“the Beauty And Chivalry Of The United States Assembled …”


By that time Ericsson and Stockton were working in an atmosphere of strained toleration, barely communicating with one another. It was clear to the engineer that Stockton was out to grab as much credit as possible for himself; furthermore, though Stockton had received a project allowance from the Navy, he showed no signs of reimbursing Ericsson for his out-of-pocket expenditures. Ericsson was more interested in the recognition, of which he surely deserved the lion’s share, than in the money, but in any case, two mutually ambitious personalities were approaching a clash.

The keel of the Princeton was laid at Philadelphia early in 1842, but because of the technical novelty of virtually everything from hull to engines, work proceeded fairly slowly. By late summer of 1843, however, the ship was basically complete, and on September 5 the Princeton slid down the ways. In a launching ceremony organized with typical Stockton élan , she was christened with American whiskey. At the banquet that followed, he was the dashing host; Ericsson was there too, perhaps at his own insistence, but in the press of Philadelphia’s elite he went unnoticed.

The Princeton was actually not a large ship, for her dimensions were about equal to those of the wooden corvettes of the time: overall length, 164 feet; extreme deck length, 116 feet, 8 inches; beam, 30 1/2 feet. It was her completely iron hull that made the vessel seem so far advanced. Ericsson’s steam engine had high-pressure boilers and fireboxes that burned nearly smoke-free anthracite coal. Forced-draft blowers eliminated any need for a tall, ungainly smokestack to create a natural draft, although Ericsson had designed a new telescopic smokestack for her. Long but fairly flat, like all of Ericsson’s engines, the Princeton ’s power plant was equipped with condensers cooled by sea water. Thus it could recondense used steam and do away with the need for a continuous resupply of fresh water for the boiler. The blowers and recondensers were in fact more efficient than the builders had imagined, for although rated at 220 horsepower, the engine routinely produced upward of 260. Unlike the sidewheelers of the time, the Princeton had her engine attached directly to the propeller shaft, which in turn terminated in a propeller fourteen feet in diameter.

Considering that she was to be a warship, the most important of the Princeton ’s engineering advances was the engine’s shape and location. It was long and tubular, and so mounted that its top, near the stern, was ten feet below the water line. This made the ship extremely stable by keeping the greatest weight very low and directly above the keel; moreover, in any battle the sturdy metal hull would make the Princeton ’s power plant virtually invulnerable to shot and shell.

Externally the ship did not look like a steamer at all, and she had been equipped with three masts and a full suit of sails. To see her moving swiftly along, all sails furled, was an eerie experience in 1844, for she slid through the water as if by magic. Even at top speed no smoke was visible, thanks to her efficiently burning coal. To Stockton’s great delight, the newspapers began calling her a “phantom ship.”

By mid-October she was finished and ready for trials, and on the seventeenth Stockton took her out for her first ocean trip—a voyage to New York. Travelling most of the way under sail, but making his grand entrance into New York Harbor under steam, Stockton made the 225-mile run from Newcastle, Delaware, in just over twenty-one hours, even better time than he had expected.

Stockton had not come to New York just to try out his new toy but to stage a grandstand play, a race from Castle Garden to Sandy Hook against the famous transatlantic side-wheeler Great Western , due to sail for Europe on October 19.

With passengers lining the rails and mobs jamming Battery Park, the Great Western left her pier at two thirty in the afternoon, excess steam blowing from the safety valves as she churned into the harbor. Her captain, taking no chances, had ordered all her lower sails set as well. A quarter mile out the Princeton , which had been steaming back and forth all morning, came up behind the Great Western with bare masts and not a smudge of smoke, and the great race was on. The New York Courier and Enquirer later described the result: ”… to the astonishment and delight of all, the Princeton gained rapidly upon, overhauled, and passed the Great Western , without showing an inch of canvass, and then commenced setting sail, and, as near as we could judge, looking through a glass, literally walked away from her!”

By the time the newspapers had published every possible angle of the greatest seagoing race New York had ever seen, the Princeton was back in Philadelphia to take on armament. Her guns were perhaps the most unusual thing about her, for she mounted a battery providing firepower far out of proportion to her size.