Steamboats and Submarines



Now that Fulton had attained his heart’s desire,—the great plan for steam navigation,—there was no time to rest upon his laurels. One success is but a key to future opportunity. He reasoned well that the Hudson had provided only the opening chapter, as it were, to a great volume of possible attainments. Every river in the world offered an equal avenue for the march of progress in transportation.

That first voyage of the Clermont revealed many slight imperfections which Fulton’s fertile brain immediately remedied in imagination. He laid the vessel up in dock at New York for two weeks that he might add to her equipment and improve the conditions on board for the comfort of the passengers. He boarded the sides, decked over the boiler, furnished each cabin, fore and aft, with twelve berths, and strengthened the ironwork in many parts. He also had the boat thoroughly calked, and as much rain fell during the time, the[156] work was delayed. Fulton described these improvements in a letter to the Chancellor, and joyously wrote, “The boat will be as complete as she can be made—all strong and in good order and the men well organized; and I hope nothing to do but to run her for six weeks or two months,—I will have her registered and everything done which I can recollect. Everything looks well and I have no doubt will be very productive.”

On September 2d, Fulton advertised in the New York Evening Post as follows: “The North River Steam Boat Will leave Pauler’s Hook on Friday, the 4th of September, at 6 in the morning, and arrive at Albany, on Saturday, at 6 in the afternoon. Provisions, good berths, and accommodations are provided.”

An announcement of rates followed; three dollars to Newburgh, and seven to Albany, with suitable prices for intermediate stations; the rate of travel was fourteen hours to Newburgh and thirty-six to Albany. It was stated that the boat would leave Albany twice and New York once during the succeeding week, after which further schedules would be published.

This time-table was duly carried out; bright and early, at half past six, on a clear September morning, the fourteen passengers brave enough to venture started on their northward trip. When they arrived, they found Fulton already on board, his actions confident and decided, unheeding the fear of some and the sarcasm of others. His clear tones could be heard above the hum of the voices of the multitude—which had gathered to watch the departure—and the noise made by the escaping steam which leaked from several valves. So we learn from Judge John Q. Wilson, of Albany, one of the fourteen who dared to make the voyage though warned by a prudent Quaker friend: “Wilt thou risk thy life in such a concern? I tell thee she is the most fearful wild fowl living and thy father ought to restrain thee.”

But though a predicted failure, the voyage proved so pleasant an experience that the passengers drew up a statement to record their satisfaction. Gerrit H. Van Wagenen served as timekeeper and Judge Wilson drafted the testimonial which, signed by the entire company, was published in the Albany Register of September 8th.

From Verplanck’s Point to Wappinger’s Creek the wind was favorable but light: after that it was ahead or calm, yet they made the full distance of 150 miles in 28 hours and 45 minutes. Judge Wilson wrote: “The subscribers, passengers on board of this boat on her first passage as a packet,[158] think it but justice to state that the accommodations and conveniences on board exceeded their most sanguine expectations.”

They had an amusing experience at Haverstraw Bay. As the boat steamed along, a man in a skiff lay in wait. His appearance showed him to be a miller, for his hair and clothing were covered with flour. He had evidently dashed forth from his mill on the riverside when he saw the queer boat approaching, had boarded his skiff and rowed out into the stream for a conversation with the captain. He signaled that he would like to come on board, so Fulton ordered that a rope be thrown him to draw his skiff alongside the Clermont. He called out that he “did not know a mill could go up-stream, so he came to enquire about it.” One of the passengers, Dennis Doyle, an Irishman who loved a good joke, offered to guide him all over “the mill.” The miller climbed on board, and Dennis showed him all the wheels and machinery and told him in fun that by a simple contrivance one wheel could be thrown out of gear when the mill was to go up-stream. “But show me the grindstones,” said the miller. Dennis kept a straight face and pointing to Fulton answered, “That is a secret which the master has not yet told us: when we come back from Albany with our[159] load of corn, if you come on board then, you will see the meal fly.” The simple-minded miller rowed back to the shore, wondering whether he could really move his own mill up-stream in the same fashion.

At West Point the whole garrison was on the river bank to cheer the boat, while at Newburgh it seemed as though the entire population of Orange County had assembled; the hillside city was all alert. The ferry, a sail-boat from Fishkill, was crowded by a party of ladies, and the captain tacked close to the steamboat, which had just landed a passenger at the dock. The flapping of the near-by sail attracted Fulton’s attention and he raised his eyes to meet a flutter of handkerchiefs and a group of smiling, happy faces. He hurriedly raised his hat in acknowledgment as he gallantly exclaimed, “That is the finest sight we have seen yet!”

The passengers’ statement in the newspaper was a fine advertisement for the new mode of travel and by October the Clermont was well established as a passenger carrier.

Fulton wrote a letter to Captain Brink, on October 9th, which showed a good master of the new enterprise. He expected every man in his employ to do his duty,—there was to be no half-way service.[160] It gives an insight into Fulton’s strength of character and reveals an important factor in his success:

New York, Oct. 9th, 1807.

