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SS Savannah

the first steam-powered vessel to cross and recross the Atlantic

Both the Savvanah and its historic voyage were the brainchild of Captain Moses Rogers, a highly respected captain and navigator with an excellent knowledge of engineering. He also had a daring record of firsts in the history of steamboating, and was thoroughly convinced that the future of navigation lay with steam, not sails.

Captain Moses Rogers
Captain Moses Rogers

Why Rogers decided to use a transatlantic voyage to prove the value of steamboating is not known, but in 1818 he sought backing from shipping interests in Savannah, Georgia, probably telling them that the first steamship should sail from their port, then one of America's most prominent. On May 7, 1818, The Savannah Steam Ship Company was formed to fund the project. To expedite the project, Rogers bought a packet already under construction at Fickett & Crockett shipyard at Corlears Hook, New York. She was about 100 feet long by 25 feet 10 inches, 320 tons and well designed to withstand Atlantic storms.

The Ship

The Allaire Iron Works of New York supplied Savannah's engine cylinder, while the rest of the engine components and running gear were manufactured by the Speedwell Ironworks of New Jersey. The 90-horsepower low-pressure engine was of the inclined direct-acting type, with a single 40-inch-diameter cylinder and a 5-foot stroke. Because the Savannah's engine and machinery were unusually large for their time Rogers had difficulty locating a suitable boiler, rejecting several before settling on a copper model designed by Daniel Dod. The boilers had a secret design to prevent the salt from the boiled water from caking on the sides and were laid in a horizontal rather than a vertical position to distribute their weight evenly in the ship. For use under steam, Savannah had a 17-foot bent smokestack that could be swiveled in any direction according to the wind. The ship's wrought-iron paddlewheels were 16 feet in diameter with eight buckets per wheel. The paddle boxes were made of canvas so as not to interfere with the wheels' movement. When used as a sailing ship, the paddles could be compressed like a fan and the side wheels secured on the deck. For fuel, the vessel carried 75 tons of coal and 25 cords of wood. The anchor had iron chains instead of rope, an improvement in shipbuilding just beginning to appear. The ship was fully rigged like a normal sailing ship, excepting the absence of royal-masts and royals.

SS Savannah
SS Savannah

Though the exterior smokestack and paddle wheels looked strange to some eyes, the interior received universal praise. No expense had been spared for the passengers' accommodations. Savannah was fitted with 32 passenger berths, with two berths in each of the 16 state rooms. The women's quarters were reported to be "entirely distinct" from that of the men's. Three fully furnished saloons were also provided, complete with imported carpets, curtains and hangings, mahogany wainscoting, rosewood and brass decorations and full-length mirrors carefully placed to create the illusion of space.

Unable to hire a crew in New York, Rogers went to New London, Connecticut, where his reputation as a competent ship's captain was well established and he easily found seamen prepared to serve on the vessel. Savannah conducted a successful trial of approximately two hours duration in New York Harbor to test her engine on March 22, 1819. On March 28, Savannah commenced her maiden voyage, under sail power, from New York to Savannah. The following morning the ship got steam up for the first time, but the engine was only in use for half an hour before rough weather persuaded Rogers to stow the paddlewheels and revert to sail power once again. The ship reached her destination April 6, having employed the engines for a total of 41 hours during the 207-hour voyage.

A few days after Savannah's arrival in Savannah Harbor, President James Monroe boarded her to make an inspection cruise of the city's forts and defenses along the Savannah River, accompanied by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. The delighted President suggested that the government should buy the Savannah after she completed her transatlantic voyage and put her into service along the coast of Florida, which was being plagued by pirates from Cuba.

In the days following Monroe's departure, Savannah's crew, with Captain Moses Rogers in command and Captain Steven Rogers (no relation) as Sailing Master, made their final preparations for the Atlantic crossing. Despite extensive favorable publicity, efforts to obtain passengers and cargo for the ocean voyage were completely unsuccessful, so Savannah's historic voyage was undertaken with only crewmen aboard.

The Voyage

Savannah commenced her historic voyage at 5 a.m. on May 24, under both steam and sail, bound for Liverpool, England. At around 8 a.m. the same day, the paddlewheels were stowed for the first time and the ship proceeded under sail. Several days later, on May 29, the schooner Contract spied a vessel "with volumes of smoke issuing" and, assuming it was a ship on fire, pursued it for several hours but was unable to catch up. On June 2, Savannah, sailing at a speed of 9 or 10 knots, passed the sailing ship Pluto. On June 18, Savannah was briefly becalmed off Cork, Ireland, after running out of fuel for her engine. Her next recorded encounter with another ship came the following day, when the cutter HMS Kite chased the steamship for several hours believing it to be a sailing vessel on fire, Unable to catch the ship, Kite eventually fired several warning shots, and Captain Rogers brought his vessel to a halt, whereupon Kite caught up and its commander asked permission to inspect the ship. Permission was granted, and the British sailors are said to have been "much gratified" by the satisfaction of their curiosity. The ship made anchor at Liverpool at 6 p.m. on June 20. The voyage had lasted 29 days and 11 hours, during which time the vessel had employed her engine for a total of 80 hours.

Savannah remained at Liverpool for 25 days, during which time she was visited by thousands of people from all walks of life, including officers of the army and navy and other "persons of rank and influence." The British Admiralty and the British Cabinet, however, were less than delighted with the thought that the Americans had gotten ahead of them. They also were concerned about rumors that the steamship was to be a gift from the United States to the Russian Czar or that Jerome Bonaparte had hired the Savannah to free his exiled brother from St. Helena. On July 21, the ship departed Liverpool bound for St. Petersburg, Russia.

Savannah reached Elsinore, Denmark on August 9, where she remained in quarantine for five days. On the 14th the ship sailed on to Stockholm, Sweden, thus becoming the first steamship to enter the Baltic Sea, and she arrived at Stockholm on August 22. While in port at Stockhom, the Swedish government offered to purchase the ship, but Moses Rogers rejected the offer. Another offer was accepted, however. Sir Thomas Graham, Lord Lynedoch, a celebrated British general who had been visiting the King, asked if he and his young cousin and heir, Robert Graham, could become passengers on the trip to Russia.

Savannah departed Stockholm on September 5, and arrived at St. Petersburg on the 13th. During the journey from Liverpool to St. Petersburg, Savannah's engine had its most frequent use, being employed for a total of 241 hours. The reception in Russia was once again wildly enthusiastic, and steaming parties were arranged for the Court. Czar Alexander Pavlovich made Rogers a fabulous offer -- exclusive steamboating rights over all Russian waters. Rogers declined, however; as a devoted family man, he could not accept such a far-off assignment.

On September 29, the Savannah started the long trip home, making brief stops at Copenhagen and at Arendall, Norway. On November 30, she anchored once more in Savannah, six months and eight days from the date of her departure.

After the Voyage

For all the effort and talented thinking lavished on her, Savannah was a financial failure. Steamboats on a river were one thing, ocean-going steamships another. Rogers tried to sell the Savannah in Washington but the government was not interested. The Savannah Steam Ship Company, in financial difficulties after a great fire in their city, sold the ship stripped of all her steam-related machinery, which ironically released much more space for cargo. She operated as a sailing packet between New York and Savannah until running aground at Long Island on November 5, 1821 and subsequently breaking up. It would be almost another 20 years before steamships began making regular crossings of the Atlantic, and another American-owned steamship would not do so until 1847, almost 30 years later.


At Speedwell in the Nineteenth Century

See Also

Savannah, Georgia
President James Monroe
John C. Calhoun
St. Helena

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The Robinson Library >> Steamships

This page was last updated on 11/30/2018.