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Robert Fulton – Full Speed Ahead

The Albany Institute of History and Art is currently mounting a Fulton exhibition entitled Full Speed Ahead: Robert Fulton and the Age of Steamboats. Ruth Greene-McNally is the research curator for this exhibition.

            Robert Fulton’s efforts to establish steamboat transportation as the first viable commercial service on American waterways instituted an enduring American legacy. With the aid of his politically influential partner, New York State Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, Fulton secured sole rights to all steam-powered navigation within the region by an act of the N.Y. State legislature in 1798. He and Livingston developed a profitable business that thrived for many years; it was not until 1824 that the Supreme Court case Gibbons v. Ogden dissolved the monopoly that they had established.

            Although Livingston claimed no theoretical background in mechanics, he had the vision and influence necessary to implement the plans he and Fulton made. The two men agreed to construct a steamboat in 1802, and in 1803 they launched the boat on the Seine. It immediately sank, but the hull was rebuilt and strengthened, and later that year the boat sailed up the Seine. Fulton then ordered an engine from James Watt in England. When it was completed, it was delivered to New York, where Fulton had a suitable hull constructed on the East River.

            The era of steamboat transportation began on August 17, 1807, when an ungainly looking vessel fitted with a smokestack pulled away from a dock on the Hudson River in New York City. With a small crew, Robert Fulton’s North River Steamboat reached its destination at Albany within 32 hours, traveling against a headwind at a speed of nearly five miles an hour. Two days later, despite public fear and general skepticism, the steamboat carried two paying customers on its return trip. Within a year, the newly established Fulton-Livingston Line conveyed hundreds of passengers and tons of freight between New York City and Albany. The success of Hudson River steamboats led to the use of the steam engine in newer steamship models, as well as in mills, factories, and trains. Steam-powered transportation secured American economic stability and influenced everyday life for over a century.
            Following the maiden voyage, Fulton and Livingston secured an extended monopoly that banned steamboat competition. In spite of the new regulations, however, regional shipbuilders operated steamboats modeled after Fulton’s design. The Fulton-Livingston monopoly, continually challenged by lawsuits, remained in effect long after the partners’ deaths.

            It was in 1824 that the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Fulton-Livingston monopoly unconstitutional. In Gibbons v. Ogden, the Court ruled that states could not legally regulate interstate commerce. By 1826 steamers carried mail, farm produce, ice, lumber, stone, coal, hay, livestock, dairy products, and an increasing number of passengers.

            Within a few years steamboats were able to make the New York–Albany run either overnight or by daylight, and this development resulted in two distinct styles of boats. Night boats offered larger sleeping cabins called staterooms. Day line boats, in contrast, were largely open. By the mid-1830s, steamboat traffic on the Hudson and across America’s rivers, lakes, and bays had increased to over 700 boats.

            Thereafter, new steamboat companies opened for business, fares dropped, goods were transported at less expense, and a new trade—the tourist industry— developed as everyday citizens took advantage of reasonable fares to enjoy the country’s beauty. Day lines, evening boats, ferry lines, and towboat companies opened for business. Between 1863 and 1948, the Hudson River Day Line offered dependable steam-powered vessels acclaimed for their elegance and speed. The era of steam travel on the Hudson ended on September 13, 1948, when the Day Line steamboat Robert Fulton made its last run from Albany to New York City.

            As the use of steam engines stimulated the economy and altered the character of American life, a new breed of businessman attempted to gain control of the steamboat industry. A powerful group of investors known as the Hudson River Steamboat Association banded together for monopolistic purposes and slashed ticket prices, sometimes to the point of no fare at all. Financially stable, these notorious “robber barons” could withstand price wars between competitors; when price wars failed, wealthy industrialists such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and Daniel Drew bought out independent opposing lines. Daniel Drew fought off competitors with grand schemes and newer-model boats. Some of the faster day boats were redesigned for evening service; the ship Troy, for instance, built in 1840 for the Troy Line, was altered in 1848 for night service between New York City, Albany, and Troy. The speed and luxury of the newer fleet of evening boats lured customers from the conveniences of railroad travel.

            Advancing steamboat technology did not entirely eliminate the perils and inconveniences of 19th-century transportation. Competitive steamboat companies posted schedules “with landing” or “without landing”; captains frequently put passengers on land without docking, tossing luggage from ship to shore as travelers leaped to the dock in what was called a “fly landing.” In the mid-1840s, newspaper coverage of speed capability served to sharpen existing rivalries between ship captains and steamboat companies. The spontaneous races that occurred as a result offered thrills but also presented dangers.

            During a snow squall in April 1845, the steamship Swallow, racing against the Rochester and the Express, struck a rock off the coast of Athens, New York. Despite the heroic efforts of local citizens, 15 lives were lost. News of the disaster, publicized in a famous lithograph by printmaker Nathaniel Currier, resonated among wary travelers. Some years later, after 60 lives were lost in the wreck of the Henry Clay in 1852, public outrage resulted in the enactment of a steamboat inspection bill. This law set standards for construction, safety, operation, and inspection. Racing was forbidden and punishable by law. Ships continued to go down, however, due to weather, boiler explosions, and collisions.

            In the late 1850s, deluxe steamboat lines brought about a new wave of passenger traffic on the Hudson River, the Long Island Sound, the Providence–Boston route, and points west. Just as earlier steamboats advertised safety and speed, newly designed fleets promised fashionable elegance. During the Civil War and for a time thereafter, the new “palace steamers,” like the grand hotels they replicated, featured lavish saloons and dining rooms, bars, ladies’ cabins, theatres, art galleries, and exquisite furnishings. Everyday people enjoyed the conveniences and comforts of these ornately outfitted steamships. The tourist boom generated trade for the hotel and travel industry and created new venues of exchange throughout the states.
            The Hudson Valley’s rich resources contributed to the success of the industry. Following the breakup of the monopoly, shipyards and foundries opened in Albany, Kingston, Poughkeepsie, and New York City. The demand for engines on southern sugar plantations, the accessibility of iron and coal near Pittsburgh, and the widespread use of steamboats on western rivers strengthened the vitality of steamboat production. Steamboats transformed commerce and culture nationwide.

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