Capt. Brink;

Sir;

Inclosed is the number of voyages which is intended the Boat should run this season. You may have them published in the Albany papers.

As she is strongly manned and everyone except Jackson under your command, you must insist on each one doing his duty or turn him on shore and put another in his place. Everything must be kept in order, everything in its place, and all parts of the Boat scoured and clean. It is not sufficient to tell men to do a thing, but stand over them and make them do it. One pair of Quick and good eyes is worth six pair of hands in a commander. If the Boat is dirty and out of order the fault shall be yours. Let no man be Idle when there is the least thing to do, and make them move quick.

Run no risques of any kind when you meet or overtake vessels beating or crossing your way, always run under their stern if there be the least doubt that you cannot clear their head by 50 yards or more. Give in the accounts of Receipts and expenses every week to the Chancellor.

Your most obedient,

Robt. Fulton.

Captain Brink continued in charge of the Clermont during the season of 1807 and was succeeded the following spring by Captain Samuel Wiswall who was employed by Fulton for many years. The[161] boat ran well, with only one accident, when, on November 13th, a cast-iron axletree broke, as the Clermont was setting out from New York and she was obliged to return for repairs. By this time the weather was cool and ice was forming in the river. On the 20th of November Fulton wrote to the Chancellor,—“It is now time to lay her up for the winter. Nothing should be risqued from bad weather—the gain will be trifling, the risque great.” He adds another warning in postscript: “Do not risque the engine in the winds and waves of the season.” He also outlined the changes and enlargements he planned to make in the boat during the winter.

Through the cold weather she was laid up at the north end of the Hudson and underwent extensive repairs and alterations. An interesting letter written by Francis Sayre, of Catskill, describes the changes and gives so many interesting facts that it is here printed. He writes under date of September, 1857:

“I am as far as I know the only person now living who was on board the first steamboat on her trial trip from New York to Albany. I do not refer to the trial trip which was made in 1807, but to the first trip made by the old North River, the first passenger boat propelled by steam.

“The craft employed by Mr. Fulton on the trial trip (called the Clermont, but probably never registered) was taken to what was then called Lower Red Hook and in the winter of 1807 and 1808 was hauled on ways to be enlarged and converted into a commodious steamboat. The alterations and enlargement were made by ship-builders of the city of Hudson during the winter and spring. She was launched about the first of May and called the North River. She was taken down to New York by Captain Samuel Jenkins, who had her in temporary charge, until Captain (afterward styled Commodore) Wiswall should be able to assume command. On arriving at New York she was taken to the dock at the foot of Dey Street (then far up town) where the machinery was put on board, and the cabin and carpenter’s work were completed. This was done with a rapidity which in those days was considered extraordinary, Mr. Fulton himself overseeing and attending to every part. He was usually on board as early as five o’clock in the morning and would be there almost the entire day. I never knew a more industrious, indefatigable, laborious man. Fulton’s new steamboat was the wonder of the day. She was visited daily by hundreds of the curious who asked many queer questions in relation to the operation of the steam and[163] machinery; one of these almost invariably was, ‘Where and how was the steam to be conveyed to the waterwheel?’ The crowd of visitors became in time a great annoyance and hindrance to the workers on board and I recollect a very amusing incident connected with the attempt to prevent intrusion. Mr. Fulton directed a painter to letter a board with the words:

One Dollar for any Person to Come on Board Without Liberty

which was put up in a conspicuous place.

“One day a sailor came along and read the notice. Jack was not long in putting his construction upon it, and with a knowing wink of the eye, jumped on board without ceremony, pointed to the sign, and accosted the man nearest him with, ‘Mister, who pays me that dollar?’

“Mr. Fulton was standing near and laughed heartily, a thing unusual for him, for while among the workmen he was generally rather taciturn and grave, giving his orders and directions in a laconic manner. He would listen, however, to suggestions made by the more practical, and would often modify his orders to accord with such suggestions. During the time these preparations were going forward, trials were made of the working of[164] the machinery by hauling out into the stream, putting on steam, and starting the engine. This was no small affair, for when the engineer gave the notice, ‘All ready,’ all hands were called,—carpenters, joiners, painters, calkers, laborers and crew,—to prevent what is termed ‘catching on the center.’ During one of these trials, when going up the river at the rate of six or eight miles an hour, Mr. Fulton stood looking over the bow of the boat for fifteen or twenty minutes, intently watching the motion and speed of the boat, apparently wholly absorbed. Suddenly he wheeled and addressed a friend who stood near him with great enthusiasm, exclaiming, ‘My good friend, she is a fine boat and our success is certain.’

