CENTENNIAL OF THE FIRST STEAMSHIP TO CROSS THE ATLANTIC
From: How To Write Special Feature Articles
(Category: PART II
One hundred years ago this week there was launched at New York the ship
Savannah, which may be called the father of the scores of steamers that
are now carrying our soldiers and supplies from the New World to the Old
The Savannah was the first ship equipped with steam power to cross the
Atlantic ocean. It made the trip in 25 days, using both sails and
engine, and the arrival of the strange craft at Liverpool was the cause
of unusual stir among our English cousins. Like every step from the
beaten path the idea of steam travel between the New World and the Old
World was looked upon with much scepticism and it was not until about 20
years later that regular, or nearly regular, steamer service was
The launching of the Savannah took place on Aug. 22, 1818. It was not
accompanied by the ceremony that is accorded many of the boats upon
similar occasions to-day. As a matter of fact, it is probable that only
a few persons knew that the craft was intended for a transatlantic trip.
The keel of the boat was laid with the idea of building a sailing ship,
and the craft was practically completed before Capt. Moses Rogers, the
originator of the venture, induced Scarborough & Isaacs, ship merchants
of Savannah, to buy her and fit her with a steam engine for service
between Savannah and Liverpool.
The ship, which was built by Francis Fickett, was 100 feet long, 28 feet
broad and 14 feet deep. It had three masts which, of course, were of far
greater importance in making progress toward its destination than was
the steam engine.
Capt. Rogers had gained a reputation for great courage and skill in
sailing. He had already had the honor of navigating the sea with a
steamer, taking the New Jersey from New York to the Chesapeake in 1816,
a voyage which was then thought to be one of great danger for such a
It was natural, then, that he was especially ambitious to go down in
history as the first master of a steam ship to cross the ocean. As soon
as the vessel had been purchased by the Savannah ship merchants, the
work of installing the engine was begun. This was built by Stephen Vail
of Speedwell, N.J., and the boiler by David Dod of Elizabeth, N. J.
The paddle-wheels were made of iron and were "detachable," so that the
sections could be removed and laid on the deck. This was done when it
was desired to proceed under canvas exclusively and was also a
precaution in rough weather.
In short, the Savannah was an auxiliary steamer, a combination of steam
and sail that later became well known in shipping. This is much like the
early development of the gasoline marine engine, which was an auxiliary
to the sail, a combination that is still used.
Capt. Rogers took the boat from New York to Savannah in eight days and
15 hours, using steam on this trip for 41½ hours. On May 26, 1819,
under Capt. Rogers, the Savannah set sail from her home port for
Liverpool and made the trip in 25 days.
As long as the trip took, the voyage was considerably shorter than the
average for the sailing ship in 1819, and this reduction in time was
accomplished in spite of the fact that the Savannah ran into much
unfavorable weather. Capt. Rogers used steam on 18 of the 25 days and
doubtless would have resorted to engine power more of the time except
for the fact that at one stage of the voyage the fuel was exhausted.
It was natural that the arrival of the steamer in English waters should
not have been looked upon with any great favor by the Englishmen. In
addition to the jeers of the sceptical, the presence of vessels was
accompanied by suspicion on the part of the naval authorities, and the
merchants were not favorably impressed.
When the Savannah approached the English coast with her single stack
giving forth volumes of dense black smoke, it was thought by those on
shore that she was a ship on fire, and British men-of-war and revenue
cutters set out to aid her. When the truth was known, consternation
reigned among the English officers. They were astonished at the way the
craft steamed away from them after they had rushed to assist what they
thought was a ship in distress.
The reception of the Savannah at Liverpool was not particularly cordial.
Some of the newspapers even suggested that "this steam operation may, in
some manner, be connected with the ambitious views of the United
A close watch was kept on the boat while she lay in British waters, and
her departure was welcome. In the second volume of "Memoranda of a
Residence at the Court of St. James," Richard Rush, then American
Minister in London, includes a complete log of the Savannah. Dispatch
No. 76 from Minister Rush reports the arrival of the ship and the
comment that was caused by its presence as follows:
London, July 3,1819.
Sir--On the 20th of last month arrived at Liverpool from the United
States the steamship Savannah, Capt. Rogers, being the first vessel
of that description that ever crossed the sea, and having excited
equal admiration and astonishment as she entered port under the
power of her steam.
She is a fine ship of 320 tons burden and exhibits in her
construction, no less than she has done in her navigation across the
Atlantic, a signal trophy of American enterprise and skill upon the
I learn from Capt. Rogers, who has come to London and been with me,
that she worked with great ease and safety on the voyage, and used
her steam full 18 days.
Her engine acts horizontally and is equal to a 72 horsepower. Her
wheels, which are of iron, are on the sides, and removable at
pleasure. The fuel laid in was 1500 bushels of coal, which got
exhausted on her entrance into the Irish Channel.
The captain assures me that the weather in general was extremely
unfavorable, or he would have made a much shorter passage; besides
that, he was five days delayed in the channel for want of coal. I
have the honor to be, etc., RICHARD RUSH.
To have made the first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean under steam was
a great accomplishment and brought no little credit to Capt. Rogers and
the United States. Pioneers in many ventures, the American people had
added another honor to their record. And this was even more of a credit
because in those early days skilled workmen were comparatively few on
these shores and the machine shops had not reached a stage of efficiency
that came a short time later.
There were, of course, in 1819 men who had developed into mechanics and
there were shops of some account, as the steamboat for short trips had
been in existence for some years. But the whole enterprise of planning a
steam voyage in which the boat should be headed due east was
characteristic of the boldness and bravery of the Americans.
The Savannah did not return to the States directly from England. It
steamed from Liverpool to St. Petersburg and brought forth further
comment from the Old World. She proved that the marine steam engine and
side-wheels were practicable for deep-sea navigation. The idea of
transatlantic travel under steam had been born and it was only necessary
to develop the idea to "shorten the distance" between the two
This pioneer voyage, however, was then looked upon more as a novelty
than as the inception of a new method of long-distance travel. The trip
had failed to demonstrate that steam was an entirely adequate substitute
for the mast and sail in regular service.
Since the Savannah was primarily a sailing vessel, the loss of steam
power by the crippling of the engine would not be serious, as she could
continue on her way with paddle-wheels removed and under full sail.
It was 19 years later that the idea of employing vessels propelled by
steam in trade between the United States and England came under the
serious consideration of merchants and ship builders. In the interval
the marine boiler and the engines had been improved until they had
passed the stage of experiment, and coasting voyages had become common
on both sides of the Atlantic.
The beginning of real transatlantic steam voyages was made by the Sirius
and the Great Western. The latter boat had been built especially for
trips across the ocean and the former was taken from the Cork and London
line. The Sirius started from Liverpool on April 4, 1838, and the Great
Western four days later. They arrived in New York within 24 hours of
each other, the Sirius at 10 p.m. on April 22 and the Great Western at 3
o'clock the following afternoon. Neither of the vessels carried much
These boats gave more or less irregular service until withdrawn because
of their failure to pay expenses. In 1839 the Cunard Company was formed
and the paddle steamers Britannia, Arcadia, Columbia, and Caledonia were
put into service.
From that time on the steamer developed with great rapidity, the value
of which was never more demonstrated than at the present time. It will
always be remembered, however, that this Capt. Rogers with his crude
little Savannah was the man whose bold enterprise gave birth to the idea
of transatlantic travel under steam.
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(A syndicate Sunday magazine section of the _Harrisburg Patriot_)
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