both sides of the Atlantic for better than thirty years, or would have known that, though all of the boats had eventually failed in one way or another, none of them had been destroyed by explosion. It was enough to watch the black smoke belching steadily from the smokestack when Fulton fired up the boiler about midday, and see the splash of sparks carried in the breeze whenever the fire was stoked, to believe that the whole affair might well burst into flames at any minute.
Of course, the very idea of an engine run by steam was an extraordinary one -- and reasonably frightening -- at this point, for that upheaval known as the Industrial Revolution, with its everyday intrusion of steam power, had yet to descend upon America. A half-dozen steam engines did exist in the new land, some based on James Watt's ingenious machines in Britain, others fashioned to homespun designs with more or less success, and one had been used to raise water in lower Manhattan itself for some years; but to most people the device was both foreign and mysterious, and, as Fulton himself put it, "how true it was that fear frequently arose from ignorance." Americans still did not appreciate the potential of harnessing a source of power essentially independent of the forces of nature -- technology free of the limits of geography or season or weather, of sun or wind or water, of either human or animal labor -- and it would not be until the implications of this actual boat-with-steam-engine were made manifest over the next few years that steam would begin to transform the American economy, and the steamboat usher in the American Industrial Revolution. And so this peculiar floating implementarium tended to cause more consternation than appreciation, and it is not hard to see how one among these early onlookers could describe it as "a monster moving on the waters defying the winds and tide, and breathing flames and smoke."
Even some among the select crowd that Robert Fulton had invited along for the maiden voyage were apparently fearful, as much as they had mustered the nerve to be there, and Fulton felt their anxiety as he moved among them. A striking presence, agile and healthy at forty-one, he was six feet tall (four inches above the average stature of the time), with a handsome face marked by a prominent though shapely nose, piercing dark eyes under heavy brows, and sideburns full to his earlobes in the fashion of the day; he was probably wearing an open dark cutaway coat and trousers, with a loosely tied white cravat, his normal costume. He was mainly preoccupied with directing his small crew -- Davis Hunt, the captain; Andrew Brinck, his assistant; George Jackson and Charles Dyck, the engineers; and presumably a steward or two to serve the wine and brandy he had put aboard -- but he was attentive to the three dozen guests gathered toward the stern, and their mood.
Many of the passengers were relatives and friends of his partner in the steamboat venture, the rich and well-connected Robert R. Livingston, nineteen years Fulton's senior and former chancellor of the New York State equity court (and called "Chancellor" to distinguish him from the rest of the numerous Livingston clan), recently returned from his stint as special minister to France, where he had helped negotiate the amazing windfall treaty that had more than doubled the size of the United States, the Louisiana Purchase. Chancellor Livingston had invited a good many of his family, some quite giddy at the opportunity ("Cousin Chancellor has a wonderful new boat," one cousin had gushed, that "will be something to remember all our lives"), and others convinced the scheme was daffy ("Bob has had many a bee in his bonnet before now," the Chancellor's brother John is reported to have said, "but this steam folly will prove the worst yet").
We know particularly about Fulton's assessment of the assemblage because he later noted, with some asperity, that, "in the moments before the word was to be given for the boat to move," his friends on deck showed "anxiety mixed with fear" and were "silent, sad, and weary." He had endured a good deal of doubt and discouragement in the weeks beforehand, but to find it here, now, and among those he honored with his maiden trip must have been a dispiriting blow. As confident as he had been after the boat's two-mile test run a week earlier -- "she will, when in complete order," he had written the Chancellor, "run up to my full calculations" -- he now seemed somewhat flustered and irresolute.
"I read in their looks nothing but disaster," he later admitted, "and almost repented of my efforts."