“Commodore Wiswall was now in command. At the hour appointed, 9 A.M., for her departure for Albany, Chancellor Livingston with a number of invited friends came on board and, after a good deal of bustle and no little noise and confusion, the boat was got into the stream and headed up the river. Steam was put on and sails were set, for she was provided with large square sails attached to masts that were so constructed that they could be raised or lowered as the direction and strength of wind might require. There was at the time a light breeze from the south, and with steam and[165] sails a very satisfactory rate of speed was attained. Fast-sailing sloops were passed with ease, the machinery worked finely and everything seemed to promise well. After a time, however, it was discovered that steam was escaping from the boiler. This boiler was constructed of wood, a cylinder perhaps twenty feet long and ten in diameter, bound with heavy iron bands, with iron tubes extending from the lower part of the furnace. The heat imparted to the iron bands by the steam produced a shrinking of the wood directly under them, while the spaces between them would swell with moisture imparted by the steam so that the edges of the planks would be uneven, leaving open spaces through which the steam escaped. How could the difficulty be obviated? Resort was had to covering the boiler with blankets and carpets which, to some extent, prevented this evil and, as the favorable wind continued, we kept on the even tenor of our way and just before sunrise next morning we were at Clermont, the residence of the Chancellor, who with his friends landed, and the boat proceeded to Albany, where we arrived at 2 or 3 P.M.”

When the boat reached New York, on the return trip, Fulton immediately had a copper boiler made to replace that of wood which had caused the[166] trouble. He was very energetic and ready to take any trouble or incur any expense necessary to perfect the boat.

As soon as the North River of Clermont, as she was enrolled May 14th, 1808, was completed to Fulton’s satisfaction, he began to build a companion boat, thereby establishing a service from each port twice a week. This boat, the Car of Neptune, was followed by a third, the Paragon. The last was, of course, the best, for Fulton improved each model by noting the imperfections of its predecessor. He humorously wrote, in a private letter, of 1812, “My Paragon beats everything on this globe, for made as you and I are, we cannot tell what is in the moon—this Day she came on From Albany 150 miles in 26 hours wind ahead.”[3]

But during these years, busy as they were, Fulton had not forgotten his dream of universal peace through the work of his other invention,—the[167] submarine torpedo-boat. You will remember that when Fulton reached America he laid his plans before Mr. Madison, Secretary of State, and Mr. Smith, Secretary of the Navy. These gentlemen were so impressed that they influenced the government to grant some money for an experiment in the harbor of New York. In the spring of 1807, to prepare the minds of the citizens for the new invention, Fulton invited the mayor and other gentlemen to Governor’s Island, where he showed them his machines and the copper cylinders for his torpedoes.

In time the meeting developed a humorous aspect. The spectators became so interested that they crowded eagerly around him as he explained, “Gentlemen, I have here a charged torpedo with which, precisely in its present state, I mean to blow up a vessel. It contains one hundred and seventy-five pounds of gunpowder, and if I were to allow the clockwork to run for fifteen minutes, I have no doubt that it would blow this fortification to atoms.” His listeners first looked at each other aghast, then the more prudent hastily stepped back, and one by one the others slipped away until Mr. Fulton found himself alone, with only two or three of the bravest of his auditors peering at him from under a distant gateway! None dared to[168] return until he placed the deadly torpedo back in its place in the magazine.

On the 20th of July he blew up a large brig in the harbor of New York, and described this experiment with others in his book, “Torpedo War or Submarine Explosions.” After three attempts the vessel was blown to atoms, only a column of water, smoke and fragments being left to show where she had been floating. The next day Fulton wrote a letter to the governor and magistrates of the city in which he said:

“Gunpowder, within the last three hundred years, has totally changed the art of war; and all my reflections have led me to believe that this application of it will in a few years put a stop to maritime wars, give that liberty on the seas which has been long and anxiously desired by every good man, and secure to America that liberty of commerce, tranquility, and independence which will enable her citizens to apply their mental and corporal faculties to useful and humane pursuits, to the improvement of our country, and the happiness of the whole people.”

So did Fulton dream of peace,—a dream still unfulfilled, yet worthy of our future hope.

In 1810 Congress appointed a committee to decide upon the worth of Fulton’s submarine warfare,[169] and Commodore John Rodgers was told to do all he could to get the sloop Argus ready to resist the attack Fulton was to make upon her. Commodore Rodgers entered the contest with the enthusiasm of a boy. He had a strong wire netting stretched around the bottom of the boat and anchored lashed spars to float at her sides; while grappling irons, hung far out from the rigging, were ready to plunge at any boat approaching with hostile intent. Huge scythes were hinged to her decks, ready to cut off the heads of any sailors who ventured within reach. It takes an American to beat an American! Fulton confessed that, for the time, he had been outwitted but promised the officers of the navy that he would yet find a way to conquer the difficulties.

