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The crowds who welcomed the successive stages in the development of American transportation were much alike in essentials--they were all optimistic, self-congratulatory, irrepressible in their enthusiasm, and undaunted in their outlook. Dickens, perhaps, did not miss the truth widely when, in speaking of stage driving, he said that the cry of "Go Ahead!" in America and of "All Right!" in England were typical of the civilizations of the two countries. Right or wrong, "Go Ahead!" has always been the underlying passion of all men interested in the development of commerce and transportation in these United States.

During the era of river improvement already described, men of imagination were fascinated with the idea of propelling boats by mechanical means. Even when Washington fared westward in 1784, he met at Bath, Virginia, one of these early experimenters, James Rumsey, who haled him forthwith to a neighboring meadow to watch a secret trial of a boat moved by means of machinery which worked setting-poles similar to the ironshod poles used by the rivermen to propel their boats upstream. "The model," wrote Washington, "and its operation upon the water, which had been made to run pretty swift, not only convinced me of what I before thought next to, if not quite impracticable, but that it might be to the greatest possible utility in inland navigation." Later he mentions the "discovery" as one of those "circumstances which have combined to render the present epoch favorable above all others for securing a large portion of the produce of the western settlements, and of the fur and peltry of the Lakes, also."

From that day forward, scarcely a week passed without some new development in the long and difficult struggle to improve the means of navigation. Among the scores of men who engaged in this engrossing but discouraging work, there is one whom the world is coming to honor more highly than in previous years--John Fitch, of Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky. As early as August, 1785, Fitch launched on a rivulet in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a boat propelled by an engine which moved an endless chain to which little paddles were attached. The next year, Fitch's second boat, operated by twelve paddles, six on a side--an arrangement suggesting the "side-wheeler" of the future--successfully plied the Delaware off "Conjuror's Point," as the scene of Fitch's labors was dubbed in whimsical amusement and derision. In 1787 Rumsey, encouraged by Franklin, fashioned a boat propelled by a stream of water taken in at the prow and ejected at the stern. In 1788 Fitch's third boat traversed the distance from Philadelphia to Burlington on numerous occasions and ran as a regular packet in 1790, covering over a thousand miles. In this model Fitch shifted the paddles from the sides to the rear, thus anticipating in principle the modern stern-wheeler.

It was doubtless Fitch's experiments in 1785 that led to the first plan in America to operate a land vehicle by steam. Oliver Evans, a neighbor and acquaintance of Fitch's, petitioned the Pennsylvania Legislature in 1786 for the right of operating wagons propelled by steam on the highways of that State. This petition was derisively rejected; but a similar one made to the Legislature of Maryland was granted on the ground that such action could hurt nobody. Evans in 1802 took fiery revenge on the scoffers by actually running his little five-horse-power carriage through Philadelphia. The rate of speed, however, was so slow that the idea of moving vehicles by steam was still considered useless for practical purposes. Eight years later, Evans offered to wager $3000 that, on a level road, he could make a carriage driven by steam equal the speed of the swiftest horse, but he found no response. In 1812 he asserted that he was willing to wager that he could drive a steam carriage on level rails at a rate of fifteen miles an hour. Evans thus anticipated the belief of Stephenson that steam-driven vehicles would travel best on railed tracks.

In the development of the steamboat almost all earlier means of propulsion, natural and artificial, were used as models by the inventors. The fins of fishes, the webbed feet of amphibious birds, the paddles of the Indian, and the poles and oars of the riverman, were all imitated by the patient inventors struggling with the problem. Rumsey's first effort was a copy of the old setting-pole idea. Fitch's model of 1785 had side paddle wheels operated by an endless chain. Fitch's second and third models were practically paddle-wheel models, one having the paddles at the side and the other at the stern. Ormsbee of Connecticut made a model, in 1792, on the plan of a duck's foot. Morey made what may be called the first real stern-wheeler in 1794. Two years later Fitch ran a veritable screw propeller on Collect Pond near New York City. Although General Benjamin Tupper of Massachusetts had been fashioning devices of this character eight years previously, Fitch was the first to apply the idea effectively. In 1798 he evolved the strange, amphibious creation known as his "model of 1798," which has never been adequately explained. It was a steamboat on iron wheels provided with flanges, as though it was intended to be run on submerged tracks. What may have been the idea of its inventor, living out his last gloomy days in Kentucky, may never be known; but it is possible to see in this anomalous machine an anticipation of the locomotive not approached by any other American of the time. Thus, prior to 1800 almost every type of mechanism for the propulsion of steamboats had been suggested and tried; and in 1804, Stevens's twin-screw propeller completed the list.

It is not alone Fitch's development of the devices of the endless chain, paddle wheel, and screw propeller and of his puzzling earth-and-water creature that gives luster to his name. His prophetic insight into the future national importance of the steamboat and his conception, as an inventor, of his moral obligations to the people at large were as original and striking in the science of that age as were his models.

