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A Revolution in Travel – early steamboat travel in the James River and the Chesapeake Bay

For the first 180 years of the English colonies in North America, most people traveled by foot, horse, canoe, or wagon/carriage. Along the coast and in major Bays like the Chesapeake, freight was transported by sailing ships along with passengers who could afford the fare. Sailing ships had their drawbacks however, since the time it took them to travel from one port to another was influenced by weather.

If the winds were non-existent, the ship could become becalmed and would have to wait for the wind to pick up. If the wind were from the wrong direction, it could impede the progress of the ship, particularly in rivers where tacking into the wind could become a problem where the channel was not very wide. Finally, in large rivers, such as the James, the speed of the current could vary based upon season or weather upstream and make an upriver passage slower, just as low water could make the passage more dangerous. Inland, freight and people traveled by stagecoach and wagons. Beginning in 1785, along the rivers and the coast, all of this changed.

Contemporary Drawing of the Fitch Steam Boat
Contemporary Drawing of the Fitch Steam Boat

In 1785, John Fitch in Philadelphia, put what was known as a Newcomen steam engine in a boat and successfully trialed her in 1787 and by 1788, he was running a regular commercial service along the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Burlington, NJ carrying as many as 30 passengers at a speed of 7 to 8 miles per hour. That this was a regular service is shown by an excerpt from the July 26, 1790, issue of the Federal Gazette and Philadelphia Advertiser which reported:



Sets out tomorrow morning, at ten o’clock, from Arch-street ferry, in order to take passengers for Burlington, Bristol, Bordentown, and Trenton, and return next day.

Unfortunately, although Fitch built two more steamboats, he became entangled in patent disputes and abandoned the project.

At the same time, James Rumsey, a mechanical engineer from Virginia, began working on a machinery-powered boat. In September 1784, when George Washington was staying at Rumsey's inn, Rumsey showed Washington a working model of a mechanical boat which he had designed. It had a bow-mounted paddlewheel that worked poles to pull the boat upstream. Washington had been making plans for making the Potomac River navigable since before the Revolution, and a company was soon to be formed for that purpose. Rumsey's pole-boat, which promised to be able to ascend the river's chutes and swift currents, must have seemed a godsend to Washington, who wrote a certificate of commendation for Rumsey. Using this certificate, Rumsey obtained a patent from the Virginia legislature for "the use of mechanical boats of his model" and gained an investor James Mcmechen.

Plans for the Rumsey Pole Boat
Plans for the Rumsey Pole Boat

In July 1785, Washington recommended him, and he was appointed the superintendent of the newly formed Patowmack Company to oversee the clearing of rocks at what is now Harper's Ferry. Rumsey would thus not only be able to build a boat to ascend the river but also alter the river to enable his boat.

Rumsey quickly concluded that the pole-boat design was too limited and decided to incorporate steam propulsion into his design. While this made his boat much more useful, it made it far more complex and expensive to build. Work on a hull began in 1785 in Bath (near Berkeley Springs) by Joseph Barnes. The boat was brought that fall to Shepherdstown where valve castings, cylinders, and other pieces which had been made in Baltimore and Frederick were installed that December. The boat was taken downriver to Shenandoah Falls for a test, however, severe weather postponed testing until the following spring. When Rumsey finally tested the boat, it proved unsatisfactory. The pole-boat mechanism caused the boat to yaw in the current, which disabled the paddlewheel and stopped the boat. In the steam pump, the engine consumed too much steam; the boiler was inadequate.

At some point in 1786, work on the pole-boat mechanism was abandoned and he began to look at waterjet propulsion with the steam engine driving a pump. For a better boiler, he installed a coil of forged iron pipe, which proved to be both more efficient and much smaller and lighter. With a functioning steam engine, however, another problem arose. The single-cylinder pump would draw several gallons of water from beneath the boat and send it down a copper pipe to the stern. Because gallons of water were being drawn into the pump at the same time as water was still flowing from it to the stern, the pump was working against itself; after several strokes it bound up. This was resolved by replacing the copper pipe with a square wooden trunk with flapper valves in the bottom to allow water in from the river, to relieve the negative pressure at the pump. On December 3, 1787, the boat finally made a successful public demonstration on the Potomac at Shepherdstown. The demonstration took place twenty years before Robert Fulton constructed and showed the Clermont.