His method is described in a letter to his old friend Joel Barlow; it says in part:

“I have had some trouble with the torpedo experiments in consequence of the determined opposition of the officers of the navy, for which I now thank them. They had placed splinter nets across the bow of the vessel with weights which held them to the ground; booms were floated in the water and spaced out 20 feet from her sides to guard her sides. Grappling oars with sword blades and ballast in slings, to show how they could sink my[170] boats, made a formidable appearance against one poor torpedo boat and eight poor men. Moreover, all this would not have saved them had the nets not been to the ground; I was not prepared for nets thus arranged. Hence the committee gave me till the 29th of this month to show how I would get through the nets or carry them away. I am now prepared to prove that nets and booms are no better protection than cobwebs. Commodore Rodgers opposes me with much ardor and ingenuity; the reason he says I cannot do it is that I have not practical nautical knowledge; this might be true but reflection for the last 113 days has given me knowledge to the same effect, so that with a log-ship of about two hundred tons burden arranged with torpedoes and without cannon, I will destroy any ship that ever was built, that is, if she dare to lay at anchor, or if in fact she does not run away faster than I can run to overtake her; this fortunately can be done in port, along our coast, or in open sea: I have just finished a model of this log torpedo ship, also a bullet-proof torpedo boat that acts without oars,—thus you see I am on the highroad to success and in good spirits.”

But although Fulton’s system was not then adopted, he had gained the recognition of the United States Navy, and had presented the germ[171] for expansion in other minds for submarine warfare, now practiced by navies throughout the world. Moreover, he had the honor of building, in 1814, the first steam war-ship, the Demologus, meaning “The Voice of the People,” later named Fulton.

This alone gives the inventor high honor, for in time it changed all the navies of the world. Our country has recognized Fulton’s patriotism by naming its first submarine tender to burn oil in her engines, the Fulton (1914), and has retained his name “torpedo” for all its submarine craft.

The few remaining years in Robert Fulton’s life were very busy ones. In 1809 he formed a stock company to finance the building of steam ferries to run from New York to Jersey City, and so thoroughly was Fulton trusted that the entire construction of the new boats was left solely to him. Before this time there had been rowboat and sail-boat ferries, and a “horse-boat,” propelled by paddles which were turned by the feet of four blind horses walking a tread-mill.

We can imagine how welcome were Fulton’s steam ferries. He called them “twin-boats” because he built each boat with two complete hulls, connected by a bridge or deck, which provided a wide platform for carriages and passengers. The ends were rounded, just as they are in present-day ferries, so that the boats could cross and re-cross the river without turning; and floating docks were built to receive them, also “fenders,” to avoid any shock from collision when the boats came to shore.[173] It has been said that if steam navigation had been applied to no other purpose than to move these “floating bridges,” over streams where no other bridge could be built, he who applied it would deserve to rank among the great benefactors of mankind.

Fulton called his first ferry-boats York and Jersey, and the one he built in 1812 for the East River was named Nassau. As traffic increased between the New York terminals a new street was opened between the ferries, in 1816-18, and was appropriately named Fulton Street. The ferry over the East River, where thousands of persons daily crossed to Brooklyn and other points on Long Island, also honored the inventor, and was called “Fulton Ferry.”

These busy years of Fulton’s life were harassed by lawsuits over patent rights; for as soon as steam navigation was proved a success, certain unscrupulous speculators rushed in to try to make money by the new invention. Fulton called them “mental pirates” because they tried to steal the riches of his mind, and in many cases they succeeded in making more money from the invention than Fulton himself ever gained.

You may remember that during his stay in France Fulton had been impressed by the splendid[174] possibilities of opening navigation on the great Mississippi River. This idea came to him when the United States purchased Louisiana. As soon as the Clermont was established as a passenger boat on the Hudson River, the partners, Livingston and Fulton, decided to engage the services of a third person who was interested in steam navigation, namely, Nicholas J. Roosevelt, a personal friend of both men and an experimenter, as early as 1781, with an original, although since abandoned, plan for a steamboat.

At this point comes in an interesting story. Fulton and Livingston thought it proper and necessary, before launching their new boat upon western waterways, to write for permission to the governor of the new state of Louisiana. The fact that they did so would never have been known had it not been for the discovery of two small boys who went to play, a few years ago, in an unused loft in Galena, Illinois. There they came across a box containing papers yellowed by age. Some were written in French, and these they did not understand, but a few were in English, and the boys, fresh from school, recognized the well-known names Livingston and Fulton, when they saw them signed at the end of a letter. So they tucked that piece of paper into a pocket, and some time afterward,[175] when it came to light, they told a grown-up person about their find. He realized at once the value of the old papers and went in search of them, only to find that the loft had been cleaned since the boys’ visit there and all the papers cast out and burned by some ignorant person who did not suspect their value. The documents and letters had belonged to a man who had been clerk under an early governor of the state. This letter shows how keenly Livingston and Fulton realized, in spite of doubters, the advantages which were sure to follow the establishment of steam navigation:

Clermont, State of New York,
August 20th, 1810.

To his Excellency, The Governor of Upper Mississippi;

Sir;

Wishing to extend the benefit of steamboat navigation to the Mississippi River, a capital approaching to two hundred thousand dollars will be required, which capital must be raised by subscription; but subscribers cannot be obtained until an effectual law presents a fair prospect of securing to them such exclusive right as will return emolument equal to the risk and trouble. In this point the patent law of the United States is at present imperfect, hence after the example of encouragement granted by the State of New York we have applied to the different governments bordering on the Mississippi for their protection and patronage and thus take the liberty to transmit to you our petition. To[176] improve the navigation of the Mississippi by transporting goods for three fourths of the sum which is now paid and in three fourths of the time; to render such an establishment periodical, uniform and secure is an object of such immense importance to the states bordering on the Mississippi, a work of so much labor and hazard to the undertakers as we hope will excite the most lively feelings of patronage and protection both in your Excellency and the Honourable, the Legislature of Upper Louisiana. On the receipt of these papers we shall esteem it a particular favor to be honored with an answer from your Excellency, expressing your opinion on this subject.