The early years of the national life of the United States were the golden age of monopoly. Every colony, as a matter of course, had granted to certain men special privileges, and, as has already been pointed out, the questions of monopolies and combinations in restraint of trade had arisen even so early as the beginning of the eighteenth century. Interwoven inextricably with these problems was the whole problem of colonial rivalry, which in its later form developed into an insistence on state rights. Every improvement in the means of transportation, every development of natural resources, every new invention was inevitably considered from the standpoint of sectional interests and with a view to its monopolistic possibilities. This was particularly true in the case of the steamboat, because of its limitation to rivers and bays which could be specifically enumerated and defined. For instance, Washington in 1784 attests the fact that Rumsey operated his mechanical boat at Bath in secret "until he saw the effect of an application he was about to make to the Assembly of this State, for a reward." The application was successful, and Rumsey was awarded a monopoly in Virginia waters for ten years.

Fitch, on the other hand, when he applied to Congress in 1785, desired merely to obtain official encouragement and intended to allow his invention to be used by all comers. Meeting only with rebuff, he realized that his only hope of organizing a company that could provide working capital lay in securing monopolistic privileges. In 1786 he accordingly applied to the individual States and secured the sole right to operate steamboats on the waterways of New Jersey, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. How different would have been the story of the steamboat if Congress had accepted Fitch at his word and created a precedent against monopolistic rights on American rivers!

Fitch, in addition to the high purpose of devoting his new invention to the good of the nation without personal considerations, must be credited with perceiving at the very beginning the peculiar importance of the steamboat to the American West. His original application to Congress in 1785 opened: "The subscriber begs leave to lay at the feet of Congress, an attempt he has made to facilitate the internal Navigation of the United States, adapted especially to the Waters of the Mississippi." At another time with prophetic vision he wrote: "The Grand and Principle object must be on the Atlantick, which would soon overspread the wild forests of America with people, and make us the most oppulent Empire on Earth. Pardon me, generous public, for suggesting ideas that cannot be dijested at this day."

Foremost in exhibiting high civic and patriotic motives, Fitch was also foremost in appreciating the importance of the steamboat in the expansion of American trade. This significance was also clearly perceived by his brilliant successor, Robert Fulton. That the West and its commerce were always predominant in Fulton's great schemes is proved by words which he addressed in 1803 to James Monroe, American Ambassador to Great Britain: "You have perhaps heard of the success of my experiments for navigating boats by steam engines and you will feel the importance of establishing such boats on the Mississippi and other rivers of the United States as soon as possible." Robert Fulton had been interested in steamboats for a period not definitely known, possibly since his sojourn in Philadelphia in the days of Fitch's early efforts. That he profited by the other inventor's efforts at the time, however, is not suggested by any of his biographers. He subsequently went to London and gave himself up to the study and practice of engineering. There he later met James Rumsey, who came to England in 1788, and by him no doubt was informed, if he was not already aware, of the experiments and models of Rumsey and Fitch. He obtained the loan of Fitch's plans and drawings and made his own trial of various existing devices, such as oars, paddles, duck's feet, and Fitch's endless chain with "resisting-boards" attached. Meanwhile Fulton was also devoting his attention to problems of canal construction and to the development of submarine boats and submarine explosives. He was engaged in these researches in France in 1801 when the new American minister, Robert R. Livingston, arrived, and the two men soon formed a friendship destined to have a vital and enduring influence upon the development of steam navigation on the inland waterways of America.

USS Fulton (1837)

Livingston already had no little experience in the same field of invention as Fulton. In 1798 he had obtained, for a period of twenty years, the right to operate steamboats on all the waters of the State of New York, a monopoly which had just lapsed owing to the death of Fitch. In the same year Livingston had built a steamboat which had made three miles an hour on the Hudson. He had experimented with most of the models then in existence--upright paddles at the side, endless-chain paddles, and stern paddle wheels. Fulton was soon inspired to resume his efforts by Livingston's account of his own experiments and of recent advances in England, where a steamboat had navigated the Thames in 1801 and a year later the famous sternwheeler Charlotte Dundas had towed boats of 140 tons' burden on the Forth and Clyde Canal at the rate of five miles an hour. In this same year Fulton and Livingston made successful experiments on the Seine.

It is fortunate that, in one particular, Livingston's influence did not prevail with Fulton, for the American Minister was distinctly prejudiced against paddle wheels. Although Livingston had previously ridden as a passenger on Morey's sternwheeler at the rate of five miles an hour, yet he had turned a deaf ear when his partner in experimentation, Nicholas J. Roosevelt, had insisted strongly on "throwing wheels over the sides." At the beginning, Fulton himself was inclined to agree with Livingston in this respect; but, probably late in 1803, he began to investigate more carefully the possibilities of the paddle wheel as used twice in America by Morey and by four or five experimenters in Europe. In 1804 an eight-mile trip which Fulton made on the Charlotte Dundas in an hour and twenty minutes established his faith in the undeniable superiority of two fundamental factors of early navigation--paddle wheels and British engines. Fulton's splendid fame rests, and rightly so, on his perception of the fact that no mere ingenuity of design could counterbalance weakness, uncertainty, and inefficiency in the mechanism which was intended to make a steamboat run and keep running. As early as November, 1803, Fulton had written to Boulton and Watt of Birmingham that he had "not confidence in any other engines" than theirs and that he was seeking a means of getting one of those engines to America. "I cannot establish the boat without the engine," he now emphatically wrote to James Monroe, then Ambassador to the Court of St. James. "The question then is shall we or shall we not have such boats."

