To get a handle on the audacity of the designers and owners of the SS Savannah, the first ship equipped with steam power to cross the Atlantic Ocean, just thirteen years earlier in 1806 Robert Fulton had inaugurated passenger packet service on the Hudson River between New York City and Albany. Despite the enduring American myth, Fulton had not invented the steamboat—a French inventor had demonstrated one briefly on the Seine as early as 1783 and by 1785 American John Fitch of Philadelphia and William Symington of Dumfries, Scotland had built successful prototypes. But Fulton—a student of Fitch—was the first to build a successful commercial vessel.
In the intervening years steamboats had become relatively common on American rivers and some were plying the coastal trade. But the possibility of crossing the ocean in the still crude vessels seemed remote into the foreseeable future. Then in 1818 Captain Moses Rogers, a respected seaman, spied a trim ship under construction at Fricket & Crockett Shipyards in New York. The 98 foot long, 25 foot a-beam merchant packet under construction seemed perfect for his vision. Roberts contacted the wealthy owners, Scarborough & Isaacs of Savannah, Georgia to purchase the ship and have her outfitted with a steam engine for the express purpose of becoming the first such ship to complete an Atlantic crossing.Captain Moses Rogers was the visionary seaman who conceived of a steam-assisted Atlantic crossing, shepherded the construction and fitting of the Savannah, and commanded the ship.
The ship was to be equipped with a steam engine in addition to carrying a standard sail rigging. Moses Rogers personally oversaw the construction and instillation of the steam engine, boiler, and twin side wheels while his brother-in-law Captain Steven Roberts oversaw completion of the hull and the rigging.
The engine was a single cylinder 90 horsepower inclined direct acting low pressure type. The 40 inch diameter piston with a 5 foot stroke was cast by Allair Iron Works of New York and the rest of components and running gears were cast by Speedwell Iron Works in New Jersey. It was one of the largest steam engines yet built in America and Rogers had a hard time obtaining a boiler large enough to support it. Finally, he settled on a copper boiler by Daniel Dod.
The ship’s pair of ten bucket cast iron side wheels were unique and innovative. To save weight and to make it possible to make way under sail without the drag of the wheels, they were built with buckets connected by chains rather than the customary iron rods. That allowed the wheels to be folded. Their canvas splash guards were easily removable, and each wheel was hinged so that it could be folded up onto the deck. They could be deployed in the water in about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile Steven Roberts had to make minor adjustments to the customary rigging. He kept the usual three masts set to carry square sails, but had to set the mainmast further aft than usual to accommodate the engine, boiler, and funnel. He also eliminated the royal masts and sails which customarily extended above the top gallant sails in ships of this size. So, the new ship would carry less canvas than usual. It was hoped that in calm weather the steam engine working in concert with the sails, would make up the difference.The Savannah at sea under sail and steam.
The ship had to carry 75 tons of coal and 25 cords of wood which took up most of the usual cargo capacity. That was far less than would be needed to cross the ocean under steam. But the ship was expected to run with sails only in rough or gale conditions, which on any Atlantic crossing even in the best summer months was most of the time.
New Yorkers took great interest in the construction of the unusual ship, which was completed and launched in August of 1818, too late in the season to make a transatlantic run. Dubbed the SS Savannah in honor of her owner’s hometown, she made her maiden shakedown cruises in the waters of Long Island Sound in March of the next year.
Unable to carry much in the way of cargo, the ship was fitted out as a luxury passenger packet with 32 births in 16 state rooms including entirely separate quarters for women. Whether those were intended for unaccompanied women or all female passengers including spouses is unclear. There were also three lushly appointed salons for dining and passing leisure time in card playing, reading, and other amusements.
However, when the time came for sea trials and the run to Savannah to deliver the ship Rogers could not find enough crew members in New York willing to sign on to the supposed floating coffin—so called because of well-founded fears of boiler explosions and fears that the exceptional weight of the engine might swamp her. Moses Rogers had to go back to his home port of New London, Connecticut where his reputation as a top ship’s master was secure to get enough crew to make the maiden voyage.
