The Savannah steams into history
Growing up in Savannah was a rich and dreamy experience; a time of youthful fantasy.
It was an interlude when present moments were, for the most part, happy and pleasant. Those were the years of World War II. Even so, the future always seemed alive with hope.
I remember my first view of the Savannah River. We didn’t own an automobile, so I rode a city bus with my father from 40th Street to Broughton, which was the main street uptown.
We walked across Bay Street, down the sloping and curving stone-layered alleyway to the river. We didn’t stay long, but long enough for me to gaze ardently at the ships in the water.
In my imagination I was on a long journey to far off places with strange sounding names. Ships were being loaded and unloaded. Sailors, dock workers, all that, and hearing an occasional blast of a tugboat added to the interest and enjoyment of the rare occasion. It was breathtaking. Imagine my secret joy when, a few days later, a teacher at school read a poem. Her compelling voice spoke of a longing to return to the ocean: “A tall ship, the kick of a wheel, the call of the running tide.” How absorbing were those words, penned by John Masefield.
These memories have a way of coming back again and again. They blend with more timeless treasures of the past.
I now speak of one which gleams like a diamond on black velvet. This very place where my eyes had seen things that filled my mind with imagined adventure was the location where a world headline event occurred.
On May 24, 1819, the 320ton paddle-wheeler ship, the “Savannah,” sailed out of the Savannah harbor to be the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The steamer was under the command of Capt. Moses Rogers and his brother, Steven, was the ship’s 1st officer. A full-rigged, wooden sailing vessel, designed by Daniel Dodd of New Jersey, and built at Corlear’s Hook, New York, she made a trial trip from New York City to Savannah on March 28, 1819, assisted by a steam engine.
Crossing the Atlantic was a spectacular event. Although the steamer had 32 staterooms, they were all empty and there were no passengers aboard.
Citizens were discouraged from any attempts to make the historic voyage due to the extremely hazardous nature of the mission.
Hearts shuddered. Lips became pale at the thought of being on board such an experimental vessel. There was the ever-present danger of a boiler explosion: a common occurrence during this era of steamship development.
Rogers, fearing such an eventuality, guarded himself and his gallant crew by using steam propulsion only 25 per cent of the voyage. After 27 days, the steamer reached Liverpool, England.
The world applauded the spectacular event, but with it there was a note of sadness since the ship was offered for sale. No bidders came forward with an offer for the vessel that had made history and spawned a tidal wave of excitement over steamship navigation. Things hadn’t changed much in England; progress seemed as slow as ever. The now famous Savannah steamer made its way to Russia and was greeted by an enthusiastic throng.
Emperor of Russia, Alexander I, was so favorably impressed with the advent of such a ship that he presented Capt. Rogers with an iron bench as a token of congratulations. The bench was brought back to Savannah and displayed in the Owen Thomas house.
Fame seems always to be elusive. So the glory of Savannah’s steamer faded for a long time. Then vessel that had dazzled the world by being the first to cross the Atlantic under the power of steam returned to astonished destiny.
Not large enough to carry massive cargo, her packed engines and sidewheels were removed, and she was skillfully restored to service as a sailing vessel; that was the year when the first oceangoing steamer was put into use. Robert Fulton’s name will always be associated with the success of those innovations.
His early efforts started in 1807, when he imported a Bouton and Watt engine and installed it in a steamboat named “Clermont.”
With the backing of Chancellor Robert Livingston of New York, Fulton started the first successful commercial development and use of the steamboat.
Navigation for these steamers began first between New York City and Albany, but travel was rather slow — about 5 mph.
By 1819, the year the Savannah made history, Fulton had a large engine-building enterprise and pushed his engineers, James Allaire and Henry Eckford, to produce a vessel capable of ocean voyage.
Successful in his endeavor, the steamship “Robert Fulton” was popularized by its scheduled voyages between New York City, Charleston, Havana and New Orleans.
Of special interest to Georgians, however, is the fact that William Longstreet sailed his make-shift steamer on the Savannah River many years before Fulton invented one.
As for the Savannah, there was a sad ending. During a gale on November 4, 1821, near Fire Island, she ran aground within sight of New York Harbor. Her career was tragically ended.
No newspapers reported the disaster. One member of the crew fell off the gangplank and drowned.
But the Georgia steamer was not forgotten.
National Maritime Day in the United States is observed every May 22, in commemoration of the historic day when the Savannah began its voyage across the Atlantic.
I ran across a story of Amy Chambliss on Georgia historic stamps, and I found that the U.S. Post Office had issued a commemorative three-cent stamp in 1944 to publicize and celebrate the first steamship crossing the Atlantic.
I remembered this was about the time I was on the dock of the Savannah River exploring the world in my mind.