Maiden Voyage of the Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The maiden voyage of the first commercially successful steam-powered riverboat launched a new era in transportation that would have a profound impact on the opening of the North American continent, whose extensive river systems offered a network of ready-made highways well suited for steamboat traffic.

Summary of Event

During the mid-1790’s, Robert R. Livingston, a wealthy and famous Hudson Valley landowner, persuaded the New York State legislature to grant him exclusive rights to operate steam-powered boats on the Hudson River, which was then known as the North River, from 1798 to 1818. The terms of this agreement required Livingston to produce within one year a boat that would run at 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) an hour. His attempts to satisfy this requirement failed, and he went to France as the United States minister. There he met Robert Fulton, a U.S. citizen who was studying and working on inventions in the field of submarines and torpedoes. Clermont Steamboats Fulton, Robert Steam engines;boats Inventions;steamboat Hudson River;steamboats on [kw]Maiden Voyage of the Clermont (Aug. 17, 1807) [kw]Voyage of the Clermont, Maiden (Aug. 17, 1807) [kw]Clermont, Maiden Voyage of the (Aug. 17, 1807) Clermont Steamboats Fulton, Robert Steam engines;boats Inventions;steamboat Hudson River;steamboats on [g]United States;Aug. 17, 1807: Maiden Voyage of the Clermont[0380] [c]Trade and commerce;Aug. 17, 1807: Maiden Voyage of the Clermont[0380] [c]Engineering;Aug. 17, 1807: Maiden Voyage of the Clermont[0380] [c]Transportation;Aug. 17, 1807: Maiden Voyage of the Clermont[0380] [c]Inventions;Aug. 17, 1807: Maiden Voyage of the Clermont[0380] Livingston, Robert R. Shreve, Henry Miller Wilson, Richard

Livingston Livingston, Robert R. persuaded Fulton to devote his efforts to designing and building a steamboat. Like Livingstone’s earlier effort, Fulton’s own first attempt, on France’s Seine River Seine River in 1803, was a failure. During a storm, the heavy engine and boilers of his boat broke through the bottom of the boat and sank it. Fulton learned much from this failure, however, and in 1806, he and Livingston decided to return to the United States to build a steamboat for the North River.

A steam engine that the two men ordered from the British firm of Boulton and Watt arrived in New York in November, 1806. The engine’s cylinder was 2 feet (0.6 meters) in diameter, and its piston stroke was 4 feet (1.2 meters). Fulton arrived from Europe during the following month but seemed to be in no hurry to get on with building a boat in which to put the engine. Meanwhile, the New York legislature granted Livingston Livingston, Robert R. an extension of the monopoly that it had granted him earlier.

The hull of Fulton’s boat was built by Charles Brown at Corlears Hook on New York’s East River. Fulton then had the finished hull towed to Paulus Hook Ferry, where he set up his shop and began to install the machinery. There is some disagreement about the dimensions of the boat’s hull, which appears to have been about 130 feet (39.6 meters) long and 15 feet (4.57 meters) wide. The vessel’s keel reached three or four feet below the surface of the water. The hull was sharply pointed at both its bow and its stern. Its only deck was just a few feet above the waterline. The engine and boiler were installed on the deck, and the engine drove large paddle wheels on both sides of the vessel. The wheels were fifteen feet in diameter and four feet wide. As they rotated, their paddle blades dipped two feet into the water.

Fulton was one of the first steamboat designers to use scientific methods. He successfully calculated that the Boulton and Watt engine could move the vessel at a speed of about five miles (eight kilometers) per hour. Although modern theories would give a slightly different estimate, his calculations were nearly correct.

Although some work on the boat remained to be completed, Fulton decided to make a short test voyage on Sunday, August 9, 1807. He set out from Brown’s wharf and ran the boat about one mile up the East River to a point about even with what is now Houston Street in Manhattan. The boat achieved a speed of 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) per hour this run, even though its paddle wheels were not completed. A week later, with the paddle wheels fully equipped, Fulton moved the boat around the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan to a wharf on the North River. Passengers aboard the boat on this short trip included U.S. senator Samuel Latham Mitchill Mitchill, Samuel Latham and Dr. William McNiven McNiven, William , the dean of Ripon Cathedral in England.

At about one o’clock of the following afternoon, on August 17, the steamboat set out for Albany. The chief engineer was a Scot named George Jackson, and the captain was Davis Hunt. Food and drink had been brought on board, and an African American man named Richard Wilson Wilson, Richard served as the cook. Forty passengers, mostly members of the Livingston Livingston, Robert R. family, were on board. They reached Haverstraw Bay by nightfall and arrived at Livingston’s estate above Kingston twenty-four hours after leaving New York. The distance covered was 110 miles (177 kilometers). The name of this estate was Clermont—which became the name by which the steamboat was afterward known. Throughout his life, Fulton himself called his boat simply “the steamboat” or “the North River steamboat.” The name Clermont seems to have been first used by Cadwallader D. Colden Colden, Cadwallader D. in The Life of Robert Fulton (1817), which he published two years after Fulton died.