A great deal, of course, was at stake. Robert Fulton had been dreaming of just such a venture for much of the last dozen years -- his first certain word on the subject had been on November 4, 1794, a letter to Boulton, Watt & Co. -- and had spent the last five years in a formal partnership with Livingston that promised that "a passage boat moved by the power of a Steam Engine shall be constructed at New York, for the purpose of navigating between New York and Albany," on the strength of which they had won a fourteen-year monopoly on New York waters from the legislature in Albany. He had also spent upward of $20,000 on the craft -- a goodly sum at a time when an ample building lot on Wall Street might go for $8,000 -- of which he had personally put up half; and in the past few weeks he had had to importune a number of his friends for an extra $1,000 to take care of last-minute expenses. Besides, he could not really point to much success in his career, despite a decade of drawing up schemes and tinkering with inventions, and the ignominious fate of his recent torpedo project, despite his optimistic account of it, suggested that he was unlikely to get a favorable reception for any of the proposals he had put to various government offices if this one was to fail.
Even more than his reputation and his solvency rested on the success of the steamboat, however. As Fulton well knew, if the vessel was proved here, it would serve most importantly as a swift and reliable means of navigating the Mississippi and its labyrinth of tributaries, and thus of conquering the western lands so recently acquired. In an interview with the American Citizen published the day of the launch, in fact, he asserted that his "ingenious Steam Boat, invented with a view to the navigation of the Mississippi from New Orleans upward...will certainly be a very valuable acquisition to the commerce of Western States." Or, as he had written the Chancellor after his initial test of the boat, "Everything is completely proved for the Mississippi, and the object is immense."
Immense, indeed. For, as Fulton could not have fully realized, the steamboat would be the single most important instrument in the transformation of America in the first half of the nineteenth century: it promoted the penetration and settlement of the American interior by a mass immigration of whites that increased the population by more than twenty times and established a political power to rival the original colonies; it thus abetted the destruction of the remaining Indian nations and their cultures, along with most of the wild nature and native species they depended on; it provided the transportation system that shifted economic power from the Eastern seaboard to two new dynamic economic systems, one industrial and agricultural in the northern part of the Mississippi Valley, the other plantation- and slavery-based in the southern; and it was the basis of the transatlantic steamship trade that begot a new maritime industry with the United States at its heart. It is not too much to say that, more than any technological achievement between the cotton gin in 1793 and the Colt firearms system in 1853 -- and not forgetting the railroad, economically important only after the 1850s -- it was the steamboat that was responsible for the shape of America's destiny.
A great deal at stake.
The highest point in the village of Greenwich was Richmond Hill, and from the handsome mansion at its crest one could easily look down, not more than a few blocks to the west, on the crowd gathered at the dock near Bank Street where Fulton readied his steamboat for the voyage. One of its earlier residents, Abigail Adams, who lived there with her husband in 1789 when he was serving in New York as General Washington's vice president, said of that view: "In front of the house, the noble Hudson rolls his majestic waves, bearing upon his bosom innumerable small vessels," beyond which "rises to our view the fertile country of the Jerseys, covered with a golden harvest." It is doubtful, however, that anyone in the mansion took advantage of its convenient situation this summer day, for the place had gone largely unoccupied for the past three years in spite of its splendid furnishings and elegant appointments, and the owner himself was languishing in jail in Richmond, Virginia, on trial for treason.
Aaron Burr had been the proud owner of Richmond Hill from some time in the early 1790s, when he was a U.S. senator from New York, and he maintained it even after he became vice president in 1801, although most of the business of state had by then moved to the wetlands along the Potomac donated by Maryland and Virginia for the nation's capital. He left it, in some haste, at the end of July 1804, when he was indicted in both New York and New Jersey for the killing of his archrival Alexander Hamilton in a duel across the river in Weehawken.
Burr stayed on the move and out of sight for the next three years, until a harebrained scheme hatched with delusionary and untrustworthy men got him into trouble with the law. It seems that in his travels down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers he contrived a scheme to assemble a small army with the aim of conquering Texas, then owned by Mexico, and setting up an independent nation under his control. The idea of seizing land to the west was highly popular at the time -- the Louisiana Purchase whetted, rather than sated, the American craze for land speculation -- but since this was properly the business not of private citizens but of the federal government, the shenanigans of the ambitious Mr. Burr were regarded as treason and he was arrested in March 1807 and shipped up to Virginia to stand trial before the Honorable John Marshall, the federal circuit judge for Virginia as well as the nation's chief justice.
