The Famed Pioneer Steamship Robert Fulton Anchored at City Island During an Excursion in 1821
The year was 1821, during the early dawn of the steamship era. At the time, one of the most famous steamships was the pioneer steamship Robert Fulton. Based in New York Harbor, the approximately 750-ton sidewheel steamer with auxiliary sail was said to be the first steamship built specifically for ocean service. Perhaps more famously, the Robert Fulton became the first steam-powered vessel ever to make the voyage between New York City and New Orleans. That voyage made it a nationally-renowned steamship.
History of the Pioneer Steamship Robert Fulton
Shipbuilder Henry Eckford constructed the Robert Fulton in 1819. The steamship was first registered as the Robert Fulton on April 22, 1820 “upon embarkation on her maiden voyage to New Orleans.” See Frajola, Richard & Baird, James, The Pioneer Steamship Robert Fulton, Chronicle 230, Vol. 63, No. 2, pp. 9-13 (May 2011). According to Frajola and Baird:
“[I]n April 1819, Henry Eckford, Cadwallader Colden, David Dunham and others had incorporated in New York State as the Ocean Steam Ship Company with the stated intent to construct and employ steamships in navigating the ocean. Eckford, a noted ship architect and builder of Navy vessels during the War of 1812, returned to government service as a naval contractor in 1820 following the launch of the Robert Fulton. The operational aspects of the company then devolved to David Dunham who may have bought out one or more of his partners at this time. Advertisements list him, sometimes styled as David Dunham & Co., as owner and operator. Dunham drowned near West Point on March 30, 1822 in a boating accident during a storm, but the ship continued to operate.”
Id. at 9.
The Robert Fulton had a five-year period of service as a steamship before its conversion into a sailing ship on December 5, 1825. During that time the steamer made “approximately 18 trips. . . . In addition to her home port of New York her regular schedule included primary stops at Charleston, Havana and New Orleans, as well as exceptional trips to other coastal ports and to Vera Cruz, Mexico.” Id. at 10.
According to one brief history of the Robert Fulton: “Soon after the Savannah made her successful ocean trip, a fine large steamer, named Robert Fulton, of 750 tons, was constructed in New York by Henry Eckford, for the route from New York to Cuba and New Orleans. She was a stanch vessel, constructed ‘entirely of oak, locust, and cedar, and Georgia pine, copper fastened.’ She had a square, or cross-head, engine, of the type then in use on inland steamers; there were two boilers and two funnels. She left New York for New Orleans on her first trip April 25, 1820, stopping en route at Charleston and Havana. She was an entire success, and covered the 2225 miles between New York and New Orleans in an average of 10 days. The New York Evening Post of June 15, 1820, contained the following notice of her arrival:
‘The beautiful steamship Robert Fulton, Capt. John Mott, arrived last evening, 17 days from New Orleans, via Havana and Charleston. At Havana she stopped 2 and at Charleston 4 days. She has aboard between sixty and seventy passengers, and has been at sea only 10 days.’
In another notice, on the return of this boat in January, 1821, the Post said:
‘Steamship Robert Fulton, Capt. Mott, arrived in New York in 8 days from Charleston, having been to New Orleans . . . . 54 days’ round trip to New Orleans, average 14 ½ either way. . . . The boisterous season, the rough and heavy weather which she has experienced this trip, must convince even the most incredulous of the perfect practicability of navigating the ocean by steam. Capt. Mott gives her a decided preference over every vessel he ever commanded, both for safety and pleasantness during a gale of wind.’
The Robert Fulton ran for three years very successfully; she was then sold to the Brazilian government, to be used as a cruiser, her machinery being removed.”
Source: Stanton, Samuel Ward, “The Earliest Translatlantic Steamships: I. – 1819-1855” in The Engineering Magazine, Vol. IX, No. 6, p. 1051 & pp. 1052-54 (Sep. 1895).