We have the honor to be respectfully,

Your Excellencies most obedient,

Robt. R. Livingston.
Robt. Fulton.

The interest of this letter prompts a warning to all lovers of history to keep any fragment of possible value; even if old papers have no charm for you, there is probably somebody searching somewhere for just the bit of information there recorded. Don’t burn old papers merely because they are old. Read them and pass on their message.

But let us return to the story of Mr. Roosevelt. In 1809 he had married Miss Lydia Latrobe, of Baltimore, whom we must confess a brave bride. As soon as Fulton and Livingston had engaged Mr. Roosevelt’s services, he went to Pittsburgh,[177] ordered a flat-boat to be built, and undertook the voyage to New Orleans to study the tides and river depths, and report their condition to Fulton so that he could decide whether a steamboat could make the journey down the long river against the strong currents.

Mr. Roosevelt did not travel alone, he took his young bride on the strange honey-moon trip. Flat-boats or rafts were quite common on the Mississippi. Mrs. Roosevelt has thus described theirs:

“There was a huge box containing a comfortable bedroom, dining-room, pantry, and a room in front for the crew, with a fireplace where the cooking was done. The top of the boat was flat, with seats and an awning. We had on board a pilot, three ‘hands’ and a man cook. We always stopped at night, lashing the boat to the shore. The rowboat was a large one, in which Mr. Roosevelt went out constantly with two or three men to ascertain the rapidity of the ripples or current.”

It was a six months’ voyage. Mr. Roosevelt carried letters of introduction to prominent citizens of Cincinnati, Louisville, and other cities, and found that these gentlemen listened with respectful attention to his account of the success of the Clermont on the Hudson River, but none would[178] encourage him to hope that a steamboat would prove a safe venture for the rapid current of the western river. However, Mr. Roosevelt took soundings of depths, made maps to show the position of sand-bars, and compiled a record of the swift flow of tides and of the general weather conditions. He was thought, as Fulton had been considered in New York, a mad enthusiast, whose plan would prove a total loss to any persons unwise enough to spend money in building a boat for the Mississippi.

They did not arrive at New Orleans until the first of December, from which port they took passage in a sailing vessel for New York. They had a hard voyage, for their captain fell sick and there was an outbreak of yellow fever on board. At Old Point Comfort they decided to leave the ship, and they made the remainder of the journey by stage-coach, arriving in New York about the middle of January.

We may imagine how eagerly Fulton and Livingston studied the charts and listened to Roosevelt’s recital. The adverse criticisms of people living on the shores of the Mississippi were set aside by the facts noted by Mr. Roosevelt in his journal, or “log-book,” of the strange voyage. Fulton’s optimism was always ready to surmount any[179] barrier. It was agreed that Mr. Roosevelt should immediately return to Pittsburgh to superintend the building of the first steamboat for western waters. Fulton drew the plan, which was very different from those he had made for the Hudson River boats, because the conditions were so unlike those in the east. And he decided to make the steam engine much more powerful to cope with the heavy currents.

Under a bluff called Boyd’s Hill, close to an iron foundry, the new boat, named the New Orleans, in honor of the city of her destination, was built. Timber was scarce and the ribs and beams for the hull had to be floated down stream from the upper forests. The local workmen could not understand the plan, and skilled ship-builders and machinists from Fulton’s New York yards had to be sent to finish the work. This boat, like that on the Seine, suffered mishap, for one night a heavy freshet caused the water to rise, set afloat all the valuable timber and backed the whole ship-yard up stream. Not once, but several times, the high water threatened to launch the boat before she was ready. But perseverance conquers all, and finally the finished boat was successfully afloat upon the waters of the Ohio River.

History repeats itself, as the old adage says.[180] Again the scoffers gathered by the dock and river bank, laughed at the queer construction and predicted that the boat would never reach New Orleans.

When it became known that Mrs. Roosevelt intended to accompany her husband she was warned of her folly; indeed, Mr. Roosevelt was openly reproved for allowing his wife thus to imperil her life. The boat was supposed to carry passengers, but none appeared. Nevertheless, plans were carried out and during the autumn of 1811, on a bright October day, the New Orleans triumphantly steamed forth from Pittsburgh, in the presence of a great crowd of people. They cheered as the boat went down the river, but they openly prophesied that she could never come up!

From city to city the steamboat made its brave way. When, during the fourth night out, Louisville was reached in bright moonlight, the steam whistle aroused the sleeping town and the people hurried to the river, thinking that the comet of that year had fallen into the stream! When morning dawned and they could see that Mr. Roosevelt’s promised steamboat had arrived, the citizens complimented his perseverance and gave a banquet in his honor. But they all agreed that the queer vessel never could go up the river against the current, no matter how successfully she could steam down.

