Fulton’s Folly Changed Transportation and Interstate Commerce Forever

Few people, other than those who knew Robert Fulton and his wealthy backer and father-in-law, Robert Livingston, watched as black smoke billowed from the Clarmont’s single stack. Most who knew about his ship scoffed at the idea that steam could propel a vessel through the water. Lines were cast off, and slowly, the paddle wheels of the first practical steam-powered ship began to turn.

Clarmont, dubbed by some as Fulton’s Folly, was a small ship, even by the standards of the early 19th Century. It was only 142 feet long, with a beam of 18 feet, and displaced 121 tons. Clarmont was about the size of a small sailing frigate. The big difference was that it only had two small masts for sails since its four-foot wide and 15-foot diameter paddle wheels powered by a 19-horsepower steam engine built by the English firm of Boulton & Watt pushed the boat through the water.

The ship’s other name was the North River Steamboat, and it was designed to carry passengers and cargo up the Hudson River to Albany, non-stop. It had three cabins and berths for 52 other passengers and facilities to cook food and serve its passengers. Clarmont averaged five miles an hour and made its first journey to Albany in 32 hours, not including a stop at Clarmont Manor, the Livingston family estate about halfway to Albany for 20 hours.

Fulton’s ship started a revolution in transportation. Clarmont could travel up and down a river without depending on the wind. If there was enough water under the keel, Clarmont and the ships that followed could traverse any bay, river, or ocean. The limiting factor would be the amount of coal the ship carried. As steam-powered vessels, particularly with screw propellers, proliferated later in the 19th Century, they would reduce the transit times from North America to Europe from months to one or two weeks.

Freeing ships from the tyranny of wind direction was not the only impact Clarmont had. In 1798, long before Clarmont was built, Robert Livingston had acquired 20-year license exclusive rights to carry passengers and cargo up and down the Hudson River in boats powered by fire or steam. The venture was successful, and two more ships – Car of Neptune and Paragon – were built to travel the Hudson.

Based on the success of his Hudson River service, in 1811, Livingston tried to use his political clout to get exclusive rights to carry passengers and cargo via steamship up and down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. These efforts didn’t go unnoticed by other businessmen, and their monopoly on the Hudson River was challenged in court.

Livingston died in 1811, and his heirs granted an exclusive franchise to Aaron Ogden to start a ferry service to carry passengers from New Jersey to Manhattan. This contract was contested by Cornelius Vanderbilt and Thomas Gibbons, who had started a competing venture.

In Gibbons vs. Ogden, the U.S. Supreme Court found that New York’s and the Louisiana Territory’s grant of exclusive licenses to Livingston and his businesses were a violation of Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 (a.k.a. the Commerce Clause) of the U.S. Constitution that gives the Federal Government, not states of territories, the power to regulate interstate commerce. This March 2nd, 1824 ruling opened the door for others to apply to the Federal Government for licenses to operate ships engaged in interstate commerce.

When Fulton died in 1814, his firm had built 17 steam-powered vessels. Many served for years until they were replaced by more efficient, bigger, faster ships. In 1909, a replica of Clarmont was built and operated in New York Day’s line until she was sold for scrap and broken up in 1937.

Image is of the 1909 replica of Clarmont, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.