The steamship Robert Fulton was designed to carry cargo, mail, and passengers during its trips. Indeed, the ship was designed with enough staterooms to carry up to two hundred passengers, according to one early news reported quoted in full below. This ability to carry passengers is the reason the famous Robert Fulton is the subject of today’s posting to the Historic Pelham Blog.
The Robert Fulton Visits City Island and Hart Island in 1821
Among the excursions of the steamship Robert Fulton that have not been documented by maritime historians is a fascinating pleasure cruise from New York City to Newport and Providence, Rhode Island (and back) from Thursday, August 23 to Monday, August 27. There were ninety men and women on board accompanied by an “elegant band” known as the Governor’s Guards. The pleasure cruise was quite important and attracted crowds who wished to see the ship steam by or visit it in port.
The Robert Fulton left New York City on Thursday, August 23, 1821. Within the hour, the ship passed through Hell Gate into Long Island Sound where it passed City Island and the shores of Pelham. An account of the excursion noted that the shores, rocks, and islands were "lined with the ladies and gentlemen of the vicinity, waving their handkerchiefs and cheering us as we passed through" and made much of "superb mansions of this beautiful tract of our country." (See below.)
Over the next several days, the ship stopped at New Haven, Newport, Providence, and Bristol, stopping at various of the same locations on the return trip. At each location, the ship was met by cheering crowds of men and women who jostled and pushed to get aboard the ship and visit the amazing wonder. At the same time, the ninety passengers on the ship maneuvered their way onshore and engaged carriages to take them on tours of the area much like modern cruise ship passengers visiting various ports of call. According to one account, when the steamship docked at Newport, the author beheld "a scene of tumult as was here witnessed, I never saw before – the wharves were lined with people of all ages and conditions, who pressed forward and immediately on our landing, took complete possession of the ship."
The crowds at each dock who came to see the famous steamship were tumultuous. The band that accompanied the passengers on the ship made each arrival and departure even more festive and exciting. By late Sunday, as the ship neared City Island and Hart Island on its return to New York City, the tide was ebbing. The steamship Robert Fulton anchored between City Island and Hart Island to await the rising tide. According to a published account of the pleasure excursion: "At 11 P.M. came to anchor between Hart & City Islands, to wait for the morning tide to pass through the Gate. At 6 o’clock the next morning, got under way and proceeded to the city – passed round the U. States ships Franklin and Hornet, in the North River, against a very strong wind and tide, and were greeted with 3 cheers from the crews of both vessels. Our arrival at N. Y. was at ¼ past 9, precisely."
The Robert Fulton had completed its pleasure cruise up the coast. Ninety men and women had enjoyed themselves and even slumbered in the midst of the beautiful islands of Pelham known as City Island and Hart Island on that summer evening now nearly two centuries ago.
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Below is the text of two articles relevant to the subject of today’s article. Each is followed by a citation and link to its source.