So Mr. Roosevelt played a good joke on them. He invited a number of friends to a dinner in the cabin of the boat. While the feast was at its height, a strange rumbling brought the frightened guests to their feet; they rushed up on deck to discover that the boat had cast off from the dock, had turned in the river, and was actually steaming up stream, in spite of all their warnings that it never could!

After they had passed Louisville, while they waited for the water to rise high enough to pass through the rapids, Roosevelt took the time to turn the boat back as far as Cincinnati, to show doubters in that city that the feat was quite possible. The voyage through the rapids was exciting but the boat darted like an arrow through them and again accomplished the so-called “impossible.”

The year 1811 was one of strange happenings. A comet blazed in the skies, a flood covered the lands in the valley, causing an epidemic of sickness, and earthquakes shook the whole region from the Missouri to the Gulf of Mexico. Small wonder that the Indians who lived in the forests along the Ohio and Mississippi paddled away in fright from the steamboat as it approached. They thought it was an evil thing.

The voyage came to an end, and a happy incident marked its close, for just before the steamboat[182] reached the city of New Orleans, a tiny passenger arrived on board to give it final blessing, for a little child was born to Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt.

The boat was kept at New Orleans to use as a packet between that city and Natchez, but as pioneer it had proved the possibility for other steamboats to navigate the big river successfully, and they rapidly multiplied. Within twenty years after the voyage of the New Orleans hundreds of steam-propellers were paddling their easy way up and down the river. Steam navigation was a proved fact upon the Mississippi.

In this connection it is interesting to read the following extract from a letter Fulton wrote to his friend Thomas Jefferson, on April 7th, 1813. It outlines a still more extended system of steam navigation:

“I am not idle as to torpedoes but secrecy is necessary. When peace returns, or in four or five years from this date, I shall have a line of steamboats from Quebec to Mexico and to St. Mary’s; the route is up the St. Lawrence, over Lake Champlain, down the Hudson to Brunswick, cross the Delaware to Philadelphia; by land carriage to Pittsburgh, down the Ohio and Mississippi to Red River, up it to above Natchitoches: the total land carriage about five hundred miles, the other route to St. Mary’s land carriage not more than two hundred miles. The most of these boats are now constructing.”


We have followed Fulton through widely different works,—art, canal navigation, the invention of the submarine torpedo and the steamboat. In 1814 he had reached almost the end of his busy and useful life.

Robert Fulton lived to be only fifty years old,—not the allotted “three score and ten” named by the Psalmist; yet during his half-century he accomplished infinitely more than many another does in a life full of years. To labor incessantly was his habit and pleasure. As he had written to Joel Barlow, “I cannot exist without a project, or projects, and I have two or three of the first order of sublimity.” Herein lay the secret, if such an openly admitted fact can be so termed, of his valuable life. He looked upon work as sublime; he exalted it to dignity; and its product to him was world-wide fame because of his world-wide service to humanity.

After his marriage, on January 7th, 1808, to[184] Miss Harriet Livingston, to whom you will remember his engagement was announced on the Clermont, they made their home in New York City, first at 100 Reade Street, then at 133 Chambers Street, where they moved in 1811, and the succeeding year, at Marketfield Place, opposite the Battery. The street now known as Battery Place was then called Marketfield Street; the Hudson River then flowed in as far as Washington Street and Battery Park extended only as far as Greenwich Street. Castle Garden occupied a tiny island connected with the mainland by a foot-bridge.

The foregoing addresses are given from the New York directories of those years, and some confusion regarding Fulton’s last residence has arisen from the fact that Cadwallader Colden, who knew him well, says that he lived at number 1 State Street. In either case, his home commanded a superb outlook upon the harbor and river, and became a gathering place for his many distinguished friends. The outlook upon the dancing, sunny waters of the harbor must have been an inspiration and joy to the inventor of boats,—of this we may be sure. Works of art, in accord with Fulton’s taste, abounded; and in the dining-room, the scene of much pleasant hospitality, was spread the dinner service of fine china, embossed with the coat of[185] arms of the United States, presented to Fulton by Thomas Jefferson.

Mrs. Fulton was an accomplished harpist and when quiet evening hours closed the busy days, we may fancy her graceful form, with high-carved tortoise-shell comb surmounting her slender head, as she sat in the mellow light of the drawing-room, playing sweet melodies to the master of the house and their four little children,—Robert Barlow Fulton (named for Joel Barlow whose affection for Fulton never lessened) and the three daughters, Julia, Mary, and Cornelia Livingston Fulton,—bright, happy, companionable children who delighted the hearts of their parents.

Several excellent portraits exist of Robert Fulton, for he made a striking model for the many artists who were his friends; but in addition to that depicted, let us briefly consider his character, learned from those who knew and loved him in life; and from them we may gain the true likeness of the soul and mind of the man.

