After failing to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776 Robert Livingston remained active in New York politics and became the Chancellor of the state, making him the highest ranking member of the state’s judiciary. In that role he was the first American to administer the oath of office to the President of the United States. He later went to Europe during the Jefferson administration, as Minister to France. It was Livingston who negotiated the Louisiana Purchase. While there he met Robert Fulton, who had built a model steamboat and tested it on the Seine. Livingston already owned the rights to the use of steam power on the Hudson River, then known as the North River.
Livingston contracted with Robert Fulton to build a larger version of his working model and begin operating it on the Hudson. Fulton returned to New York with his plans for the larger vessel, which became known as the Clermont but was never christened with that name. It became the Clermont in the public’s mind because of its association with Livingston’s family estate on the river, Clermont Manor. Fulton’s vessel was built in New York City by the Charles Browne Shipyard and when the hull was complete it was fitted with the engine built to Fulton’s design by Boulton and Watt in England.
The completed vessel was first tested in the Hudson River on August 17, 1807. The vessel reached Albany in 32 hours, which included a stop of more than 20 hours at the Livingston estate. The actual travel time between New York and Albany was 12 hours. Less than a month later, on September 4, paid passenger service began between New York and Albany. The vessel, identified in the schedules and advertisements as just the Steamboat, departed New York on Saturdays and returned on Wednesdays. Several stops were made on both passages, including at West Point and Poughkeepsie.
During the winter of 1807-08 the vessel was entirely rebuilt, altering its dimensions by widening its beam (the width of the vessel at its widest point) in an attempt to gain stability and additional space for passengers and cargo. The ship was so successful that the Livingston/Fulton team were soon commissioning additional vessels and with more vessels the number of scheduled runs increased. They had three vessels in service by 1812, referring to the first vessel as the North Steamer in their advertising and on their schedules.
Livingston died in 1813 and Fulton in 1815. With Fulton’s death the partnership, which had continued with Livingston’s heirs, was dissolved and the first profitable transportation line powered by steam in North America became a target for others. In 1824 the monopoly on steam transport in New York waters which had been held by Livingston and his heirs was overturned by the Supreme Court. By 1840 there were over one hundred steamboats plowing up and down the Hudson River, and connecting New York by ferry to Brooklyn, Staten Island, and New Jersey.
Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:
“200 Years Ago, Erie Canal Got Its Start as Just a Ditch”, by Sam Roberts, The New York Times, June 26, 2017