“Second Excursion of the Steam ship Robert Fulton. – On the 23d August, at half past 5, P.M. the Robert Fulton left New York, on her voyage of pleasure to Newport and Providence, R. I. accompanied by the elegant band of the Governor’s Guards, which struck up several national airs as the vessel left the wharf. The party consisted of ladies and gentlemen, to the number of 90. She glided handsomely through the harbor; passed our naval depot in full view of the vessels there, and proceeded on, against a strong wind and tide. The sail to the Scylla and Charybdis of our continent, was delightful, and will probably bear comparison with any in the world – the shores, islands and rocks, as we passed through Hell Gate, (at half past 6, P.M.) were lined with the ladies and gentlemen of the vicinity, waving their handkerchiefs and cheering us as we passed through. We soon left the superb mansions of this beautiful tract of our country. At a ¼ past 8, arrived opposite Sands’ Point Light House, and then fairly entered the Sound, a body of water of vast importance to the inland commerce of the states; its course is E. N. E. and W. N. W.; the variation is nearly half a point, and there are twelve light houses on it between New York and Rhode Island, a distance of two hundred miles. We took tea at sunset, and found all matters well arranged for the accommodation of the party; at a quarter before three o’clock, A. M. of the 24th came to to wait for the tide; at seven A. M. got up to the long dock at New Haven; 2 hours and a half were then allowed to the party to go on shore and visit the city; carriages were immediately in demand, and as the company left the ship the long wharf surrendered its living burden to her cabin and deck. The time prescribed was found sufficient to enable the company to visit the churches, grave yard, college, &c. &c. and they returned from the city highly delighted. New Haven grave yard is considered worthy of a visit; it is very large; the tomb stones of white marble, and the letters on them generally gilt, the epitaphs very long, and tediously minute, not only detailing the characters of the ‘master spirits’ deposited beneath them, but all the occupations they had ever engaged in – ‘Deacon 37 years’; ‘Town Clerk 43 years’; ‘Town Treasurer 26 years’; ‘Chairman of 53 political meetings,’ &c. &c. The college, a row of churches, and a large lawn or parade ground in front, attracted much interest and attention. The Episcopal Church is a tasteful piece of architecture, built in the Gothic style, and is reckoned the pride of New Haven. We received here an addition of 15, to our party, most of whom were ladies, and among the rest the Belle of the place. At ¼ before 9 left the wharf amid the cheers of the inhabitants. At about 12 meridian, passed the steam boat Fulton, with the Cadets on board – cheers and music were given and returned. Pass New London at half past 2; the wind springing up from the S.W. threw in a swell and produced a slight but healthful sea-sickness among a few of the ladies; pass Point Judith Light House, at the rate of 13 miles an hour, wind, steam and tide all operating in our favor, soon overhauled and passed a Providence packet. At a quarter before 8 P. M. ranged alongside of the dock at Newport; music playing as we enter the harbor, and pass the fortified island; such a scene of tumult as was here witnessed, I never saw before – the wharves were lined with people of all ages and conditions, who pressed forward and immediately on our landing, took complete possession of the ship. Altho’ it was dark, the party principally went on shore, and with the Band (to whom too much credit cannot be given for their uniform, correct and obliging deportment throughout the voyage) serenaded His Excellency Governor Gibbs, and many of the principal families in town. After having regaled themselves on shore, the party returned to the ship, when with the utmost difficulty they were enabled to get on board again, the tumult and crowd lasting till one o’clock next morning. At half past 5 A.M. the following day, started from Newport, wind and tide ahead. As we approach Providence the scene becomes truly interesting – the inhabitants had anticipated our arrival, and every hill was covered with the admiring assemblage. Indian Point wharf exhibited a spectacle singular and gratifying. The beauty & fashion of this charming town greeted us with cheers and welcoming. – At ¼ before 8, came up to the dock and landed the company; here again numerous parties of ladies and gentlemen crowd the ship; the masts and rigging of the vessels lying in the vicinity were covered with spectators, and nothing could exceed the interest and gratification with which all appeared to greet our arrival; horses, carriages, &c. were in requisition on the occasion, and the time allowed at this place (3 hours,) proved barely sufficient for the gratification of the curiosity of the company. At 3 P.M. she left the wharf amid the shouts of thousands. – Arrived at Bristol, against a strong tide, at half past 5 where we were met with the same spirit of enthusiasm that had characterized our whole route. Mr. D’Woll’s elegant mansion at this place, was thrown open to the visits of the passengers, and was very much admired. Left Bristol at half past 6 P.M. and arrived at Newport at 8. It was unfortunately dark again when we got here, but the interest felt on our second arrival appeared to have increased rather than diminished. I took a station at the gangway with a view to assist the inhabitants, and particularly the ladies, on board the ship; notice being given that none but females could come on board at first. I handed in, in the short space of 20 minutes 337. I found that this number did not appear to have thin’d the crowd in the least degree, and by 9 o’clock there must have been on board upwards of six hundred ladies. – At 10 P.M. left Newport and directed our course out into the sound again. At 10 A.M. on the 26th, came to and landed our passengers at New Haven light – strong wind and tide ahead – by 12 o’clock this day, the wind had encreased [sic] almost to a gale, accompanied with a considerable sea. Divine service in the morning and afternoon was performed by the Rev. Mr. Henshaw, who presented us with two excellent sermons from the following texts: Romans, 6th chap. 23d v. and Psalms 10th and 4th verse. It is but justice to say that they were finished pieces of composition and appropriately adapted to the occasion, delivered in a most becoming manner and received by all with the most respectful attention. I have omitted to mention, that our fare was good and abundant, and the whole arrangement of the ship well ordered throughout the excursion. At 11 P.M. came to anchor between Hart & City Islands, to wait for the morning tide to pass through the Gate. At 6 o’clock the next morning, got under way and proceeded to the city – passed round the U. States ships Franklin and Hornet, in the North River, against a very strong wind and tide, and were greeted with 3 cheers from the crews of both vessels. Our arrival at N. Y. was at ¼ past 9, precisely.
