Author of "History of Steam Navigation in New England," "Suppression of Piracy in the West Indies," "A Forgotten Chapter in Our Naval History," "Blockade Running During the Civil War and the Effect of Land and Water Transportation on the Confederacy," "The Kearsarge - Alabama Battle," "History of the Boston and Maine Railroad," etc.
Which was the first vessel to cross the Atlantic Ocean propelled by steam? It would seem to be an easy question to settle, but the record has, nevertheless, given rise to endless controversy.
To Americans in general the "Savannah" (1819) is usually considered to have been the pioneer trans-Atlantic steamer, and in a measure this is true. The Canadians claim the honor for the steamship "Royal William" (1833), first of the name, basing it upon the fact that she worked her engine uninterruptedly all the way across the Western Ocean, while the "Savannah" used her machinery at intervals only. The records of both these vessels will be given further on.
It seems somewhat singular that the steamer "Curaçao," of the Royal Netherlands Navy, which, it will be seen crossed the Atlantic several times in 1827-28-29, has, outside of her own country, received practically no recognition from the various authors of works on steam navigation. Some writers have even gone so far as to express the opinion that the "Curaçao" was a myth!
Flachat, in his "Navigation a Vapeur," published in Paris in 1866, an elaborate work in the three volumes, makes no mention whatever of the "Curaçao." In his "History of Steam Navigation," published by Hamersley, Philadelphia, 1883, Rear Admiral George Henry Preble, U. S. N., makes a few vague and generally incorrect statements regarding her (p. 130): "A company of merchants of Rotterdam and Amsterdam united for the hazardous experiment of running steamships between the Netherlands and the West Indies. Accordingly, they had a steamer built on the Clyde, which they named the 'Curacoa,' of 350 tons and 100 horse-power, and dispatched her, in the summer of 1829, from Amsterdam to the Dutch West Indies. Another account says she started from Antwerp on her first trip, August 12, 1828. The voyage to Curaçao and from Antwerp was repeated several times with great commercial success; nevertheless, the enterprise soon came to an end."
Scribners, in 1891, brought out a volume by various authors entitled, "Ocean Steamships," which made no reference to the little Dutch craft. Neither does Henry Fry in his "History of North Atlantic Steam Navigation," London, 1896. Mr. Fry, a Canadian, naturally lays down the law in favor of the "Royal William," and dismisses the claim of the "Savannah" in a few contemptuous sentences. Another Canadian book, "History of Steam Navigation," by James Croil, Toronto, 1898, also fails to notice our subject matter. Next we come to the "Atlantic Ferry," by Arthur J. Maginnis, London (3rd edition), 1900, which contains a bare notice of the "Curaçao" (for which the present author is responsible) copied from Admiral Preble's work. Kennedy's "History of Steam Navigation," Liverpool, 1903, and Chatterton's "Steamships and Their Story," London, 1910, also do not mention the neglected "Curaçao."
The author's particular attention was drawn to this steamer through securing a rare aqua-tint of her. He then set about making inquiries, and, through the courtesy of the Directors of the Netherlands-American Steam Navigation Co., was put in communication with Dr. M. G. de Boer, of Amsterdam, the well known authority on Dutch shipping, who most kindly furnished full particulars concerning the history of the famous "Curaçao." Captain Frank C. Bowen, R. M., of London, the noted marine historian, has also furnished valuable information, through Hon. J. W. Van Nouhuys, curator of the Prins Hendrik Marine Museum of Rotterdam.*
The "Curaçao" was originally called "Calpe," and was constructed of wood by J. H. and J. Dake, at Dover, England. They sold her to the Dutch Government in November, 1826. She measured 438 tons register, 134 feet long; her machinery consisted of "two engines of 50 horse-power (nominal) each." Probably they were side-lever engines, as nearly all the sea-going steamers of that day were so fitted.
On her first voyage the "Curaçao" carried two guns, but during the Belgian revolution of 1830 her armament was increased.† She started on her maiden trip across the Atlantic from Hellevoetsluis, near Rotterdam, on the 26th of April, 1827; arrived at Paramaribo (Dutch West Indies) on the 24th of May, and sailed from there to Curaçao. The return trip was begun on July 6th, arriving in Rotterdam on August 4th. In 1828 the "Curaçao" made a second, and in 1829 a third voyage. She was used as a man-of-war until 1848, when she was sold for 9,500 florins and replaced by a second ship of that name.
It may be stated that the engines of this truly historic ship were only stopped in case of accidents; on the second trip the machinery worked incessantly from the 1st until the 14th of March. Although a warship, the "Curaçao" conveyed private passengers, the mails and valuable freight.
Turning now to the American steamer "Savannah," which crossed the Atlantic in 1819, we find her record to be as follows. She was built at Corlear's Hook, New York City, in 1818, by Crocker and Fickett. The New York custom house records give her measurements as follows: Tonnage, 319; length, 98½ feet; beam, 26 feet; depth of hold, 14½ feet. The "Savannah" was equipped with an inclined, direct-acting, low-pressure engine of 90 horse-power. It had a single cylinder 40 inches in diameter, 5 feet stroke; the machinery was built by Stephen Vail at Morristown, N. J., and the boiler by Daniel Dod at Elizabeth, N. J.
