We take many things for granted in our everyday life. One of them is travel. We have quite a few options, from cars, to buses, trains, planes, and, of course, ships. You can leave your house and be standing on Main Street, London – not that London has a Main Street – in less than ten hours, with no more complication than jet lag.
It will not shock our erstwhile readers to learn that travel, in our far past, was fraught with difficulties and unpleasant surprises. Ships were the preeminent form of travel, when possible, because the mildest criticism of coach travel would be “damned uncomfortable.” But just read Twain’s “The Innocents Abroad” to get an idea of what transatlantic voyages were like in the Nineteenth Century.
On that note, we shall here attempt to tell the tale of the SS Savannah. Why is the Savannah noteworthy? A few things, one of them being she was the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The Savannah was a hybrid sailing ship/sidewheel steamer, built in the US in 1818. She is not to be confused with the USS Savannah, a warship, nor the NA Savannah, which was the first nuclear powered merchant ship, built in the 1950s. The NA was named in honor of the SS and was one of only four nuclear powered civilian ships built. But we digress.
The Savannah was built at Corlear’s Hook – in Manhattan, across the East River from Williamsburg – by Fickett and Crockett, and quickly purchased by Captain Moses Rogers of Connecticut. His cousin Steven Rogers, who was neither a captain or Captain America, oversaw the final installation of the rigging and sails. Famed Georgian architect William Jay Scarborough invested in the ship with Rogers.
The vessel had paddlewheels which were constructed so they could be folded up like a fan when not in use. There were thirty-two bunk beds in its sixteen state rooms, separated into men’s and women’s quarters, and quite spacious, enough so that it was regarded as more of a pleasure cruise vessel than a steamboat. The interior boasted elegant carpets, curtains, and furnishings, which added to its overall style.
The SS Savannah had a rocky start. The public was not quite ready to embrace the crazy new technology of steam power, which in our modern vernacular would have been considered rather explodey. (Note: the previous word was not objected to by spell check) It was thought especially dangerous on such a lengthy voyage. Capt. Rogers had a difficult time finding a crew and was forced to resort to recruiting in his home town of New London, which seems to imply some sort of disdain for New Londoners.
After her seven day maiden voyage to Savannah and taking on supplies, she was met by President James Monroe, who took a day trip out the mouth of the Savannah River to the Tybee Lighthouse and dined on board. He invited the ship to come visit Washington after their return from Europe, in order to acquaint the US Congress with the steam-powered vessel of the future. The Savannah left for Liverpool, sans passengers, a few days later. She arrived twenty-nine days later to great acclaim!
The Savannah stayed in Liverpool so the crew could perform any needed maintenance and restock provisions. After sailing to Sweden and Russia – and entertaining royalty on board in both countries – it returned home to Savannah, having been gone for six months by the end of the voyage. They made no money to speak of, not having any freight, nor having passengers on the transatlantic portion and just a few curious passengers on the European segments. They were out to make business contacts and prove the technology, which they must have done, as Sweden offered to purchase the ship.
The ship burned coal or wood to create steam, which turned into a much more costly proposition than was first anticipated, but it often used sail power only. She was originally built as a sailing packet, meant to haul mail, people and freight, and it was never intended to use steam power alone, but was instead expected to use steam when winds were low and the ship was “becalmed.”
A few days after returning home, it headed to Washington DC, as invited, and it was then that the accidental nature of history struck, but it did not strike the Savannah itself. Instead, it struck Savannah.
The City of Savannah – if you want to consider the 7500 people of that era a city – suffered a major fire just then, because life is like a box of chocolates. The owners of the namesake ship suffered severe losses and they were forced to sell about six months later. The new owners turned the ship back into the sailing vessel it was originally designed to be and the steam engine was sold back to the iron works that had built it.
With hindsight, the engine and the fuel simply took too much volume aboard the ship to allow it to be profitable, so some time was needed for the technology to percolate into something smaller, lighter, stronger, and more reliable. It was another thirty years before anyone again tried the ten thousand mile round-trip Atlantic voyage under steam for commercial purposes.
Should you find yourself in Savannah and this story has piqued your interest, the Ship’s of the Sea Museum has a model of the SS Savannah on display.
As to the modified SS Savannah, it ended its short and challenged existence when it caught fire and sank off the eastern coast of Long Island, only two years after its return from Europe.
Yes, we have broken our (sort of) cardinal rule and this steamy tale has nothing directly to do with Good Ground. Yet we were able to find newspaper articles from that era and we are sure that someone in Good Ground would have had something to say about it. They certainly heard about it. So sue us.