How the "Water-Jet Powered" Steamboat Worked
How the "Water-Jet Powered" Steamboat Worked

Ramsey was not the first to think of the idea of waterjet-propelled watercraft. Daniel Bernoulli (1700–1782) originated the idea of propelling watercraft in that way. In the summer of 1785, while Rumsey and his assistant Joseph Barnes were assembling his boat, Benjamin Franklin, on board a ship from France, wrote of propelling a boat by water jet. This coincidence has sometimes led people to believe Rumsey got the idea from Franklin, but this doesn’t seem to be the case as Franklin became one of Rumsey's supporters

At this point steamboat development in the United States stopped for a bit but it continued in Scotland with steamboats being used to tow sloops along the Forth and Clyde Canal. The next improvement was the development of a “horizontal steam engine” linked to a crank for the paddlewheel. On 28 March 1803, a ship using this engine, proved the practicality of the steamboat by towing two 70-ton barges along the Forth and Clyde Canal into a “strong breeze right ahead”, that stopped all other canal boats.

American Development Gets Serious

An American, Robert Fulton, was present at the demonstration on the Forth and Clyde Canal and was intrigued by the potential of the steamboat. While working in France, he designed his own steamboat, which sailed along the river Seine in 1803. Upon returning to America in 1806, he ordered a Boulton and Watt steam engine and had it shipped to him and in 1807, he and Robert R. Livingston built the first commercially successful steamboat, the Clermont. Livingston’s shipping company began using the Clermont to carry passengers along the Hudson River between New York City and the capital at Albany. The Clermont made the 150-mile trip in 32 hours and averaged over 4.5 miles per hour.

Robert Fulton's "Clarmont"
Robert Fulton's "Clarmont"

From October 1811 to January 1812, Fulton and Livingston along with Nicholas Roosevelt, worked together on a joint project to build a new steamboat, to be named New Orleans. It was designed to be sturdy enough to take down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans, Louisiana. When complete, it traveled from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where it was built, making stops at Wheeling, Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; past the "Falls of the Ohio" at Louisville, Kentucky; to near Cairo, Illinois, and the confluence with the Mississippi River; and then down past Memphis, Tennessee, and Natchez, Mississippi, to New Orleans some 90 miles (140 km) by river from the Gulf of Mexico coast. By achieving this first breakthrough voyage and proving the ability of the steamboat to travel upstream against powerful river currents, Fulton, and the New Orleans, changed the entire trade and transportation outlook for the American heartland.

Steamboat New Orleans
Steamboat New Orleans

Chesapeake Bay and James River Service

The Bay’s first steamer—Chesapeake—made her inaugural trip from Baltimore to Annapolis on June 13, 1813, and her second to Rock Hall on the Eastern Shore a week later. She then began operation regularly from Baltimore to Frenchtown, in the Elk River at the northern end of the Bay, where her passengers transferred to stagecoaches that took them to New Castle, Delaware, to board another steamer for the trip on to Philadelphia or New York. Chesapeake was 137 feet long and 21 feet wide. She weighed in at 183 tons. She had a mast and sail, like the other sailing boats of her day, but unlike them, she also had a smokestack, a big boiler, a noisy crosshead steam engine, and a 10-foot-wide paddlewheel. The Chesapeake, made the 140-mile round trip from Baltimore to Frenchtown in roughly 24 hours, traveling at a steady 5 miles per hour no matter the wind and weather. (The sail would be raised to take advantage of the wind when conditions were right.)

There was no wheel on the boat, it was steered by tiller from the rear, with instructions relayed from a pilot at the front of the boat by word of mouth repeated along a chain of crewmen. Communication with the engine room was handled by way of the same sort of chain of repeating voices. Other times, the pilot would give orders by stomping out codes with his foot on the deck above the engine. There was a women’s cabin at the back of the boat. The men’s cabin, situated between the women’s cabin and the steam machinery, doubled as a dining room. There was no second deck–travel on the Chesapeake was a bare-bones experience. Papers in the National Archive say that she was “broken up” around 1820.

