Fulton Paddle Boat

Fulton Paddle Boat

If the young Robert Fulton had not experimented with an easier way to propel a rowboat through water besides rowing, he may not have been credited with the invention of the first steamboat.

Robert Fulton grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in the last half of the eighteenth century. When he was fourteen years old, he worked on a paddle wheel that could be attached to a row boat. The twin paddle wheels were made of wood and attached to either end of an iron pole. The pole was bent in the middle and passed through either side of the rowboat. The paddle wheels were turned by way of a crank. Fulton steered the rowboat by attaching a rudder in the shape of a paddle to the stern. This was his earliest design of what would come to be known as a Fulton paddle boat.

While residing in France in the early 1800’s, he turned his attention to steam-propelled boats. His first steamboat proved to be unseaworthy because of its weight. It sunk to the bottom of the Seine River in 1803. A second model was more successful. Fulton returned to the United States in 1806 and worked on a paddle boat which could be powered with a Watt steam engine.

Fulton’s first steam boat built in the United States was the North River Steam Boat, better known as the Clermont. In August 1807, Fulton took his steam boat on its maiden voyage, a 150 mile trip from New York City to Albany on the Hudson River. The Clermont traveled at about five miles per hour. After this voyage, the Clermont was redesigned and provided transportation to passengers and freight. The Fulton paddle boat was not the first steam-powered vessel but Fulton’s genius made it the first successful commercial steamboat in the United States. Eight years after this event, Fulton died, but not before he and his partner Robert Livingston built the New Orleans, a Fulton paddle boat which served the lower Mississippi River communities of New Orleans, Louisiana, and Natchez, Mississippi.

In the years between Fulton’s successful trip on the Clermont and the beginning of the Civil War, an increasing number of paddle boats appeared on the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers. Also known by the names of riverboat, showboat, or stern wheeler, these steam-powered vessels pushed barges up and down the rivers and delivered Army supplies and military mail. When the Civil War began, banks depended upon the paddle boats to move their gold to secret places before advancing troops could confiscate it.

All paddle boats had Watt steam engines in their engine rooms and an engine exhaust system. Twin smokestacks adorned both port and starboard sides. A pilot house rested on the top deck and large paddle wheels completed the look. Paddle boats were made of canvas, wood, tin, twine, and shingles. Shipbuilders ornamented the vessels with fancy carved scrollwork. Mark Twain mentions riverboats in some of his writings.

When the transcontinental railroad was completed and rail shipping became more cost effective, the Fulton paddle boat faded from use.