Before trains, cars, trucks and airplanes existed, rivers were used for travel. They carried people and goods from one place to another. River travel was often slow because speed of travel depended on the river current and manpower. That all changed with the introduction of steam powered boats in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The steam-powered boats could travel at the astonishing speed of up to five miles per hour. They soon revolutionized river travel and trade, and dominated the waterways. The dangers of steamboat travel such as explosions, sinkings, Indian attacks, and daring steamboat races captured the imagination of the country. The great steam-powered boats of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries also played an important role in the expansion of the United States to the west. Eventually, other forms of transportation became more important than steamboats, but during their day, they ruled the nation’s rivers.
Steamboat History The years after the Revolutionary War were years of growth in the southeastern United States. At the heart of this westward growth were southern rivers like the Mississippi, Alabama, Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, and Flint to name a few. In 1798, the Mississippi Territory, including what is now Alabama and Mississippi, was created. Then in 1803, the Louisiana Purchase gave the newly formed United States the city of New Orleans and the large Louisiana Territory. The rivers flowing through Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana provided a way for settlers to move west from states like Georgia and South Carolina. Cities grew along the rivers to make trade and transportation easier. By 1810, flat-bottomed keelboats were carrying goods along the South’s rivers. These keelboats brought goods to and from towns and to port cities like Mobile and New Orleans. The speed of these boats depended on the river current; and if the river boatmen changed their cargo and returned upriver from where they started, they had to pole the boats against the current. A round trip could take as long as nine months. Because the trip upstream was so difficult, keelboat owners often took apart their boats at their destination and sold the timber. They would then make the trip back home overland. Keelboats were the most common way of river travel until the mid-nineteenth century when the quicker and more powerful steamboats gained popularity.
In 1769, a Scotsman named James Watt invented an engine that was run by steam. Once inventors learned about the steam engine they began to experiment with using it to run boats. The first man to build a steamboat in the United States was John Fitch. In 1787, Fitch built a 45-foot steamboat that he sailed down the Delaware River while members of the Constitutional Convention watched. John Fitch built four more steamboats, but they were expensive to build and to operate. Because they were so expensive, his steamboats were unsuccessful. The first successful steamboat was the Clermont, which was built by American inventor Robert Fulton in 1807.
The Clermont was the combined effort of Fulton and Robert Livingston. Fulton was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. By the age of 17, he was working as a painter in Philadelphia. In 1786, Fulton moved to London where he turned his lifelong interest in science and engineering into a new career. Fulton was especially interested in the use of steam engines and the possibility of using one to run a boat. He was also interested in canal systems and, eventually, moved to France to work on canals. It was in France that he met Robert Livingston. Livingston was a lawyer from New York who served in the Continental Congress and also on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson appointed Livingston as a minister to France, where he met Fulton in 1803.
Like Fulton, Livingston was interested in using steam engines to run boats. He talked Fulton into returning to New York to build a steam-powered boat. Robert Fulton returned to New York in 1806 and began building a steamboat on the East River. One year later on 17 August 1807, Fulton’s steamboat, the Clermont, made its first voyage on the Hudson River traveling 40 miles from New York to Albany in a record eight hours. After the Clermont’s successful first voyage, it made regular trips from Albany to New York every four days. Sometimes she carried as many as 100 passengers. Fulton had found a way make steam powered boats not only useful, but profitable; and the age of steamboats was born