Steamboat Eagle, Sister Ship to the Chesapeake
Steamboat Eagle, Sister Ship to the Chesapeake

Because of the War of 1812, and the Royal Navy operations in the Chesapeake Bay, Norfolk VA did not see their first steamboat until the arrival of the steamboat Washington which was enroute to begin service between Washington DC and Potomac Creek in 1815. While at Norfolk it took out two “parties of pleasure” to Hampton Roads, thus giving many residents their first steamboat ride. Later that year the Eagle sister ship to the previously mentioned Chesapeake arrived enroute to Baltimore. During this year, investors put together a plan for a Norfolk, Petersburg, and Richmond service.

In 1816, the steamboat Powhatan arrived to begin regular service up and down the James River. Owned by Norfolk and Richmond investors, it boasted 42 berths. The Powhatan made its first run to Richmond and back, returning in 21 hours. Later that year, regular semi-weekly service was set up between Norfolk, City Point (Petersburg) and Richmond.

In 1817, the Baltimore Steam Packet Company, or the “Old Bay Line,” began regular steamboat service between Baltimore, Maryland, and Norfolk, Virginia. The company’s boats transported mail, crops, freight, and people along the length of the Chesapeake Bay. Smaller packets on the rivers connected to the larger craft. The local York River packets stopped in at Yorktown, as well as at Allmond’s Wharf, Cappahosic, and Clay Bank on the Gloucester side, when heading toward West Point, Virginia.

Steamboat Virginia
Steamboat Virginia

As the year progressed, other steamboats came online. In late July, the new steamboat Virginia made her first trial run from Baltimore to Annapolis in 3 ½ hours and on July 31, arrived in Norfolk from Baltimore in just 23 hours with John Myers, the son of Moses Myers on board as a passenger. On August 22, an announcement appeared in “The American Beacon and Commercial Diary” (Norfolk, VA) saying:

“The new Steam-Boat Virginia, Captain John Ferguson, will commence running regularly between this place and Baltimore, on Thursday next. – She will hereafter leave Baltimore every Thursday and Norfolk every Monday”

On September 25th, the Beacon reported that on Monday the 15th, Virginia left Norfolk transporting $480,000 specie for the United States Bank in Philadelphia and on September 29th they reported that she arrived in Norfolk carrying $600,000 in specie for the same client. On October 9th, the paper reported that the steamboat Norfolk, the first locally built steamboat, began Richmond service.

As the steamboat traffic to and from Norfolk increased, Baltimore and Richmond businessmen began using Norfolk for a point to meet and do business. As a result, two hotels began catering to the steamboat trade. In January, a new proprietor, Alexander Brooks, announced on the Beacon that he had taken a multi-year lease on the old Exchange Coffee House and “put it in complete repair, and furnished it in a style adapted to the comfort and accommodation of the most genteel company” On February 4th the Beacon carried an announcement of the opening of the Merchant’s Coffee House and Steam-Boat Hotel at the corner of Market Square and Union Street.

In April 1818, Powhatan was offered up for sale at a public auction in Norfolk on the 18th and was bought by Littleton W. Tazewell for $35,000 and kept her in service between Norfolk and Richmond. The Hampton was built at Hunter’s Shipyard with the intention of running between Norfolk and Hampton. However, the corporation, deciding that they saw little opportunity for profit on that route, renamed her Richmond and announced she would serve a Norfolk – City Point (Petersburg) - Richmond route. She began regular service on August 14. The Roanoke, a tow boat which was a new idea in design, was built at Allmand’s Shipyard at Herbert’s Point in Norfolk for an intended service on the Dismal Swamp Canal that never materialized. She ended up beginning service between Norfolk and Alexandria/Washington, DC on January 29 the following year.

On January 06, 1819, the steamboat Sea-Horse began ferry service from Hampton to Norfolk and on April 19 announced her regular daily schedule. In addition to passengers, she carried mail, horses and carriages, farm produce/livestock, and freight. In March, the steamboat Petersburg, intended for the Norfolk- Petersburg route, was launched at Laurence & Sneeden’s shipyard in New York and began service on the Norfolk – Petersburg route on August 14. Meanwhile, Commodore Stephen Decatur and President James Monroe arrived in Norfolk on board the “Roanoke.”

