Building the Clermont

When Fulton, a youth of twenty-one, sailed from America in 1786, he carried one letter of introduction in his pocket and forty guineas in his purse. Twenty years later he returned, a man of prominence, with plans and purposes enough to fill the remainder of his life. His arbitration with the British government was finished; he had been paid for services rendered to the fleet; and the system of torpedo warfare remained his own, for he had declined to suppress it, at any price. He was content, in excellent health, “never better,” he said, and in good spirits. Thus he wrote to his friend Joel Barlow, announcing his return.

It was his hope to arrive in America by the 14th of November, his birthday, and eat roast goose in Barlow’s hospitable home, “Kalorama,”—a fine country estate near the city of Washington. But the slow-sailing ship in which he embarked from Falmouth during the first week in October did not come to port in Halifax, Nova Scotia, until the 13th of December, 1806.

How happy Fulton was to be again in his native land. He traveled at once by stage-coach to visit the Barlows in their new and delightful home, which he called the “Athenian Garden of America.” There he entered another circle of Barlow’s friends, statesmen of the day, among whom were Jefferson, Madison, and other men of prominence.

In Fulton’s letter to Barlow he had said, “You know I cannot exist without a project, or projects, and I have two or three of the first order of sublimity.” It was true, and he immediately set himself to the task of forwarding them. He certainly believed in the importance of the work he was about to begin.

The world has honored Fulton as the “inventor of the steamboat”; his history shows that his other invention, the submarine torpedo-boat, was of equal importance in Fulton’s estimation. Pledged to partnership with Chancellor Livingston to build the boat for the Hudson River, he also found time, soon after his arrival in America, to interest his countrymen in his project of submarine navigation. Joel Barlow helped him in this plan by inviting James Madison, Secretary of State, and Robert Smith, Secretary of the Navy, to witness an experiment at Kalorama, on the waters of Rock Creek. These men were favorably impressed,[132] and Fulton soon after arranged a series of experiments in the harbor of New York; but three years went by before Congress appropriated money to finance the invention in a practical way.

Fulton’s fame had spread, and in March he was invited by Thomas Jefferson, then President of the United States, to examine the ground and report on the possibility of building a canal to unite the waters of the Mississippi River with Lake Pontchartrain; but Fulton replied, “although infinitely obliged by the proposal I am sorry I cannot undertake a work so interesting and honorable. The reason is I now have ship-builders, blacksmiths and carpenters occupied at New York in building and executing the machinery of my steamboat and I must return to that city in ten days to direct the work till finished, which will probably require four months. The enterprise is of much importance to me individually and I hope will be of great use in facilitating the navigation of some of our long rivers. Like every enthusiast I have no doubt of success. I therefore work with ardor and when adjusting the parts of the machine I cannot leave the men for a day. I am also preparing the engines for an experiment of blowing up a vessel in the harbor of New York this spring. The machines for this purpose are in great forwardness and I[133] hope to be able to convince the rational part of the inhabitants of our cities that vessels of war shall never enter our harbors or approach our coasts but by our consent. Thus I hope I am usefully employed for six or nine months.”

How strange seem all these plans in the light of a century’s progress! We are prone to think that civilization has come by leaps and bounds, but a letter like this proves that men have had to develop it by patient industry.

Fulton engaged a boat-builder, Charles Browne by name, whose yards were at Corlears Hook on the East River, to construct the hull. It was a hundred and fifty feet long, thirteen feet wide, drawing two feet of water, bow and stern sixty degrees. You will remember that the engine from England was safely stored in a warehouse on South Street, and it was carted over to place in the boat on April 23d, 1807. Fulton kept an account of all expenses and his worn little note-book tells many details which otherwise would have been lost.