Burr immediately became the center of a nineteenth-century media circus: journalists descended on Richmond from all over the country, as did crowds of supporters and detractors and the merely curious, swelling the little capital to twice its size, and in the sweltering summer months, too. One visitor was the intrepid Washington Irving, who wrested an interview with Burr in May and described him as one who "retains his serenity and self-possession unshaken," although two months later, after the rigors of the trial, he was "in lower spirits than formerly...and I bid him goodbye with a heavy heart." There was, however, no need to worry: the evidence against Burr was skimpy at best, and later that summer he would be found innocent of treason and cleared of "high misdemeanors" in the fall.
Burr returned surreptitiously to New York, but by then he had sold Richmond Hill to the wealthy John Jacob Astor and was obliged to stay with various friends until the spring of 1808, when he went off into exile in Europe. Astor waited a few years for the city's growth to push up property prices, and in 1820 he had the elegant mansion rolled off the hill and down to Charlton Street, whereupon he leveled the property, cut streets through it, and sold off the lots at top market prices.
Burr's deranged military adventure exposed one fact understood by at least some of the leaders of the day, including President Jefferson, who strenuously tried to have Burr put behind bars for it. It was that a great many people in the territories beyond the original colonies, where maybe 400,000 people of European origin were spread from the Appalachians to the Mississippi, felt little loyalty and much resentment toward the official government and were liable at any time to grab the plentiful lands there for themselves and govern them any way they pleased. It was the task of the government in Washington to try to impose its will and its institutions on those territories as quickly and thoroughly as possible, to push back Spanish, British, and Indian interference, and to fill them up with a large, stable, prosperous, and therefore loyal American populace.
Few could have realized it -- not even Jefferson, whose prime concern this was, and who knew from personal contact of Fulton's plans -- but the principal instrument by which this task would eventually be achieved was just then ready to embark beneath the prospect of the elegant mansion on Richmond Hill.
Steeling himself, Fulton gave the signal at about one o'clock for the boat to be cast off. It moved slowly from the pier, guided by the captain at the tiller in the stern. Suddenly it was without power, "then stopped, and became immovable," as Fulton's account put it.
One may well imagine the increased despondency that descended on the refined crowd of passengers, then rocking aimlessly on the Hudson's gray waters. "To the silence of the preceding moment," the inventor said, "now succeeded murmurs of discontent, and agitations, and whispers and shrugs. I could hear distinctly repeated, 'I told you it would be so -- it is a foolish scheme -- I wish we were all out of it.' " It would be surprising if there were not jeers and catcalls from the bystanders on the shore as well, but Fulton did not record them.
Though it would be correct to say that Fulton's career to date was checkered at best, it was marked by nothing so much as a dogged determination: he would work on a project until he was satisfied he had it right in every detail, and then would advance it to anyone he could find, friend or foe, trustworthy or not, who might help him see it through. He had done endless pages of calculations to determine exactly the right shape and displacement a boat should have to use steam power efficiently; he had built scale models and even one half-size version that he had tested on the Seine four years earlier; he had overseen every step of the building of this craft now powerless, including instructions to James Watt's firm in England as to how the engine was to be set up, repeatedly testing its parts both large and small; and he had put it through a test run a week before, during which the engine worked so well that he could boast of beating all the sloops on the river with him.
What's more, Fulton had studied the experiments in steamboating by others over the previous thirty years -- when he was in Philadelphia in 1787, he may even have seen one of the earliest boats, built by an unstable genius named John Fitch, that ran on the Delaware at two and a half miles an hour against the current -- and he knew that a score of boats of various designs and capacities had been built so far ("Hundreds have tried it and failed," he scoffed). He had examined the twelve patents that had been granted by the United States since 1790, plus designs patented or published in Europe while he was there. He had decided at this point what worked and what did not: whatever his passengers were now thinking, he wasn't starting from scratch, he was following in well-trod footsteps and well-furrowed wakes.
