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Fulton's First Steamboat Voyage, 1807
Painter, inventor and engineer, Robert Fulton was a man of many talents. He passionately believed that America's economic future rested on the transformation of its numerous waterways into navigable highways of commerce. He did not invent the steamboat - as early as 1787, American John Fitch had sailed a steamboat on the Delaware River. Fulton achieved his place in history by producing the first commercially successful steamboat. Fulton's success raised the curtain for the commercial development of America's waterways, particularly the Ohio and the Mississippi.

In 1802 Fulton contracted with Robert Livingstone to build a steamboat that would ply the Hudson River. Livingstone held the rights for steamboat navigation on the waterway. By August 1807, Fulton's boat was ready for a trial run from New York City to Albany and back.

On the afternoon of Monday August 17, the vessel was moored on the East River off Greenwich Village. Aboard were Fulton, Livingston and numerous adventurous friends eager to make the historic voyage. The boat (called the Clermont by history although there is no evidence that Fulton used this name) was an odd looking craft 150 fifty feet long and 13 feet wide, drawing 2 feet of water. Amidships was her engine, a steam boiler that belched flame and smoke as it powered two paddle wheels placed on either side of the hull.

At one o'clock Fulton cast off and began his journey into history. Trouble reared its head almost immediately as the ship's engine stopped shortly after leaving the dock. Fulton soon fixed the problem and the voyage resumed. The boat headed up river at a speed of about 5 miles per hour. Twenty-four hours later the intrepid adventurers arrived at Robert Livingstone's manor house 110 miles up the Hudson. The journey ended the following day after an 8-hour voyage to Albany. The following day - Thursday August 20 - Fulton took on some passengers and began his return voyage, again stopping at Livingston's manor before continuing to New York City the next day.

"It is a foolish scheme"

Fulton described the event shortly after in a letter to a friend. We join his account as the boat is about to depart from its New York City berth:

"The moment arrived in which the word was to be given for the boat to move. My friends were in groups on the deck. There was anxiety mixed with fear among them. They were silent, sad and weary. I read in their looks nothing but disaster, and almost repented of my efforts. The signal was given and the boat moved on a short distance and then stopped and became immovable. To the silence of the preceding moment, now succeeded murmurs of discontent, and agitations, and whispers and shrugs. I could hear distinctly repeated- 'I told you it was so; it is a foolish scheme: I wish we were well out of it.'

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. This short respite was conceded without objection. I went below and examined the machinery, and discovered that the cause was a slight maladjustment of some of the work. In a short time it was obviated. The boat was again put in motion. She continued to move on. All were still incredulous. None seemed willing to trust the evidence of their own senses"

Observations of a passenger

A visiting Frenchman by the name of Michaux was one of only two new passengers who mustered the courage to book passage on the return trip to New York City. Fear of the boiler exploding scared off any other would-be voyagers. Michaux described his journey in a letter to a friend:

"The vessel was lying alongside the wharf: a placard announced its return to New York for the next day but one, the 20th of August, and that it would take passengers at the same price as the sailing vessels - three dollars.

So great was the fear of the explosion of the boiler that no one, except my companion and myself, dared to take passage in it for New York. We quitted Albany on the 20th of August in the presence of a great number of spectators. Chancellor Livingston, whom we supposed to be one of the promoters of this new way of navigating rivers, was the only stranger with us: he quitted the boat in the afternoon to go to his country residence which was upon the left bank of the river. From every point on the river whence the boat, announced by the smoke of its chimney, could be seen, we saw the inhabitants collect; they waved their handkerchiefs and hurrahod for Fulton, whose passage they had probably noticed as he ascended the river."

    The eyewitness accounts appear in: Sutcliffe, Alice Crary, Robert Fulton and the "Clermont" (1909); Flexner, James Thomas Steamboats Come True (1978); Sale, Kirkpatrick, Robert Fulton and the American Dream (2001).

How To Cite This Article:
"Fulton's First Steamboat Voyage, 1807", EyeWitness to History, (2004).