By Kappes, Irwin J. | Sea Classics, December 2007 | Go to article overview
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Kappes, Irwin J., Sea Classics

In a more mellow and harmonious era, colorful smoke-belching sidewheeled steamboats carried thousands on daily excursions to New Jersey's fabled beaches

Steamboats occupied a brief window in the history of transportation in 19th century America. They emerged as a response to the need for vessels that could transport cargo and people between locales, where horse-drawn carriages couldn't go. But railroads and trucks soon surpassed steamboats for one important reason: They were not limited by the inherent deficiencies in steam technology whereas automotive and rail transit were in their infancy and evolved rapidly in speed and dependability. Nonetheless, steamboats occupy a memorable and exciting window in our history especially in New Jersey.

After America gained its independence in 1776, most citizens lived east of the Allegheny Mountains, with ready access to navigable waterways. Long distance travel was anything more than about 20-miles and it was done by large boats of all description. From rafts to poleboats to sail boats -anything that would float was made serviceable. The waterways and the sea were the highways because overland transportation was slow and difficult. On the Mississippi and its tributaries, settler ingenuity was almost limitless. For example, great wooden rafts were constructed and loaded with mined and harvested commodities for sale downriver all the way to New Orleans. There they were broken up and sold for the value of their timber. Without locomotion, strong river currents made return trips impractical. In fact, until steamboats came along in the 19th century, travel on the Missouri, Ohio and Mississippi Rivers was mostly one-way.

In 1807, the application of steam power to marine transport changed everything. Robert Fulton, already a famed inventor of machines for spinning yarn and manufacturing ropes, designed, built and operated a steamboat on the most-traveled route in the east between New York City and Albany on the Hudson River. Unlike many earth-shaking inventions, it was a success from the start. Within 50-years there were steamboats operating profitably on nearly every cove, river and bay in the settled areas of the United States.

Actually, because the US was at the time engaged in its second war of liberation against England, Fulton's first adaptation of steam to marine navigation was in warship design. The first USS Fulton was little more than a 20-gun floating fortress with a paddle wheel in the middle, but it saw only one day of service before accidentally exploding. Undeterred, Fulton and his partner Robert Livingston built the first commercially successful steamboat and operated it on scheduled trips between New York City and Albany.

It wasn't long before every river, bay and lake in the country had at least one steamboat. And as they began to cover greater distances they soon became more commodious, with staterooms and public rooms sometimes offering the same luxury touches found in the finest hotels. Mirrors were used extensively to provide the illusion of spaciousness and steamboat operators competed on many such luxury touches as well as scheduling and vessel size.

But this leap ahead in the transportation of goods and people had its price. Along with increasing competition between steamboat owners came demands for greater speed. The resulting boiler explosions attracted governmental attention and ultimately resulted in regulation.

Another great visionary by the name of DeWitt Clinton appeared on the scene in 1815 and actually changed the course of economic development in the United States. He magnified the importance of steam transport by proposing a canal to connect the Hudson River with the Great Lakes, thus permitting the expansion of trade between the east coast and the midwest. Needless to say, Clinton's Big Ditch was ridiculed by the unimaginative because of its cost, but the Erie Canal ended up bringing New York City to prominence as the great metropolis of the fledgling nation and making it the country's leading seaport.

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