Plenty of people laughed at the enterprise and few thought it would amount to anything. Idle-minded men crowded near the ship-yards and gave their reasons for predicting the certain failure of Fulton’s Folly, as they called the boat. This was[134] unpleasant but Fulton took no notice of them for he had long before realized that only wise people can grasp new ideas. His patience was inexhaustible and his temper undisturbed. He declined to listen to the jeers of the bystanders who often rudely intended their remarks to reach his ears. And day by day the boat advanced toward completion.

It will be remembered that Livingston, by the terms of contract, could not be called upon for more money; we can fancy then how great was Fulton’s anxiety when he found that the boat would cost more than he had surmised. It is said that when one thousand dollars were needed to pay the men, Fulton vainly spent an entire evening trying to persuade an intimate friend to lend the money. Nothing daunted, he renewed his entreaties the following day, and finally the friend reluctantly promised a hundred dollars if Fulton could persuade nine others to subscribe the same sum. This he did by promising the subscribers that their names should be kept secret, as they feared ridicule.

The lack of money was exasperating when Fulton felt so sure of his plan, but not an angry or fretful word escaped him; and when work went wrong, as it sometimes did, he commenced again with the same ardor and calmness. Hot weather came on and still Fulton worked hard at the yards,[135] superintending every detail; he must often have been exhausted, says Colden, his biographer, but he never complained. He showed himself a moral as well as a mechanical philosopher.

We always think of Fulton’s steamboat as voyaging first upon the waters of the Hudson; it is interesting therefore to learn from a letter Fulton wrote to Chancellor Livingston, that the boat was launched in the East River, and there made a successful trial-trip on the 9th of August, 1807, exactly four years after Fulton’s demonstration of his French boat on the river Seine. He probably chose the date in remembrance of that never-to-be-forgotten triumph.

The Chancellor was spending the summer at Clermont, his famous country estate on the Hudson River at Tivoli, a short distance below the city of Hudson. His delight must have been great when he received the following letter from his energetic partner. I quote it in full because of its special interest in showing how fully Fulton tested his new craft and how personal was his care and exercise of her movements:

New York, Monday the 10th August, 1807.

Dear Sir:

Yesterday about 12 o’clock I put the steamboat in motion, first with a paddle 8 inches broad 3 feet long with which I[136] ran about one mile up the East River against a tide of almost one mile an hour, it being nearly high water. I then anchored and put in another paddle 8 inches wide 3 feet long, started again and then according to my best observations I went 3 miles an hour, that is two against a tide of one; another board of 8 inches was wanting which had not been prepared. I therefore turned the boat and run down with the tide of one mile, boat 3, equal four, and turned her round neatly into the berth from which I parted. She answers the helm equal to anything that ever was built. And I turned her twice in three times her own length.

Much has been proved by this experiment; First, that she will when in complete order run up to my full calculations; Second, that my axles I believe will be sufficiently strong to run the engine to her full power; Third, that she steers well and can be turned with ease. The sum of the surfaces of the paddles were 8 feet, the Bow of the boat 9. My paddle boards should have been equal 12 feet which I was afraid to put on at first; they are now making.

The engine having worked for the first time requires overhauling and new packing. The cold-water pump for condensing is 7 inches and a two foot stroke yet does not furnish sufficient cold water for complete condensation and vacuum. I am about making it 10 inches diameter; these connections with the finishing of the cabins will take me the entire week and I shall start on Monday next at 4 miles an hour.

Yesterday I beat all the sloops that were endeavoring to stem tide with the slight breeze which they had; had I hoisted my sails I consequently should have had all their means added to my own.

Whatever may be the fate of steamboats for the Hudson every thing is completely proved for the Mississippi, and the object is immense. Please to forward me 1000 or 1500 dollars as soon as possible.

Yours truly,

R. Fulton.

Best respects to Mrs. Livingston.

Addressed to Robt. R. Livingston, Esqr. Clermont, New York.