First we may think of Fulton as a good son, ever loyal and kind to his mother, providing a home for her old age and sending her gifts of money from time to time through many years, to provide her with comforts. His generosity included all who were of kin, for the letters quoted prove him mindful[186] of the welfare of his brother and sisters, though circumstances had carried him far from their sight.

He was a good friend as well, choosing his companions for their real worth, and his affection for them was faithful throughout his life.

He hated sham and falsehood and was brave enough to expose any make-believe in science. An example of this is shown in the following story. A man named Redheffer had earned much money in Philadelphia by exhibiting a machine which he claimed was run by perpetual motion. In 1813 one of these contrivances was brought to New York and advertised as a modern wonder. Crowds of people flocked to see it and paid a dollar entrance-fee.

The problem of perpetual motion had vexed the minds of scientists for many years. Fulton was unwilling to believe that its solution had been discovered, but his friends persuaded him to visit the house in the outskirts of the city where the machine was set up. He had not been long in the room when he exclaimed, “This machine has a crank motion.”

The alarmed showman hastened forward with explanations, but Fulton, convinced he was right, openly denounced the affair as a fraud. His trained ear, as it listened to the wheels of the[187] mechanism, detected an uneven motion and he proclaimed to the audience that the thing was a cheat and he could prove it. He knocked away some woodwork concealing a string of catgut, which led along an upper wall to a distant attic where a poor old man, unkempt and half-starving, sat upon a stool and patiently turned, with weary hand, a crank.

The angry audience destroyed the machine, and the dishonest proprietor disappeared quickly. This ended Redheffer’s false theory.

Mrs. Barlow, than whom none could know Fulton better, wrote to Mr. Colden, in reply to his question about Fulton’s early life:

“Agreeable to your request I shall endeavor to give you the best information in my power respecting the early life of our excellent friend, Mr. Fulton. What is previous to 1797, when we became acquainted with him, was related by himself. He chose to have it known that he was self-educated and author of his own fortune, if I may so express it. During the summer of 1797, Mr. Fulton came to Paris to introduce his system (of canals) and get it patented. He came to lodge at a hotel where Mr. Barlow and myself were boarders. There commenced that strong affection and devoted friendship which subsisted between them in the most extraordinary degree as long as they lived.[188] We went into our own house soon after, when my husband invited Mr. Fulton to reside with us as long as we should remain in Paris. He resided in our family as a brother for seven years. During this period he learned the French language and something of the Italian and German; studied the higher mathematics, the sciences, physics, chemistry and perspective, and in short completed his education as far as it related to his useful elegant pursuits.”

Mrs. Barlow quaintly says that Fulton’s “genteel manners, companionable and amiable qualities, acquired him many valuable friends among the nobility and gentry.” We may readily infer that not only did he choose his friends, but they chose him, because they found pleasure and profit in his company.

Mr. Colden describes him in these words: “Mr. Fulton was about six feet high; his person was slender but well proportioned and well formed. Nature had made him a gentleman and bestowed upon him ease and gracefulness. He had too much good sense for the least affectation; and a modest confidence in his own worth and talents gave him an unembarrassed deportment in all companies. His features were strong and of a manly beauty. He had large dark eyes and a projecting brow,[189] expressive of intelligence and thought. His temper was mild, and his disposition lively. He was fond of society, which he always enlivened by cheerful, cordial manners and instructed or pleased by his sensible conversation. He expressed himself with energy, fluency, and correctness, and as he owed more to his own experience and reflections than to books, his sentiments were often interesting from their originality.

“In his home he was kind, generous, and affectionate, and he gave freely of his money to charity, to entertaining friends at home, and to further his scientific plans. But conspicuous among his virtues were his calm constancy, his industry, and the untiring perseverance which helped him to overcome all difficulties.”

Another friend wrote: “Among a thousand individuals you might readily point out Robert Fulton. He was conspicuous for his gentlemanly bearing and freedom from embarrassment, for his extreme activity, his height,—somewhat over six feet,—his slender yet energetic form and well accommodated dress, for his full and curly dark brown hair, carelessly scattered over his forehead and falling around his neck. His complexion was fair, his forehead high, his eyes dark and penetrating, and revolving in capacious orbs of cavernous[190] depths; his brow was thick and evinced strength and determination; his nose was long and prominent, his mouth and lips were beautifully proportioned, giving the impress of eloquent utterance. Trifles were not calculated to impede him or damp his perseverance.”

A story is told by a writer in the National Portrait Gallery about the establishment of the first ferry-boat across the East River to Brooklyn, and of a painful accident which happened during the second or third trip. Some trouble occurred with the machinery, and in an attempt to start the boat the chief engineer was caught in the wheels and so injured that he died from his wounds the following day. He was carried to the house next to the home of the writer, who recalled the conversation between Mr. Fulton and the attending surgeon. Fulton exclaimed, “Sir, I will give all I am worth to save the life of that man.” When the doctor said his recovery was hopeless, Fulton turned aside, completely unmanned, and wept like a child. The neighbor truly observed that while no personal misfortune ever seemed to disturb Fulton’s calm manner, yet his feeling toward other people was sensitive and tender.

