Friday, March 11, 2016

Steamboats and the Hudson: The First Step in the Rise of the Empire State?

Author: Tatyana Lyubezhanina (Utica College Senior Occupational Therapy Major)

America’s place in international commerce emerged along New York’s Hudson River Valley during the early nineteenth century. The country did not have the required technology for domestic exportation at the time.  According to historian Richard Sylla: “The south exported tobacco, cotton, rice, indigo, and naval stores, mostly to Europe” while the “Mid-Atlantic region exported grain and livestock products to the Caribbean and Latin America.” [1] This meant that commerce was dependent on the international exchange of goods, and any change could have a drastic toll. Sylla notes: “France [in 1806] prohibited all neutral trade with Great Britain and in 1807 Great Britain banned trade between France, her allies, and the Americas.” [1] This interfered with the exportation of goods by preventing America from trading with the enemy of competing powers, which caused a crisis by extension. The country required a better way to exchange goods internationally. [1]

Americans began examining domestic commerce, and exploring how to make it into a more profitable system. Robert Fulton, “an entrepreneur, and agent of economic change,” viewed the steamboat as an opportunity for profitability. [1] Fulton wasn’t the first in America to create a steamboat, previous attempts were neither profitable nor successful. 

The Clermont on the Hudson, 1810 (NYPL Digital Collections)

According to Francis Dunwell in her study, The Hudson: America's River, “Through careful study, Fulton improved on earlier steamboat designs to make a practical commercial vessel… However, it was the choice of the Hudson River as a place to debut the steamboat that made his invention profitable.” [2] His decision to bring the steamboat to the Hudson was the best choice because of its location and length that allowed its wide accessibility.

Fulton formed a partnership with Robert Livingston, who was an important part of the steamboat and its huge success. In 1801, Livingston and Fulton met at a dinner party in France, and began discussing their common interests. One of these was the steamboat. They decided to partner up and work on this project together, which Livingston funded. As mentioned, the steamboat was a huge success and the two men soon formed a company worth a lot more than what they started out with. [2]

The success of the steamboat in America soon expanded, and many more emerged, including one that proved successful along the Mississippi. According to Dunwell regarding the Hudson, “In July 1808, 10 months after the steamboat began regular service from New York to Albany, his company earned a profit” nearing a thousand dollars weekly. Shortly after the success of the steamboat, “Manhattan became the nation’s leading port city” and after 1807, “the port began its meteoric rise, carrying the fortunes of the entire city with it.” [2] 
[1] Richard Sylla, “‘... The Patent in Contemplation Will Be the Most Lucrative That Ever Was Obtained’: Robert Fulton to [Robert R. Livingston] on the Profit Potential of Steamboat Navigation in the Early Nineteenth Century,” OAH Magazine of History 19, no. 3 (May 2005): 44-53.
[2] Frances F. Dunwell, The Hudson: America's River, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 50-51.
Image Credit: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. "[The Clermont making a landing at Cornwall on the Hudson 1810.]" New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed March 11, 2016.

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