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Washington D.C., 1800

President Jefferson
in the White House

A Duel At Dawn, 1804

The Death of Lord Nelson, 1805

Fulton's First Steamboat Voyage, 1807

"Shanghaied," 1811

"Old Ironsides" Earns its Name, 1812

The British Burn Washington, 1814

Dolley Madison Flees the White House, 1814

The Battle of New Orleans, 1815

The Battle of Waterloo, 1815

Napoleon Exiled to St. Helena, 1815

The Inauguration of
President Andrew
Jackson, 1829

Aboard a Slave Ship, 1829

America's First Steam Locomotive, 1830

A Portrait of America, 1830

Traveling the National Road, 1833

A Slave's Life

Traveling the Erie Canal, 1836

Victoria Becomes Queen, 1837

Escape From Slavery, 1838

A Flogging at Sea, 1839

P.T. Barnum Discovers "Tom Thumb" 1842

Living among the Shakers, 1843

Visit to the "Red Light" District, 1843

The Irish Potato Famine, 1847

Aboard a Whaling Ship, 1850

the Forbidden City
of Mecca, 1853

Life on a Southern Plantation, 1854

Return of a Fugitive Slave, 1854

Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854

Livingstone Discovers Victoria Falls, 1855

Andrew Carnegie Becomes a Capitalist, 1856

Slave Auction, 1859

Good Manners for Young Ladies, 1859

The Trial of Andrew Johnson, 1868

The Ku Klux Klan, 1868

Building the Brooklyn Bridge, 1871

Stanley Finds Livingstone, 1871

The Baseball Glove
Comes to Baseball,

The Death of President
Garfield, 1881

A Portrait of Thomas Edison

College Football, 1884

Opulence in the Gilded Age, 1890

Death of a Child, 1890

Corbett Knocks Out Sullivan, 1892

Hobo, 1894

Leaving Home for the "Promised Land", 1894

America's First Auto Race, 1895

1st to Sail Around the World Alone, 1895

The United States Declares War on Spain, 1898

The Battle of Manila Bay, 1898

The Rough Riders Storm San Juan Hill, 1898

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.

Robert Fulton
from a self-portrait
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
The Clermont passing West Point
from a contemporary illustration
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).

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