On March 28 after completing brief sea trials, S.S. Savannah set sail for her namesake city by sail. She left running ahead of the wind. She did not deploy her steam engines until the next day, but the paddlewheels were only in the water for half an hour before high seas caused Captain Rogers to order them retracted. On the week-long voyage south her engines ran for just over 41 hours. She pulled into port at 4 am April 6 and was greeted with a large demonstrative crowd despite the early hour.
The ship remained in port while the owners desperately tried to secure passengers and freight for the planned run to England. When President James Monroe arrived on a Southern tour of coastal fortifications, he was invited on a day voyage. He sailed in company of a small retinue and the owners of Tybee Light House where the ship moored, and the party was served an elegant dinner. Monroe was interested in the ship and the prestige of the proposed Atlantic run. He was especially interested in the engine, considered a marvel of the age. He encouraged the owners to bring her to Washington after returning from Europe with an eye toward convincing an always tight fisted Congress to buy her for operations as a cruiser against pirates sailing from Cuban ports.
Preparations for the voyage were now under way. She loaded up on fuel, water, and supplies. Captain Moses Rogers and Sailing Master Steven Rogers drilled the crew. There was a slight delay when a squall blew up on May 15 and dashed the ship against the dock doing minor, but quickly repaired, damage to one of the two paddle wheels.
Despite the delay, and the endorsement of the President, no one was found who was willing to risk his life or property on the voyage. Savannah sailed on the morning of May 22, 1819 on a profitless demonstration run under both sail and steam. Her paddles were folded later that day. On May 29 smoke from her funnel was spotted by the schooner Contract who gave chase for most of a day fearing she was a ship on fire. Only when the captain realized he could not overtake her did he realize that he must be chasing a steam ship. On June 2 she was seen making a good 9 or 10 knots by the Pluto whose crew gave her three cheers.
The next contact came as she had crossed most of the ocean. The revenue cutter HMS Kite spotted her smoke off the coast of Ireland and also gave chase fearing the worse on June 19. Unable to overtake her, the captain fired three warning rounds causing Captain Rogers to bring the Savannah around. He allowed the English to board and inspect the ship, which duly impressed them, before he could proceed.
Shortly after that encounter the ship was embarrassingly becalmed off Cork—she had expended all of her fuel. More was obtained from shore and the ship proceeded after a brief delay. On June 20 she finally entered Liverpool harbor where hundreds of small boats swarmed to greet her. Not amused was the captain of a Royal Navy Sloop of War which intercepted Savannah and demanded that she haul down her colors which he said were “threatening.” Evidently he had not gotten over certain Royal Navy humiliations during the recent War of 1812. When Captain Rogers could be heard to issue the order to “haul out the [non-existent] water engine and prepare to resist boarding,” the sloop stood down.
The ship made anchor at 6 pm after a 29 day 11 hour voyage, during which she had employed her engine for a total of 80 hours. It was a decent, but far from record, run in those days before clipper ships began peeling days from crossings.
Savannah was docked at Liverpool for twenty five days while the crew scraped and repainted the hull and performed maintenance on the engine and boiler. The curious public swarmed the ship. But officials were wary. Some suspected that she and her crew were on some sort of covert mission either from the American government or in the pay of Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Jerome who had emigrated to the U.S. and was offering a large reward for rescuing the former Emperor from exile.
Captain Rogers graciously invited senior officers of the Navy, Army, and Government as well as top British industrialists and engineers to inspect the ship. They were impressed that the Americans, who they assumed were decades behind them in industrial capacity, were able to float a ship with such an engine at all. But they were also relieved that it was not any more advanced than what they believed Britain was capable of. Certainly, the visit spurred construction of stem ships for both Naval and commercial use.
