Friday, August 17, 2007

Steam-Engine Time

Another anniversary: two hundred years ago today, on August 17, 1807, the first commercial steamboat in American history began its maiden voyage. Developed by Robert Fulton and named the North River Steamboat, the 130-foot-long vessel (also known as the Clermont) ascended the Hudson River to Albany in record time, covering 160 miles in just 32 hours. The North River's average speed – five miles per hour – may seem slow to modern readers, but it achieved that velocity against both the current and a strong headwind, proving the feasibility and reliability of steam transportation.

While first tested on the Hudson River, steamboats had a more revolutionary impact when brought to the shallow interior rivers of the United States – the Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, and others. Shallow-draft steamboats could navigate rivers as low as 10 feet in depth, could attain speeds as high as 25 m.p.h., and could carry up to 70 tons of cargo. The first steamboat on the western waters traveled from Pittsburgh to New Orleans in 1811; by 1820 there were over 400 of them in the greater Mississippi Valley; and by the 1830s they had lowered interior transport costs by 75%, dramatically easing trade and travel between the East and the Midwest and accelerating the economic integration of the United States.

Steam navigation also enlivened the existence of villagers in the Midwest, one of the duller parts of the United States. In Old Times on the Mississippi, Mark Twain recalled the excitement that attended the arrival of a steamboat in his home town:

"The town drunkard stirs, the clerks wake up, a furious clatter of drays follows, every house and store pours out a human contribution, and all in a twinkling the dead town is alive and moving. Drays, carts, men, boys, all go hurrying from many quarters to...the wharf. Assembled there, the people fasten their eyes upon the coming boat as upon a wonder they are seeing for the first time. And the boat is rather a handsome sight, too. She is long and sharp and trim and pretty; she has two tall, fancy-topped chimneys…a fanciful pilot-house, all glass and "gingerbread," perched on top of the 'texas' deck behind them; the paddle-boxes are gorgeous with a picture or with gilded rays above the boat's name; the boiler deck, the hurricane deck, and the texas deck are fenced and ornamented with clean white railings; there is a flag gallantly flying from the jack-staff; the furnace doors are open and the fires flaring bravely; the upper decks are black with passengers; the captain stands by the big bell, calm, imposing, the envy of all; great volumes of the blackest smoke are rolling and tumbling out of the chimneys - a husbanded grandeur created with a bit of pitch pine just before arriving at a town; the crew are grouped on the forecastle; the broad stage is run far out over the port bow, and an envied deck-hand stands picturesquely on the end of it with a coil of rope in his hand; the pent steam is screaming through the gauge-cocks; the captain lifts his hand, a bell rings, the wheels stop; then they turn back, churning the water to foam, and the steamer is at rest. Then such a scramble as there is to get aboard, and to get ashore, and to take in freight and to discharge freight, all at one and the same time; and such a yelling and cursing as the mates facilitate it all with! Ten minutes later the steamer is under way again…After ten more minutes the town is dead again, and the town drunkard asleep by the skids."

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