Money was again needed, you see, but we may be sure it was forthcoming with this proof of the success of the great project. For the trial-trip, although it made necessary some slight alterations, removed all doubt as to its power. During the week the boat was moved to its new dock on the North, or Hudson River, and the carpenters were set at work to finish the cabins and make the boat ready for her first official voyage up the Hudson. Fulton promised the Chancellor that it should take place “on Monday next,”—that was August 17th,—so Fulton’s partner and several members of his family journeyed to New York, by sloop or stage-coach, to take the historic trip.

The eventful day, the 17th of August, 1807, dawned with blue, unclouded skies. There was a buzz of excitement throughout the morning as the guests, about forty in number, assembled at the dock near the old States Prison, in Greenwich Village.

Miss Helen Livingston, a young lady who was present, had written her mother, “Cousin Chancellor has a wonderful new boat which is to make the voyage up the Hudson some day soon. It will hold a good many passengers and he has, with his usual kindness, invited us to be of the party. He says it will be something to remember all our lives. He says we need not trouble ourselves about provisions, as his men will see to all that.”

She with her sister, Kate Livingston, made the famous trip and many years later told its story to her granddaughter, Helen Evertsen Smith, who wrote it out. “Cousin Chancellor” predicted the truth when he said it would be something to remember all their lives! There were several ladies[139] in the party, as well as the Dean of Ripon Cathedral, England, John R. Livingston, and other persons of distinction. Some were incredulous and all were slightly uneasy. Fulton himself has thus described the exciting time:

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 agitation, and whispers and shrugs. I could hear distinctly repeated ‘I told you 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. We left the fair city of New York: we passed through the romantic and ever-varying scenery of the Highlands;—we descried the clustering houses of Albany: we reached its shores,—and then, even then, when all seemed achieved, I was the victim of disappointment.

Imagination superseded the influence of fact. It was then doubted if it could be done again, or if done if it could be made of any great value.

We must not imagine that the boat was as perfect as the modern steamboats of to-day. Far from it! She was a strange looking vessel; the uncovered machinery occupied the center and groaned and creaked from time to time. The huge paddle-wheels splashed in and out of the water, casting spray on the decks and high in the air. The rear cabin was set aside for the use of the ladies,—the forward cabin for the men. There were two tall masts, provided with sails in case of need. A rude compass on deck guided the pilot in steering the boat. All together it is not to be wondered at that the odd-looking boat, spitting forth steam and splashing water at both sides, excited the lively interest of all who could see the vessel from both shores of the river.

It is said that the boat had not long been under way when Fulton caused it to be stopped because he saw a way of improving the paddles. He lessened their diameter, so the buckets took less hold of the water, for certainly they splashed too much. When the boat started again it was found that the alteration had increased her speed. It is said that her first performance exceeded the expectation[141] of the passengers on board, and none but Fulton thought that she could be improved.

But after this adjustment there was no further trouble. The wheels went around with regular stroke as the boat advanced steadily up the river and convinced the skeptical that Fulton had fulfilled his promise.

One of the newspapers, the American Citizen, printed this notice that morning:

“Mr. Fulton’s ingenious steamboat, invented with a view to the navigation of the Mississippi from New Orleans upward, sails to-day from the North River, near States Prison, to Albany. The velocity 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.”

This news, together with the popular interest aroused near the dockyards, brought a crowd of people to the shores. During the setting-forth from the dock, the jeers of many could be plainly heard. As the paddles began to turn and the boat swung about to position and headed up stream, the faces of the doubters changed as though by magic. Fulton’s Folly was not merely afloat, it was moving with majesty and with assurance. The[142] scoffs subsided, exclamations of wonder took their place; then, as the triumph of the experiment became evident, a cheer arose from the shore. It was echoed and repeated until the entire crowd acknowledged its mistake in a wild tumult of cheers,—the first public acclaim to greet the new invention.

From Helen Livingston’s letter we know that refreshments were provided for the party; and there were couches in the cabins upon which the guests could sleep at night, for the voyage to Albany took thirty-two hours instead of nine, as at the present day.

