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Pride Of The Seas
Nineteenth-century American courage and resourcefulness carried our merchant flag to the world's harbors and our nation to world prominence. The proud affection of a sea-conscious nation is reflected in our portfolio of ships by artists of three continents. Our essay, by C. Bradford Mitchell, former editor of Steamboat Bill and information director of the Merchant Marine Institute, charts the curious historic twists of public attitude and official policy that have alternately fostered and stunted our merchant navy.
December 1967 | Volume 19, Issue 1
These were the ingredients of the packet—or, as we would say, liner—service born that January 5: departure on schedule, “full or not full”; special attention to passengers and high-value “express” cargo; and unremitting drive for fast passages, with ships designed primarily for carrying payload and only secondarily for speed. The idea caught on, and its rapid adoption and refinement ushered in the palmiest half-century of American shipping. By 1822 there were four separate “lines” operating between New York and Liverpool, and additional lines from New York to Le Havre and from Boston and Philadelphia to Liverpool.
Within eight years, the American packet lines had virtually monopolized the first-class passenger and premium freight business of the North Atlantic. They were also making swift inroads into the European emigrant trade.
The ships grew larger, faster, and finer. The 6oo-ton mark was topped in 1826 by the Black Baller Britannia, the 800 in 1836 by the Swallowtail liner Pennsylvania, and the 1,000 in 1838 by the Dramatic liner Roscius. The latter, famous for fast passages, belonged to one of the giants of nineteenth-century shipping, Edward Knight Collins. This tonnage crescendo reached its peak in the 2,145-ton Ocean Monarch of 1856. Like her smaller, more famous contemporary, the Dreadnought, she was sometimes called a clipper packet, but the term is relative, not exact. Both were full-built ships, sharpened for speed as much as possible. From first to last, the packet was primarily a carrier; she was a speedster only to the best of her ability—and her master’s. In the true clipper, these values were reversed.
The North Atlantic packet services were a classic case of a “Yankee notion” that was followed up, expanded, and refined into a tremendously profitable enterprise and a national institution. Simultaneously with their advent, the share of U.S. trade carried in our own ships climbed back from its postwar slump almost to the ninety per cent level of the century’s opening years. They introduced, for the first time in the history of the sea, standards of regularity, reliability, and luxury that would be taken for granted after 1900.
Yet at the very start of this exultant half-century, America had already missed the boat—or rather, the steamship. It was a small and not very impressive vessel, true, and anything but a success commercially; but, though few people sensed the fact in 1819, the Savannah embodied an idea as brilliant as that of the men who launched the Black Ball, and more portentous. Moreover, it offered a once-only opportunity, in rejecting which this country lost both the credit and the benefits of exploiting steam power on the oceans—after having already outstripped the rest of the world in applying it to inland navigation.
The steamship as an idea had been advocated for at least thirty years. John Fitch, who ran a steamboat commercially on the Delaware River for several weeks in 1790, said ocean shipping would be the chief beneficiary of his invention. Robert Fulton, who voiced similar views, was working at the time of his death in 1815 on a steamboat for the czar of Russia. Whether she could have made the transatlantic crossing will never be known, for Fulton’s heirs completed her as the Long Island Sound steamer Connecticut.
Meanwhile, it had fallen to Colonel John Stevens of Hoboken, whom Fulton had barely nosed out in the race to produce the first commercially viable steamboat, to be the first to send steam to sea. New York waters being closed to his new Phoenix by Fulton’s monopoly, Stevens in 1809 sent her down the Jersey coast to the Delaware. Her master on this trip was a mariner from Connecticut named Moses Rogers.
Ten years later the same Captain Rogers dropped down the Savannah River bound for Europe in command of his own 320-ton ocean steamship, the Savannah. In the interval he had steadfastly preached steam on the high seas. At Savannah he finally found men willing to back him.
A New York-built full-rigged ship just over one hundred feet long in the hull, the Savannah was closely akin in design to the newly introduced Black Ball packets. Her uniqueness lay in her engine and boilers. Their 72 horsepower drove specially designed sidewheels, which could be dismantled and folded when not in use. A further innovation was her “bent smokestack,” fitted with a slanted and swivelled top section to aim smoke and sparks clear of the sails.
When she left Savannah on May 22, 1819, a date now observed as National Maritime Day, the Savannah carried neither passengers nor cargo. No one would risk either life or property in such a craft. Yet her machinery worked smoothly and safely during the approximately one hundred hours, spread over twelve different days, which were all the steaming her fuel supply would permit. She dropped anchor at Liverpool twenty-nine days and four hours later, having run from Tybee Light at the mouth of the Savannah River to Cape Clear on the Irish coast in twenty-three days and twenty-one hours.