He would not surrender now.
"I elevated myself upon a platform, and addressed the assembly. I stated, that I knew not what was the matter; but if they would be quiet, and indulge me for half an hour, I would either go on, or abandon the voyage for that time." For that time: the worst he would admit to was postponement, not discontinuance.
The passengers agreed to the respite -- they had little choice -- and Fulton went below and began an examination of the machinery. Eventually he found "that the cause was a slight maladjustment of some of the work" -- he was never more specific than that -- and in a short time it was fixed. "The boat was again put in motion. She continued to move on." How he must have enjoyed that moment: "All were still incredulous. None seemed willing to trust the evidence of their own senses."
Although New York was a city then with eight daily newspapers, there was no coverage of this event other than the brief notice in the morning's American Citizen, along with Fulton's self-serving remarks, that the boat "sails today from the North River, near State's Prison, to Albany." Hence we do not know the reaction of the crowd left on the shore when the strange craft chugged off successfully, a broad white wake and thick black smoke behind, or even the response of those on board; later on its journey, though, several accounts mention that people spontaneously rushed to the river's edge with shouts of "Huzzah, huzzah," and the New York dandies on the dock, as well as the now placated friends around him, must have offered Fulton the same: "When the shouts of spectators began to rend the air," a friend of Fulton's remembers him recalling later, "then he felt as if he should have fainted away, his feelings so overpowered him, and such, he added, was his state of excitement during the whole voyage."
"North River" was a common alternative name for the lower Hudson in the early nineteenth century, a bit of nomenclature dating from the Dutch occupation in the seventeenth century, when the Delaware, on the southern border of their territory, was called the South River and the Hudson, on the northern, was called the North. Fulton in his correspondence refers to the river alternately as the Hudson and the North River, but when it came to naming his craft he chose the latter, advertising it two weeks later as the "North River Steam Boat," and then registering it as the "North River Steamboat of Clermont," and always referring to it as the North River Steamboat or simply the North River.
And Clermont, as the boat is known in the textbooks? This was the name of the enormous tract of land owned by Chancellor Livingston and his family about ninety miles up the Hudson, stretching for twelve miles along the river and twenty-four miles to the Massachusetts line, from whose mansion the patriarch oversaw several branches of his large and prosperous family, a small army of sharecroppers, and several dozen slaves. It was only politic for Fulton to enroll the steamboat as being based at the Chancellor's home, although it never berthed there for long, but its port of origin had nothing at all to do with its name (no boat is called by the name of its registered port) and the idea that Fulton's steamboat was called the Clermont is completely without foundation. The error originated with Fulton's first biography, published by his friend Cadwallader Colden in 1817, which says flatly that the steamboat "was called the Clermont," although in his list of Fulton's boats Colden hedges with "North River, or Clermont" and in a subsequent book never used that name again. How he contrived such a mistake is a mystery, for it is clear that Fulton never referred to his boat as the Clermont in all his writings and most improbable that he ever did so in speech.
In any case, on the sternboard of the vessel itself there was no name, now or later, and as it moved out smoothly into the Hudson at a steady four miles an hour, the crews on the boats it passed so brusquely would have thought of it simply as "the steamboat," for there was nothing else like it on the water. "I overtook many sloops and schooners, beating to the windward," Fulton boasted, "and parted with them as if they had been at anchor." Soon, at a little past two o'clock, the tide turned in the craft's favor, and when it reached the vicinity of Spuyten Duyvil, the stream dividing Manhattan from the lands once owned by the Broncks, it picked up to five miles an hour despite the slight breeze against it. All Fulton had to say was, "We left the fair city of New York."
The fateful journey was begun. If the machinery did not fail and the boat could stay at that same rough speed, it should be able to put into Clermont in twenty-four hours and set off the next day to make Albany by late afternoon. In two days, weather and fate permitting, Robert Fulton could prove the technology by which America would embark on its course of industrial might and economic dominance.
Copyright © 2001 by Kirkpatrick Sale