After laying in plenty of coal, the ship disembarked Liverpool for a new adventure on June 21—a run to Scandinavia and Russia. She reached Elsinore, Denmark on August 9 and after five days of quarantine, was off to Stockholm, Sweden where she was the first steam ship to enter the Baltic Sea. During her stay in the Swedish capital, she was received by royalty and sponsored an excursion trip for officials and the diplomatic corps. Impressed, the government offered to buy the ship, but Ross declined. Before sailing, however, King Charles XVI John presented the captain with a gift of a stone and muller, a hand-operated tool used for mixing and grinding paint. This was evidently a more impressive gift back then than it seems today.The Savannah's only passenger Lord Lyedoch Sir Thomas Graham, a hero of the Napoleonic Wars.
In Stockholm Savannah picked up her first passenger— Lord Lynedoch Thomas Graham, a hero of the Napoleonic Wars. She departed Sweden September 5 and arrived at Kronstadt on the 9th where Tsar Alexander II himself visited the ship. After an inspection, he presented Captain Rogers with a fine gold watch and two iron chairs.
The ship continued to the capital of St. Petersburg. The ships steam engines had their most consistent use on the voyage from Liverpool to St. Petersburg—in use for 241 hours in total.
While in port the American Ambassador arranged visits by the Royal family, government official and high ranking officers. Once again excursions were run under steam power. The Russian government also offered to buy the ship but was again turned down. The refusal by Rogers to part with his beloved ship would later be deeply regretted by her actual owners. Before she departed, Lord Lynedoch presented Moses Rogers with a silver coffee urn and Steven Rogers a gold snuff box. It is unclear, however, if he actually paid a fare to the owners of the ship.
With a full load of coal and wood, Savannah departed St. Petersburg to begin the long voyage home on September 29. She experienced several days of rough weather at Kronstadt during which she lost an anchor and a hauser. After repairs and the return of calm weather she left that port under steam on October 10 once again bound for Stockholm. There she picked up a pilot to guide her to Arendal on the Norwegian coast where she anchored and took on a full load of fuel and water.
She departed Arendal for the long run home. It was late in the season and Savannah experienced such high seas and storms that she was not able to employ her engines on the crossing. When she arrived in home waters, however, she was able to enter Savannah harbor under steam after a 40 day crossing on November 30, just over six months since she had departed.
She received a warm welcome at home, but she quickly painted and repaired so that she could make the promised visit to Washington. Her visit once again was a public sensation and official swarmed her decks. But President Monroe never mentioned a possible purchase again and made no appropriation request to Congress. Rogers was disappointed but there was worse news to come.
On January 16, 1820 a great fire swept the business district of Savannah, all but wiping out the ship’s owners Scarborough & Isaacs. With no profit earned from the great voyage, they were forced to sell the ship. First the engine was removed and salvaged. It was sold back to Allair Iron Works for $1,500. The firm preserved it and later displayed at the New York Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1856. Other metal parts were melted down.
The new owners of the ship put her in service as a coastal packet operating between New York and Savannah. But she was not in service long. On November 5, 1851 she ran aground off Long Island and broke up in heavy seas. An ignominious end for a great ship.The Centennial plaque honoring the Savannah and its historic voyage.
Historians refuse to give Savannah credit as the first ship to cross the Atlantic under steam. At best she gets an asterisk—first ship equipped with a steam engine to cross. It was not until 1827 that the Dutch owned and English built Curaçao powered by twin 50 hp engines made a crossing from Hellevoetsluis, near Rotterdam on April, 26, 1827 to Paramaribo, Surinam on May 24 having spent 11 days under steam. In 1832 the Canadian ship SS Royal William, then the largest passenger ship in the world, made a crossing from Pictou, Nova Scotia to Gravesend on the River Thames in a 25-day passage under steam the whole way except when the boilers were in maintenance.
The British side-wheel paddle steamer SS Great Western became the first steam ship to engage in regular trans-Atlantic service in 1838. It was not until 1847 that the American built and owned ship SS Washington completed a crossing.
The noble Savannah was just a little too early.