At a meeting of the passengers on board the steam ship Robert Fulton, it was unanimously resolved, That the gratification which we have experienced from the excursion on board said ship, from New York to Providence and back, deserves the expression of the favourable sentiments of the party, and that the studied manner in which all the arrangements have been made to promote our comfort and convenience, merits and receives our warmest acknowledgements.
JNO. SLIDELL, Chairman,
JNO. PECK, Sec’ry.”
Source: Second Excursion of the Steam ship Robert Fulton, New-York Evening Post, Aug. 27, 1821, p. 2, cols. 2-3.
“The new steam ship Robert Fulton – This ship is intended to ply as a regular packet between New York and New Orleans. She is said to be in every respect, one of the finest vessels ever built in that city. A communication in the Gazette gives the following description of this beautiful vessel:
‘This ship is a splendid piece of naval architecture – the most perfect model I ever beheld, and does great credit to her builder, Mr. Eckford. She is upwards of 750 tons, of a very great length, rigged with lug sails; has three kelsons, (the centre one large enough for a ship of the line,) together with bilge ways, and the whole secured and bolted in a very extraordinary manner, perhaps the most so of any vessel ever built – her frame timber and plank are of live oak, locust, cedar, and southern pine, copper bolted and coppered.
‘She will afford accommodation for more than 200 persons, is fitted up with high and airy state rooms, thoroughly ventilated by means of sky lights the whole length of the cabin, which is very extensive. Her after cabin is neatly arranged for the accommodation of ladies, and separated by means of folding doors, in the modern style. She has also a range of [berths] fore and aft, together with a commodious fore cabin. And what adds to the greatest comfort and security of all, her engine and other machinery are completely insulated and unconnected, as it were, with the other part of the ship. In the centre, lengthwise, is a kind of well-hole or square trunk, made both fire and water proof; no possible accident, therefore, by the bursting of the boiler, can reach either of the cabins. This trunk or well-hole being enclosed by very thick plank, caulked and leaded, may be inundated with water at pleasure, without any inconvenience to the passengers.
‘The furnace is also completely surrounded by the continuation of the boiler, so that no part of the fire can ever come in contact with the wood. There is a space of about 9 or 10 inches filled in with materials, non-conductors of heat, which answer the double purpose of excluding the heat from the cabin, and at the same time deadening the disagreeable noise of the engine. She is also provided with a leather hose, similar to those used by our fire engine companies in this city, which will enable the hot or cold water to be conveyed to any part of the ship, and furnishing at the same time the great conveniency to the passengers of a warm or cold bath, at pleasure. Her engine was constructed by Mr. Allaire, and is supposed to be the most powerful and most exact piece of workmanship ever turned out in this country – and her boiler is said to be the largest ever known to have been made in this or any other country. Take her all in all, she certainly presents a spectacle altogether unique.’”
Source: The New Steam Ship Robert Fulton, National Intelligencer [Washington, D.C.], Mar. 28, 1820, p. 1, far right column.
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