Fulton’s first steamboat.

(C. A. Nichols & Company)

On the morning of August 19, Fulton’s steamboat set out from Clermont to cover the remaining forty miles (sixty-four kilometers) to Albany, where it arrived shortly after 5:00 p.m. Although the governor of New York was among the welcoming crowd when the boat arrived, the event was not mentioned in the day’s newspapers. Chief engineer Jackson got so drunk in Albany that Fulton fired him and placed his assistant, Charles Dyke, in charge for the return journey to New York. A few paying passengers embarked for the return journey at a fare of seven dollars each, more than double what sailing vessels charged to make the same trip. Leaving Albany at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, August 20, the steamboat arrived in New York at 4:00 p.m. on Friday, August 21. There were some twenty newspapers in New York at the time, but only one, The American Citizen, took note of Fulton’s accomplishment. After further improvements to cabins and decks, the steamboat entered full commercial service on September 2, 1807. The number of paying passengers grew rapidly. On October 1, sixty passengers paid to ride the boat from Albany to New York; on October 2, ninety passengers went to Albany.

Regular steamboat service between New York City and Albany, which began in 1807, continued until 1948. On September 13 of that year, the steamboat Robert Fulton of the Hudson River Day Line made the last steamboat trip over this route.


It is no exaggeration to say that Fulton’s voyage opened a new era in transportation. Steamboat transportation was especially important in the United States, whose immense river systems provided major transportation routes throughout the country. Especially important was the Mississippi-Missouri river Missouri River system, which drains virtually the entire region between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains. Appalachian Mountains

In June, 1816, Henry Shreve Shreve, Henry Miller sailed from Wheeling, Virginia (now in West Virginia), in his steamboat Washington and went down the Mississippi River Mississippi River;steamboats on to New Orleans. This was no great feat, however, as keelboats and flatboats had been going downriver for many years. However, Shreve then returned 1,500 miles (2,415 kilometers) up the river to Louisville, Kentucky, in twenty-four days—a journey that keelboats propelled by men using poles took four to six months to make. Upriver voyages at reasonable speeds created a flourishing trade between New Orleans and cities such as Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis.

In 1824, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state-sponsored monopolies such as Livingston’s Livingston, Robert R. in its Gibbons v. Ogden decision. This action fostered competition in steamboat transportation that led to rapid improvements in technology and service. By the 1830’s, the internal waterways of the United States were crowded with steamboats of various shapes and sizes. After the Erie Canal Erie Canal;steamboats on from Albany to Buffalo opened in 1825 and the Welland Canal Welland Canal between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario opened in 1833, steamboats could sail from New York Great Lakes region;transportation to ports on the Great Lakes.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baxter, Maurice G. The Steamboat Monopoly: “Gibbons v. Ogden,” 1824. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970. A narrative and assessment of the case in which the Supreme Court had its first opportunity to interpret the commerce clause of the Constitution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buckman, D. L. Old Steamboat Days on the Hudson River. New York: Grafton Press, 1907. Appreciative history of early steamboas written just one hundred years after the Clermont’s first voyage, at a time when steamboats were still working the Hudson River.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Donovan, Frank. River Boats of America. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1966. Discusses the Clermont briefly, while providing broad coverage of steam-powered riverboats throughout the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hutcheon, Wallace. Robert Fulton, Pioneer of Undersea Warfare. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1981. Puts Fulton’s steamboat in perspective with regard to his other inventions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, John S. Robert Fulton. New York: Mason/Charter, 1977. A biography covering all aspects of Fulton’s life. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Philip, Cynthia Owen. Robert Fulton. New York: Franklin Watts, 1985. Biography of Fulton that includes a full chapter about the Clermont.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ringwald, D. C. Hudson River Day Line. 2d ed. New York: Fordham University Press, 1990. A profusely illustrated, large-format book covering the Hudson River Day Line from the Clermont to the last Hudson River steamboat trip in 1948.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sale, Kirkpatrick. The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream. New York: Free Press, 2001. Well-written and balanced biography that describes how Fulton’s steamboat transformed nineteenth century America.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shagena, Jack L. Who Really Invented the Steamboat? Fulton’s Clermont Coup: A History of the Steamboat Contributions of William Henry, James Rumsey, John Fitch, Oliver Evans, Nathan Read, Samuel Morey, Robert Fulton, John Stevens, and Others. Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books, 2004. Shagena, a retired aerospace engineer, traces the technological contributions of the many inventors, including Fulton, who helped create the steamboat.

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