The Ocean-going Steam Brig New York
The Ocean-going Steam Brig New York

As time went on, steam travel became more common and frequent. In 1821, the first Ocean Steam Schooner began service between Norfolk and New York City. This schooner, the Fidelity, made weekly trips, leaving New York on Mondays, and leaving Norfolk on Thursdays with a cost for passage of $15. She was soon followed by ships such as the Steam Brig New York with departures 3 times a month.

Throughout the years, the owners of the Norfolk steamboats were always looking for other ways to make money with their boats when they were idle between scheduled departures. One of the most popular methods was the “excursion” or pleasure cruise. These were often just a day trip up the James River and back or out to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and back. However, as time went on, they became more creative. In the 1820s they began scheduling special trips to carry passengers to Camp Meetings in Hampton, Isle of Wight, and Tangier Island and in at least three cases, held a “Dancing Party” onboard; an example of which was when the Petersburg went on a 3 ½ hour cruise as reported in the Beacon on August 20, 1823:

“The Steam-Boat Petersburg will go on a DANCING PATY tomorrow, 21st inst. (should the weather be good,) into Hampton Roads. She will leave Nivison’s Warf at 7, and return at ½ past 10 o’clock. The Petersburg’s decks (which are covered with awnings,) are well calculated for such a party. There will be good Musick – PRICE FIFTY CENTS. Refreshments will be provided on board, which will be an extra charge, if called for. - D. W. CROCKER

One final occurrence of note is the part that the James River steamboats played in the visit of the Marquis de Lafayette to Norfolk in October of 1824 and again in January of 1825. Lafayette arrived on board Petersburg, escorted by two US Navy barges and Virginia. The Petersburg anchored off the County Wharf and an 18-oar barge brought him to the Wharf. When he went to visit Fort Monroe and Gosport/Portsmouth he was conducted there and back on the steamboat Hampton. Finally, following a Ball given in his honor, he boarded the steamboat Richmond for his departure to Richmond. Later in his tour (January 1825) enroute from Baltimore to Richmond via Norfolk, he arrived on board the steamboat Norfolk and arrived back in Norfolk aboard Richmond five days later.

By the 1820s and 1830s, technological advances in transportation, combined with a growing interest in America's natural attractions and a wealthy population, resulted in the growth of American business and travel. The construction of turnpikes led to more comfortable and faster stagecoach services, while steamboat travel made water routes both a faster and more reliable choice. This, combined with technological advances like rail transportation in the 1830s contributed to the emergence of a distinct American culture.

We hope you found today’s post interesting, informative, and gave you an appreciation of the challenges of travel in early America. Hopefully, it has encouraged you to learn more on your own about the challenges faced by our ancestors. Please join us again in two weeks for our next post when we explore the Louisiana Purchase which resulted in the largest single expansion of US territory in our country’s history.

While you are here, on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample some of our earlier articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.

Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.


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Callahan, Myrtle Elizabeth. History of Richmond as a port city. Master's Theses. University of Richmond. Richmond, VA: UR Scholarship Repository, 1952. 10 February 2020.

Dayton, Fred Erving. Steamboat Days. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1925.

Digital Scholarship Lab. Steamship Lines of Norfolk, VA. 2008 - 2020. University of Richmond. 10 February 2022.

—. The New and Elegant Steamboat. 2008 - 2020. The University of Richmond. 10 February 2022.

Emmerson, John C. jr. The Steamboat comes to Norfolk Harbor, and the Log of the First Ten Years. Ann Arbor, MI: Edwards Brothers, Inc., 1949.

Knox, Thomas W. The Life of Robert Fulton and a History of Steam Navigation. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1886.

Shaum, Jack. "The Steamboats of the Chesapeake Bay." Bugeye Times Winter 2016: 1 -5.

Smithsonian Institution and National Museum. Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. Annual Report. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1891.

Visit Yorktown - York County, VA. "Steamboats on the York River." n.d. Visit Yorktown. 10 February 2020.


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