The Savannah steams into his­tory

The Covington News - - SCHOOL BEAT -

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.

Clifford Brew­ton


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