The Main Stream Of New England


Four years after the Fulton’s debut a steamboat was launched at Hartford and functioned as a towboat along the river. There quickly followed regular steamboat service thrice weekly on the Enterprize of Captain James Pitkin, who advertised that passengers could be landed “at any place on the river at their pleasure.” The Oliver Ellsworth, in 1824, was the first of a long line of “floating palaces” that cruised the river in the next half century. Built by the Connecticut Steam Boat Company, she was 112 feet long, 24 feet in beam, had an eight-foot draft, and weighed nearly 230 tons. Her 44-horsepower engine enabled her to average eight knots. Sleeping 62 persons and carrying 400 passengers, at five dollars apiece, she made three trips a week between Hartford and New York, the approximately 140-mile voyage sometimes taking as little as eighteen hours. This same year, “amidst the salute of cannon and the shouts of thousands of gratified and grateful spectators,” the aged Marquis de Lafayette left Hartford aboard her during his last, triumphal visit to America.

Travel on the early side-wheelers, with their crude cross-head engines and undependable copper boilers, was at best a hazardous undertaking. Three years later, when in the sound about four miles from Saybrook light at seven thirty in the evening, the Oliver Ellsworth’s boiler exploded, and the steam injured several persons and killed a fireman. She managed to sail into Saybrook, whence an excited postrider galloped to Hartford, burst in upon the legislature sitting in the old statehouse, and shouted: “The Eliver Ollsworth … biled her buster!” Not long after, the New England blew up at Essex, killing or maiming fifteen out of seventy people aboard. Despite these disasters, the number of steamboats on the river increased sharply after 1840. River traffic, although the railroad whistle was already sounding its death knell, was then at its peak, and three competing steamboat lines served New York. In 1846 there were over 2,000 arrivals and departures of sail and steam vessels at Hartford’s twenty-odd wharves, even though the town’s population was barely 13,000.