Paul Sabbaton, who was chief engineer in Fulton’s employ, wrote in later years, “I was so constantly[191] with Mr. Fulton, saw him at his occupation, at his family fireside, and in almost every situation, that I have to this day a most distinct and strongly impressed likeness on my mind. He had all the traits of a man with the gentleness of a child. I never heard him use ill words to any one of those employed under him no matter how strong the provocation might be, and I do know there was enough of that at times; and ever and anon, my mind recurs to the time when his labors were severe. His habit was, cane in hand, to walk up and down for hours. I see him now, in my mind’s eye, with his white, loosely-tied cravat, his waistcoat unbuttoned, his ruffles waving from side to side, as his movements caused their movements; he, all the while in deep thought, scarcely noticing anything passing.”

This agrees with the statement of another employee: “His workmen were always pleased to see him about the shops. With his rattan cane in hand, he always appeared to me the counterpart of an English nobleman.”

By gathering these mind-pictures together we can form a composite likeness of a man who was great in small as well as in large affairs.

Let me add a story of my own recollection. About the year 1890 there came to Poughkeepsie,[192] New York, a blind Scotch woman ninety years of age. The infirm old lady was very fond of music and kindly members from the choir of the Church of the Holy Comforter would go to sing to her, for she was too feeble to attend church. When she heard the name of the rector of the church, Fulton’s grandson, the Rev. Robert Fulton Crary, D.D., her face lighted with pleasure and she exclaimed, “His name, Fulton, is very dear to me.” When asked the reason, she explained that during her childhood, her father, a boat-builder, employed at the New York ship-yards, purchased a small plot of ground adjoining a larger section owned by Robert Fulton. When the Scotchman came to build his home he found that his largest and best room could only gain sunshine by opening a window directly upon the line of Mr. Fulton’s property. With fear and trembling he plucked up courage to ask this permission, which was so pleasantly granted that the bright, cheerful living-room was always called, in memory of that kindness. “Mr. Fulton’s room.” The wrinkled face of the old Scotch woman was aglow with the pleasure of the recollection, and the sunshine of that room still lingered even through her blinded eyes and the long life of many years. How few of us realize the far-reaching effect of a simple act of kindness.

Never very robust since that early outbreak of lung trouble, Fulton had worked to the full extent of his strength. When the accident occurred to his trial boat on the Seine, he imprudently dashed into the water to save the valuable machinery; and the labor of twenty-four hours, with neither rest nor refreshment, caused a constitutional weakness from which he never wholly recovered.

So keen was his interest in his work that when a new idea for some invention came to him he would pass the whole night in thought, following the resultant chain of ideas. In February of 1815 he went to Trenton, New Jersey, to testify in a lawsuit to protect the Livingston-Fulton rights in steam ferries, and while returning with his friend Mr. Emmet, a prominent lawyer, and Mr. John R. Livingston, he was obliged to wait a long time for the ferry-boat. Always eager to make use of spare moments, he decided to visit his ship-building yards to inspect the work upon his Demologus, the first war-vessel, and also to examine other boats he had sent there for repairs. He spent three hours at the works, and then with Mr. Emmet tried to walk across the ice formed at the riverside. Heavy rain had fallen, and this so weakened the ice that his companion fell through into the water. Greatly agitated, Mr. Fulton helped his friend up[194] and out, but both men were wet through by the quantity of water floating upon the ice. It was a very imprudent exposure and the natural penalty followed. Fulton took such a severe cold that he was confined to his room for several days. His great interest in the Demologus tempted him to venture upon an early carriage drive to the works; he took more cold, inflammation of the lungs followed, and on the morning of February 23d, 1815, he passed from this world to the life eternal.

Unusual tokens of public esteem followed the announcement. The legislature in session at Albany resolved that both Houses wear mourning, a testimonial never before accorded a private citizen. The newspapers of the day bore black columns; the Corporation of the City of New York, and literary and scientific associations, assembled to pass resolutions of sympathy. All members, wearing badges of mourning, attended his funeral at Trinity Church on the 25th of February. Minute guns were fired from his steam frigate and the West Battery, while the long procession, in which were officers of the National and State Governments, the Mayor and Common Council, and hosts of prominent citizens, wended its way from his late residence to the historic church, under[195] the shadow of which, in the vault of the Livingston family, his body was laid to rest.

The lad from Lancaster had earned high honor. He sleeps near the river he loved so well.

Time-honored son, whose memory we revere,
Around the wondering earth thy lustrous name
Shone in old days, a sudden star of Fame,
Nor is that glamour dimmed. No leaves are sere
Among thy laurels. Greater seems each year
Thy priceless benefaction. Let them crown
Thy rare achievement with deserved renown
Who reap the guerdon of thy rich career!
Long hast thou passed the dark Lethean stream,
Yet who but envies that illustrious sleep?
Though thou art dust, yet vital is thy dream;
The waves of all the world still chant of thee:
Thy soul pervades the Ship and wings the Deep,—
Thy Spirit is immortal on the sea.
Lloyd Mifflin.

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