The boat splashed on its way, looking it is said “like a backwoods saw-mill mounted on a scow and set on fire.” Wood was used for fuel and when the fireman stirred the flames they shot high in the air, throwing out a multitude of sparks as well, which must have looked terrifying enough to the people on shore, especially in the darkness of the night. The sailors on the river sloops were amazed as they saw this queer boat gaining upon them, while some of the more timid actually ran their boats to shore and took to the woods in fright. Others gathered on the river bank and prayed for protection against this “monster” made by man. All were spellbound with astonishment and passed[143] the word from one to another, so that the dwellers from all the houses near shore ran forth to view the strange craft.

After the first fear had passed, happiness prevailed on board. The quiet ease of Fulton’s and Livingston’s manner, as they moved about among their guests, restored peace of mind. By night, when filmy shadows fell over the mountain tops and the setting sun touched the waters with gold, the guests were thrilled with delight. The presence of the ladies added a touch of beauty to the strange-looking vessel, and as they proceeded through the picturesque Highlands, the party sang the melodies of the day. The Scotch ballad said to have been a favorite of Fulton’s rang out:

“Ye banks and braes o’ Bonny Doon,
How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair?
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae weary fu’ o’ care?”
But Fulton’s care, for the time, had sped away. He was surrounded by friends whose compliments upon his success must have been both welcome and pleasant. Helen Livingston’s granddaughter writes: “There were many distinguished and fine-looking men on board the Clermont, but my grandmother always described Robert Fulton as surpassing them all. ‘That son of a Pennsylvania[144] farmer,’ she was wont to say, ‘was really a prince among men. He was as modest as he was great and as handsome as he was modest. His eyes were glorious with love and genius.’”

A great personal happiness filled Fulton’s thought, beyond that of his success in the invention, for on the second day of the voyage, as the boat was about to cast anchor at the Clermont dock of the Chancellor, the latter, as a crowning touch of romance to the triumph of the voyage, announced the betrothal of his fair young cousin, Miss Harriet Livingston, to the inventor. In easy, graceful words he added that the name of Robert Fulton would descend to posterity as a benefactor to the world, for it was not impossible that, before the end of the century, vessels propelled by steam alone might make the voyage to Europe! The guests were too polite to laugh at this suggestion in the presence of the Chancellor and the inventor but, after several of the company had indulged in hidden smiles, John R. Livingston whispered to his cousin, “Bob has had many a bee in his bonnet before now, but this steam folly will prove the worst yet!”

It has been reported that the consent of the Livingston family had been withheld from Fulton’s engagement until he could prove his invention a success. He had asked the Chancellor if he might[145] aspire to the hand of his fair cousin and had received the reply: “Her father may object … but if Harriet does not object,—and she seems to have a world of good sense,—go ahead, and my best wishes and blessings go with you.”

In the light of later events, it is hard to see why any objection could have been raised. Fulton, then forty-two years old, had made his way against great odds, and was a prominent man on both sides of the Atlantic. Harriet Livingston, a guest of honor on the historic trip up the Hudson, was the daughter of the Hon. Walter Livingston, Commissioner of the United States Treasury. The bride-elect had inherited beauty and talent. She played upon the harp and also sketched in pencil with delicacy and skill, an accomplishment which naturally appealed to Fulton’s artistic taste.

Her father, Walter Livingston, son of the last Lord of the Manor of Livingston, had inherited as his share of the vast grant of land of 1715, which comprised over 160,000 acres, a tract of 28,000 acres, which he named “Tiviotdale.” Upon this great estate he had built an imposing mansion to which in later years Fulton and his wife paid many visits.

