Steam-fueled Skirmish

Ferryboat innovation and competition roiled the waters of 19th century New York Harbor

By Alexis Fitts

At the beginning of the 19th century, Manhattan was a shadow of its future self—pastoral, with scattered farms, roving bovine, and fewer than 100,000 people. This was before railroads, bridges and subways speeded the pace of American transit. The fastest way to travel was by boat.

New York, recognizable still as The New York of opportunity, was flooded with hundreds of enterprising independent boaters, happy to shuttle travelers by paddle or horse-powered ship across the Hudson or East River—for the right price. In this city on the verge of industrialization, an aristocrat named Robert B. Livingston saw a way to use a new law to make a killing.

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47da-5606-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.wThe federal government passed the first patent act in 1790 as a way of encouraging innovation. A slim law, the act granted a patent owner “sole and exclusive” rights to monetize a product without defining how long those rights could (or should) last. The nautically minded had been tinkering with steam-technology for close to a century, and certain innovations—including the fire-tube broiler—were quickly patented. Livingston, who had signed the Declaration of Independence, no doubt wielded political connections when he convinced the State of New York to issue him the sole rights to operate a steamboat in New York City ports—before he set out to find a boat.

In the 1790s steamboat entrepreneurs had already made several truncated attempts to launch service in New York City waters. The most notable of these men was John Fitch, whose doomed service made a few runs before a storm ruined his ship; his financiers panicked and pulled out. By the time Livingston set out to make his mark in steam, there was no apparent source of such a ship on the East Coast. To keep exclusivity, Livingston was supposed to have a steamship sailing by 1802. When he couldn’t, officials extended his deadline once; then again. But in 1803 a fortuitous trip to Paris put him into the orbit of Robert Fulton, a Lancaster-bred painter, born to modest means, with a knack for invention. (Fulton already had several patents to his name.) The pair tinkered with a steamboat prototype, testing their models on the Seine. Finally, on a summer morning in 1807, a crowd watched Fulton’s finished model, the Clermont, launch from the New York City harbor to begin the 60-hour round-trip ride to Albany.

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The Clermont, Robert Fulton’s first New York steam-propelled ferry, set out for Albany in 1807. (New York Public Library Digital Collections)

A few years later, the team operated six flat-bottomed steam-powered boats in the city’s water. The efficiency of the fleet was remarkable: A trans-Hudson trip took 20 minutes; today the trip takes eight. But convenience didn’t increase Fulton and Livingston’s popularity among the boating set. Legislation granted the pair the right to seize any city vessels violating their dominance by spouting steam in city waters. The duo took to policing with an amateur’s fervor, granting themselves the right to capture New Jersey steamships making stops in New York ports. The Jersey captains were rightfully miffed and staged retaliatory strikes to capture monopoly boaters ‘out-of-district’ in Jersey.

The seafaring dream team didn’t last much longer. Livingston died in 1813 and two years later Fulton succumbed to a heart episode—brought on by wet clothing and a long wait in Trenton to negotiate with a New Jersey official. By 1819 the steam monopoly fell into disarray when the rights-owner, Philip Hone, began hawking liquor and beer on the ships and increased sailing time (sometimes to more than five hours for a Manhattan-Hoboken run). The sloshed travelers would stumble right past the Hoboken pier’s public house, much to the dismay of Robert Livingston Stevens, who owned the pier (and the bar) and wanted the competition out. He filed an order with the state of New York, complaining of Hone’s incompetence. It worked: the state issued Hone a declaration of ejectment, and the rights were eventually transferred to Stevens.

Stevens’ company, the Hoboken Steamboat Ferry Co., went on to become one of the most powerful ferry companies in the area, but the monopoly didn’t last much longer. Stevens leased out the rights to run a small fleet between Elizabethport, New Jersey, and New York to Aaron Ogden, a revolutionary war hero. Ogden got into a fight with a longtime friend, Thomas Gibbons, who ran a steamboat within New Jersey waters from his summer home in Elizabethport. To cut down Ogden’s business, Gibbons started running his ship all the way into New York, parking at a different port each time to escape arrest. Ogden filed a complaint in the New York Court of Chancery to prevent Gibbons from operating out of jurisdiction. The court sided with Ogden, but Gibbons came back with an appeal and a legal dream-team. The case made it to the United States Supreme Court, where Chief Justice John Marshall reversed the lower court’s decision and cemented the commerce clause, giving Congress the sole right to regulate commerce across state lines, nullifying the New York ferry monopoly.

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