The Steamship Savannah
Break the Barrier
By John Laurence Busch
Published by Hodos Historia LLC 726 pages
When pioneer Robert Fulton successfully steered his newly-built North River Steam Boat 150 miles up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany, NY in 1807, he shattered a long-standing belief that mankind was destined, in terms of navigating waterways, to be subservient to Nature and the vagaries of winds, tides and currents.
The advent of steamboats meant that people could, for the first time in history, travel by water from one place to another and expect to arrive at their destination within a predictable period of time. More significantly, Fulton had proven that, in the words of author John Laurence Busch, “it was, in fact, possible to overcome Nature to practical effect.” Observing “Fulton’s Folly” (as the skeptics called it) with especially keen interest was a coastal sloop captain from New London, CT named Moses Rogers, who soon became one of the very first steamboat captains in history. Within a few short years, Rogers and other trailblazers began introducing steamboats to new waterways that could benefit from this “new mode of transport.”
After Fulton’s death in 1815, his partners attempted to push the boundaries of belief even further, by organizing a crossing of the Atlantic in a steamboat from New York to St. Petersburg, Russia the following year. But a lack of funds forced a cancellation of this endeavor, largely because of popular speculation that steampowered vessels, with their flimsy paddlewheels, wooden hulls and fire-filled boilers, were simply too dangerous to attempt such a voyage. As Mr. Busch concludes:
“And that this, the first effort to cross the Atlantic in a steam vessel, had succumbed as a result, surely dampened the hopes of the few who believed in the new mode’s potential. It also must have fortified the perceptions of the many who did not.”
Nevertheless, the steamboat’s domain continued to expand, supplanting sailing vessels for the transport of both cargo and passengers in the East (including Long Island Sound) and Midwest. While these early steamers operated primarily on protected waters, Rogers proved especially adept at executing one-time ocean transfers from one port to another. In 1817, he successfully initiated a regular packet service between Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA, a voyage that allowed him to experiment with steaming partially on the open ocean.
Rogers was certain that a steam-powered vessel was indeed capable of crossing the Atlantic, and he soon found partners in Savannah who agreed to establish a company in 1818 to build not a “steamboat,” but the world’s first “steamship.” Organizing and carrying out this effort wasn’t easy. Rogers and his partners encountered plenty of obstacles, including the same fears of a few years earlier. As Mr. Busch relates:
“Finding a crew for such a new-fangled contraption proved to be exceedingly difficult. Mariners - conditioned as they were to ‘knowing the ropes’ of a sailing ship - looked upon this new vessel, and its unnatural means of propulsion, with the greatest suspicion. To them, it was not a ‘Steam Ship’ - instead, it was as ‘Steam Coffin’.” John Laurence Busch, an independent historian and author who lives in New Canaan, CT, conducted exhaustive research, scouring archives and libraries from Portland, ME to Savannah, GA, and to the far reaches of Europe. Written in a very readable narrative style, Steam Coffin is compelling, engaging and highly recommended. Your favorite local bookstore can order it, and it’s available online at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. For more information, including the author’s lecture and book signing schedule, visit steamcoffin.com.