The party left the boat at Clermont, while Fulton and the Chancellor, after spending the night[146] at the latter’s hospitable home, continued the journey to Albany, arriving there at five o’clock in the afternoon. When the voyage to New York was made, Fulton set about improving his boat that she might be more comfortable for the many passengers he hoped to carry up and down the river. He wrote to Barlow, as follows:

“My steamboat voyage to Albany and back has turned out rather more favorably than I had calculated. The distance from New York to Albany is one hundred and fifty miles. I ran it up in thirty-two hours and down in thirty. 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[147] accomplishing this work, it gives me, as it will you, great pleasure to see it fully answer my expectations. It will give a cheap and quick conveyance to the merchandise on the Mississippi, Missouri and other great rivers, which are now laying open their treasures to the enterprise of our countrymen; and although the prospect of personal emolument has been some inducement to me, yet I feel infinitely more pleasure in reflecting on the immense advantage my country will derive from the invention.”

And so was Fulton’s Folly changed to Fulton’s Triumph! There are several accounts of the return voyage, notably one written by a Frenchman, Monsieur Michaux, a distinguished botanist, who happened to be in Albany at the opportune time when Fulton’s boat was about to make its return voyage down the Hudson. He with his companion, a man named Parmentier, had been three days in the capital city when they read in the paper about the arrival of a “steam boat” from New York, commanded by the inventor, Robert Fulton. Crowds of people were flocking to the dock to see the strange craft. Some admitted that a great advantage might be gained by the novel method of transportation, although many persons predicted that the boiler would explode and cause serious accidents.

A sign hung upon the side of the boat announced that it would start for New York on Wednesday, August 20th, and would carry passengers at the same price charged by sailing-masters on their sloops, seven dollars.

The two Frenchmen decided to try the experiment. They were alone in their decision, all other travelers preferring to go by the old “slow and sure” way. The boat set off in sight of a crowd of spectators which had gathered at the dock. The smoke from the engine could be seen for some distance throwing a black column to the sky, and many persons gathered on near-by hillsides to wave their handkerchiefs and hurrah for Fulton whom they noticed in command when the boat came up the river.

Monsieur Michaux said that when they paid Mr. Fulton their fare, before they left the boat, he commented on the courage of two Frenchmen to embark when so many of his countrymen declined to try the experiment. It is interesting to remember that Fulton carried passengers from both France and England, the two countries where his preliminary attempts had been worked out; for an Englishman, probably the Dean of Ripon Cathedral, who is known to have been a guest of the Chancellor on the first trip of the Clermont, wrote a[149] letter which was printed in the Naval Chronicle, for 1808, Vol. XIX, page 188:

“I have now the pleasure to state to you the particulars of a late excursion to Albany in the steamboat, made and completed under the directions of the Hon. Robert R. Livingston and Mr. Fulton, together with my remarks thereon. On the morning of the 19th of August Edward P. Livingston, Esq. and myself were honoured with an invitation from the Chancellor and Mr. Fulton to proceed with them to Albany, in trying the first experiment up the river Hudson, in the steamboat. She was then lying off Clermont, the country seat of the Chancellor, where she had arrived in twenty-four hours from New York, being 110 miles. Precisely at thirteen minutes past nine o’clock A.M. the engine was put in motion, when we made a head against the ebb tide and the head wind blowing a pleasant breeze. We continued our course for about eight miles, when we took the flood, the wind still ahead. We arrived at Albany about five o’clock P.M. being a distance from Clermont of forty-five miles, (as agreed by those best acquainted with the river) which was performed in eight hours, without any accident or interruption whatever. This decidedly gave the boat upwards of five miles an hour, the tide sometimes against us, neither the[150] sails nor any implement but the steam used. The next morning we left Albany at twenty-five minutes past nine and arrived at Clermont in nine hours precisely, which gave us five miles an hour. The current on returning was stronger than when going up. After landing us at Clermont, Mr. Fulton proceeded with the passengers to New York. The excursion to Albany was very pleasant and presented a most interesting spectacle. As we passed the farms on the borders of the river, every eye was intent, and from village to village the heights and conspicuous places were occupied by the sentinels of curiosity, not viewing a thing they could possibly anticipate any idea of, but conjecturing about the possibility of the motion. As we passed and repassed the towns of Athens and Hudson we were politely saluted by the inhabitants and by several vessels, and at Albany we were visited by his Excellency, the Governor, and many citizens. She is unquestionably the most pleasant boat I ever went in. In her the mind is free from suspense. Perpetual motion authorizes you to calculate on a certain time to land; her works move with all the facility of a clock; and the noise when on board is not greater than that of a vessel sailing with a good breeze.”