Originally intended for a New York and Havre sailing packet, the "Savannah" was purchased before completion by Scarborough and Isaacs, merchants of Savannah. She was launched August 22, 1818. It was said that she could carry but 75 tons of coal and 25 cords of wood for fuel, but why the capacity of a vessel of over 300 tons (the "Savannah" had no cargo on her transatlantic voyage) should be so limited, is not clear. Captain Moses Rogers, of New London, Conn., was master and engineer, and Stevens Rogers, his brother-in-law, also of New London, was mate. The former had had much experience with early steamboats and had commanded the "Phoenix," belonging to Colonel John Stevens of New York, when she was sent from the latter port to Philadelphia in 1809.
According to a contemporaneous account of the "Savannah," by A. Thomas, one of her firemen, published by Hunt's Merchants Magazine in 1850, she was bought by a company of gentlemen, of whom Captain Rogers was the moving spirit, with a view of selling her to the Emperor of Russia.
On May 22, 1819, this memorable vessel sailed from the city of Savannah, Georgia, bound for St. Petersburg via Liverpool. She reached the latter port on June 20, having used steam 80 hours out of 29 days, and thus fully demonstrated the feasibility of transatlantic steam navigation.
The original log book of the "Savannah," containing the daily record of her famous voyage, is in possession of the United States National Museum at Washington City.
On one page of the log occurs the statement: "We took the wheels in on deck in 30 minutes." This statement refers to the fact that the steamer was so constructed that in case of boisterous weather her paddle-wheels could be brought in on deck.
The "Savannah" was fitted with accommodations for passengers, but, although the Savannah Georgian advertised her departure some days ahead, no venturesome travelers presented themselves. Crossing the Western Ocean by steam was then too much in the nature of an experiment.
On May 22, 1819, according to the log, Captain Rogers "got steam and at 9 A. M. started" on the transatlantic voyage. Nothing of much interest is detailed in the daily entries, which are, on the whole, rather monotonous. On June 2d they "stopped the wheels to clean the clinkers out of the furnace, a heavy head sea; at 6 P. M. started wheels again; at 2 A. M. took in the wheels." Eighteen days later (June 20) already mentioned, steam was not used at all on her return trip. In appearance she was exactly like the sailing vessels of her day, except that her mainmast was stepped further aft than usual, so that the boiler, engine, bunkers, etc. (that were in the lower hold) could be forward of the mainmast and yet amidships.
There are no contemporaneous pictures extant of the "Savannah." A somewhat crude lithograph published by Rosenthal at Philadelphia about 1855 is the basis of all pictures of this historic vessel. It is to some degree faulty, but the best that can be had. Some authorities, notably J. Elfreth Watkins (one of the curators of the Smithsonian Institution at Washington City, and who published a pamphlet, "The Log of the 'Savannah'"), the late S. W. Stanton, and the late John H. Morrison, maintained that her paddle-wheels were not open, as shown in her pictures, but had canvas boxes. The question is doubtful.
As mentioned before, the Canadians say that the steamer "Royal William," first of the name, built in Quebec in 1831, was the first trans-Atlantic liner. This vessel was intended to depend wholly upon her machinery, and measured 830 tons, 176 feet long, 271½ feet beam, and had side-lever engines of 200 nominal horsepower, built by Boulton and Watt of London and put in by Bennett and Henderson of Montreal. The "Royal William's" hull was constructed of wood by George Black and John Saxton Campbell at Cap Blanc, Quebec, for a Quebec company, to run between that place, Prince Edward Island and Halifax, N. S. It is interesting to know that the late Sir Samuel Cunard, founder of the famous Cunard line, was much interested in this vessel, both financially and otherwise, and it is believed she stimulated him to start his line of trans-Atlantic steamships.
The "Royal William" plied upon her route regularly until 1833, when, owing to indifferent financial results, it was determined to sell her. She was first sent to Boston during that summer (1883) and was the first British steamer to arrive there. As no purchaser appeared in New England, the "Royal William" returned to Quebec, and finally left there for London, August 4, 1833, under the command of Captain Mc-Dougall, steaming all the way, but calling at Pictou, N. S. and Cowes, England, for coal. She arrived at Gravesend, near London, on September 11, and was soon after sold to the Spanish Government for a man-of-war. She must not be confused with another "Royal William" in transatlantic service in 1838-39.
No one seeks to detract from the voyages of the "Savannah" and "Royal William," but from the facts shown herein, neither of them deserve to be called the first transatlantic steamer, — the "Savannah" because she depended so little upon her machinery, and the "Royal William" because four years prior to her Western Ocean trip the "Curaçao," of the Royal Netherlands Navy had accomplished, not one sporadic attempt, but three long, regular voyages, propelled entirely by her engines, or as much so as were any of the early ocean steamers.
NOTES (by Bradlee):
* In the "Marineblad" (the official organ of the Royal Netherlands Navy) for February, 1923, is an extended article on the "Curaçao" by Mr. Van Nouhuys. (back)
† The Congress of Vienna, in 1814, united Holland and Belgium as the kingdom of the Low Countries, under the rule of the House of Orange. This was distasteful to the Belgians, who revolted in 1830, and achieved their independence. (back)
Note (by HV) Tons/BRT. The size of a ship is expressed as her tonnage. For all practical purposes, aton(ne)equals 1000 kilograms or 1 m3. But there's also the Bruto Register Ton, the gross or deadweight tonnage - in use for merchant ships - and the displacement tonnage - for warships. Another so-calledstandardis, 1 'ton' = 100 cubic feet or 2837 liter, which in water weight means 2.8 metric tons
Best advice is not to worry about it too much, as it's a moot point which standard has been used in the first place:At present  there are in Britain four methods of estimating tonnage, which arrive at widely different results; and there are about a dozen more elsewhere. They can't all be right.James Henderson CBE - The Frigates - (back)
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