But there were difficulties in the way. Though England forbade the exportation of engines, Fulton knew that, in numerous instances, this rule had not been enforced, and he had hopes of success. "The British Government," Fulton wrote Monroe, "must have little friendship or even civility toward America, if they refuse such a request." Before the steamboat which Fulton and Livingston proposed to build in America could be operated there was another obstacle to be surmounted. The rights of steam navigation of New York waters which Livingston had obtained on the death of Fitch in 1798 had lapsed because of his failure to run a steamboat at the rate of four miles an hour, which was one provision of the grant. In April, 1803, the grant was renewed to Livingston, Roosevelt, and Fulton jointly for another period of twenty years, and the date when the boat was to make the required four miles an hour was extended finally to 1807.

Any one who is inclined to criticize the Livingston-Roosevelt-Fulton monopoly which now came into existence should remember that the previous state grants formed a precedent of no slight moment. The whole proceeding was in perfect accord with the spirit of the times, for it was an era of speculation and monopoly ushered in by the toll-road and turnpike organizations, when probably no less than two hundred companies were formed. It was young America showing itself in an unmistakable manner--"conceived in liberty" and starting on the long road to learn that obedience to law and respect for public rights constitute true liberty. Finally, it must be pointed out that Fulton, like his famous predecessor, Fitch, was impelled by motives far higher than the love of personal gain. "I consider them [steamboats] of such infinite use in America," he wrote Monroe, "that I should feel a culpable neglect toward my country if I relaxed for a moment in pursuing every necessary measure for carrying it into effect." And later, when repeating his argument, he says: "I plead this not for myself alone but for our country."

It is now evident why the alliance of Fulton with Livingston was of such epoch-making importance, for, although it may have in some brief measure delayed Fulton's adoption of paddle wheels, it gave him an entry to the waters of New York. Livingston and Fulton thus supplemented each other; Livingston possessed a monopoly and Fulton a correct estimate of the value of paddle wheels and, secondly, of Boulton and Watt engines. It was a rare combination destined to crown with success a long period of effort and discouragement in the history of navigation.

After considerable delay and difficulty, the two Americans obtained permission to export the necessary engine from Great Britain and shipped it to New York, whither Fulton himself proceeded to construct his steamboat. The hull was built by Charles Brown, a New York shipbuilder, and the Boulton and Watt machinery, set in masonry, was finally installed.

The voyage to Albany, against a stiff wind, occupied thirty-two hours; the return trip was made in thirty. H. Freeland, one of the spectators who stood on the banks of the Hudson when the boat made its maiden voyage in 1807, gives the following description:

"Some imagined it to be a sea-monster whilst others did not hesitate to express their belief that it was a sign of the approaching judgment. What seemed strange in the vessel was the substitution of lofty and straight smoke-pipes, rising from the deck, instead of the gracefully tapered masts... and, in place of the spars and rigging, the curious play of the walking-beam and pistons, and the slow turning and splashing of the huge and naked paddlewheels, met the astonished gaze. The dense clouds of smoke, as they rose, wave upon wave, added still more to the wonderment of the rustics.... On her return trip the curiosity she excited was scarcely less intense... fishermen became terrified, and rode homewards, and they saw nothing but destruction devastating their fishing grounds, whilst the wreaths of black vapor and rushing noise of the paddle-wheels, foaming with the stirred-up water, produced great excitement...."

With the launching of the Clermont on the Hudson a new era in American history began. How quick with life it was many of the preceding pages bear testimony. The infatuation of the public for building toll and turnpike roads was now at its height. Only a few years before, a comprehensive scheme of internal improvements had been outlined by Jefferson's Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin. When a boy, it is said, he had lain on the floor of a surveyor's cabin on the western slopes of the Alleghanies and had heard Washington describe to a rough crowd of Westerners his plan to unite the Great Lakes with the Potomac in one mighty chain of inland commerce. Jefferson's Administration was now about to devote the surplus in the Treasury to the construction of national highways and canals. The Cumberland Road, to be built across the Alleghanies by the War Department, was authorized by the president in the same year in which the Clermont made her first trip; and Jesse Hawley, at his table in a little room in a Pittsburgh boarding house, was even now penning in a series of articles, published in the Pittsburgh Commonwealth, beginning in January, 1807, the first clear challenge to the Empire State to connect the Hudson and Lake Erie by a canal. Thus the two next steps in the history of inland commerce in America were ready to be taken.