And so the journey to Albany and back was[151] complete, the triumph assured. That tiny steamboat, with splashing side-paddles, had been acknowledged a safe transport. With great pleasure the captain, Andrew Brink by name, who certainly knew more of navigation than of spelling French names, wrote in his note-book:

List of passengers on board the North River Steamboat from Albany to New York, August 21, 1807:

Captain Thomas Hunt 7
Monsieur Parmentoo
Monsieur Mishaud 13
Mr. E. D. Tyle 6
Captain Davies 1
Mr. Fulton
Captain Brink had previously had command of the river sloop Maria. When Fulton and Livingston journeyed on his sloop to Clermont they discussed the plan for the steamboat, and finding Brink intelligent and interested, they promised to employ him upon the new ship. On September 20th, 1807, Fulton entered his month’s pay-roll in his account book:

To Captain Brink 30 dollars
George, the Steward 10 ”
Paid Griffin, the Black Steward, 12 ”
Paid Richard Wilson, the Black Cook, 10 ”

Captain Brink lived on the west bank of the Hudson, opposite Clermont. After he had landed his passengers at the Chancellor’s dock, on the voyage up the river, he borrowed a rowboat, crossed the river, and brought his wife back to take the remainder of the trip, for he had promised “to take her to Albany on the boat driven by a tea-kettle.”

The chief engineer was a Scotchman who had to be discharged, for at Albany he went ashore and indulged too freely in drink as a celebration of the successful voyage. Fulton promoted Charles Dyke, assistant engineer, to his place, and he did so well that he remained for many years in Fulton’s employ, and in time became chief engineer of the first ferry-boat used at Fulton Ferry.

So Fulton proved himself not merely a master of mechanics, but also of management and administration of the new method of travel. He not only began well but continued wisely.

After Fulton reached New York he took time to write a letter to the one newspaper, the American Citizen, which had noted the departure of his boat. It was well that he did so, for this furnishes an historical record of the achievement. It is a simple and straightforward account of the voyage, with no extravagant predictions as to the future.

New York, August 20th, 1807.

To the Editor of the American Citizen,


I arrived this afternoon at 4 o’clock on the steamboat from Albany. As the success of my experiment gives me great hope that such boats may be rendered of much importance to my country, to prevent erroneous opinions and to give some satisfaction to the friends of useful improvements, you will have the goodness to publish the following statement of facts:

I left New York on Monday at 1 o’clock and arrived at Clermont, the seat of Chancellor Livingston, at 1 o’clock on Tuesday, time 24 hours, distance 110 miles: On Wednesday I departed from the Chancellor’s at 9 in the morning and arrived at Albany at 5 in the afternoon, distance 40 miles, time 8 hours: the sum of this is 150 miles in 32 hours, equal near 5 miles an hour.

On Thursday at 9 o’clock in the morning I left Albany and arrived at the Chancellor’s at 6 in the evening: I started from thence at 7, and arrived at New York on Friday at 4 in the afternoon; time 30 hours, space run through, 150 miles, equal 5 miles an hour. Throughout the whole way my going and returning the wind was ahead; no advantage could be drawn from my sails—the whole has therefore been performed by the power of the steam engine.

I am, Sir,

Your Most Obedient,

Robert Fulton.

Friends were ready enough now to congratulate the inventor upon his success, but he had scant[154] time to listen, for his first accomplishment made further work necessary. He plunged at once into hard work for the development of his plan which included steam navigation for the inland waters of America.

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