The Stevens Family
According to legend, Colonel Stevens was riding near the Delaware River in 1787 when he happened to see John Fitch's experimental steamboat travelling up the river. He was so intrigued he followed the boat to its dock and thoroughly investigated it. Whether this chance meeting happened, or if it was regular correspondence with other learned men that sparked Stevens' interest in steam power, by the late 1780s he was driven to work on the steam engine's applications for transportation.
John Stevens conducted his own experiments in steam power. He corresponded with John Fitch and James Rumsey, who had been experimenting with steam power for boats. In 1789 he applied unsuccessfully to the New York Legislature for exclusive rights to operate steamboats in the state. In 1790 he persuaded Congress to pass the first American patent law and on August 26, 1791, he received one of first patents for an application of steam power.
Stevens' experimental boats pioneered steam navigation in America and attracted modest but significant attention. As early as 1798, he demonstrated the Polacca, a steamboat that carried passengers from Belleville, New Jersey, to New York City. Speed estimates ranged between 3 and 5.5 mph. The experimental craft was driven by a wheel in the stern. Though the Polacca demonstrated the possibility of steam propulsion, its piping and seams were broken open from the vibration of the engine and it was not yet a practical means of transportation.
In 1804, Robert, then 17, and his brother John, assisted their father in constructing the first boat propelled by twin screw propellers. The Little Juliana, a 32 foot boat with a boiler designed by Stevens, successfully navigated the Hudson River and amazed onlookers by travelling without a visible means of propulsion. However, screw propulsion would require high pressure steam to be efficient, and engineering methods of the time were not advanced enough to successfully make high pressure boilers.
In 1805 Colonel John received a British patent for a new kind of boiler for steam engines. Unlike earlier models that contained one large tube for heating water, John's design heated water in multiple smaller tubes. It was more expensive to produce than earlier models but was significantly more efficient.
The Stevenses built two more experimental steamboats in 1806 and 1807. Their next steamboat, the Phoenix, would enter history as the first steam-powered vessel to complete an ocean voyage, and the first commercially successful steamboat built entirely in America. It would also launch a dispute with Robert Fulton and the Livingston family.
Robert R. Livingston had worked with John Stevens on his early steamboat experiments, but left for France on government business in 1801. There he met Robert Fulton, who was also interested in steamboats. Livingston gave financial and technical aid to Fulton, but more importantly he had legal knowledge and influence in New York politics. In 1798 Livingston had obtained a monopoly of the right to navigate steamboats in New York after his own experiments, a monopoly that he would soon exercise in partnership with Fulton.
In the summer of 1807, Fulton's Clermont steamed from New York City to Albany in 32 hours. The trip established Fulton's place in history as the designer of the first successful steamboat. News of his voyage spread quickly.
Meanwhile the Stevens family continued their engineering work, and the Phoenix was launched in the spring of 1808. Propelled by paddlewheels on its sides, the Phoenix averaged over five miles per hour. Its 100 foot hull was designed by Robert Stevens, then twenty years old. Like many early steamships, the Phoenix included masts for sails to be used when the wind was favorable. Unlike the Clermont, for which Fulton and Livingston had acquired a British steam engine, the Phoenix was designed and built entirely in America, the first successful steamship to be entirely American in origin.
In the first decade of the 1800s, large-scale transportation infrastructure, including major roads, was typically built by private partnerships who would then operate under grants of monopoly from state governments. Steamboat service to New York, despite the Stevens' protests, would operate on the same principle. While Livingston was inclined to compromise with his relative and former associate, Fulton was determined to make the most out of the grant of monopoly. Livingston offered Stevens a partnership in the monopoly, which Stevens rejected. The two men engaged in a lengthy correspondence over the constitutionality of the monopoly grant.
Stevens tried to ignore or outmaneuver the monopoly the best he could. Realizing that the Phoenix would be seized if he tried to operate it on the Hudson, he instead had the boat travel a route between New York and New Brunswick, New Jersey. Fulton and Livingston were determined to crush this competition and set one of their new steamboats, the Raritan, to run the same route as the Phoenix. The Raritan at first operated at a loss at first but later returned a modest income. With less money to lose on a rate war, John Stevens decided to withdraw his boat from servicing New York.
On June 10, 1809, John Stevens sent the Phoenix to Philadelphia under the charge of Robert, then 21 years old. At a time when it was thought steamboats were only safe in calm waters, Robert Stevens took the Phoenix out on the Atlantic Ocean. A schooner accompanied the Phoenix when the winds were favorable, but there were days when the steamer traveled alone. Robert braved rough seas, high winds, and storms on the voyage, occasionally waiting out especially treacherous weather at port. The Phoenix arrived at Philadelphia thirteen days after the journey began. The steamship would make successful business on the Delaware River, even partnering with Fulton and stagecoach companies in 1810 to for travel packages between New York and Philadelphia.
On September 11, 1811 a pier lease from the City of New York allowed the Stevens family to launch a steam-ferry service from Hoboken to Manhattan, but this was shut down by pressure from Livingston in 1813.
The Fulton-Livingston monopoly finally ended when it was declared unconstitutional in the landmark 1824 Supreme Court decision Gibbons v. Ogden. Aaron Ogden was a New Jersey politician and ferry operator. He was able to put enough political pressure on the Livingston-Fulton monopoly that they decided to sell him a license to operate in New York for a reasonable price. Ogden was a former business partner of Gibbons who competed bitterly after their less-than-amicable split. After John Marshall's decision, states could no longer grant monopolies to steamship companies and the ports became free for competition.
Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, the Stevens family made numerous contributions to steamship design. Improvements included advances in boilers, hulls, and pressure valves. In 1822 Robert Stevens designed the ferry slip for the Hoboken Steamboat Ferry Company. Long piles were driven into the river bed and hardwood fenders were attached to them. This design made it simpler for ferries to dock in strong tides, and was widely adopted. In 1823 the family launched the first double-ended ferry boat.
Robert would build numerous steam ferries, increasing the speed of each successive craft from 8 miles per hour in 1815 to 15 mph in 1832. Robert's New Philadelphia, with an innovative bow that cut through water efficiently, was able to complete the trip from Albany to New York City between dawn and dusk. Edwin Augustus Stevens patented the air-tight fire room in 1842. He also developed the first double-ended propeller-driven ferryboat, the Bergen, which made paddlewheel boats obsolete.
Archibald Douglas Turnbull, John Stevens, an American Record. 100-108, 185, 208, 261-280. Archive.org.
Charles King, Preface to Stevens, “Documents Tending to prove the Superior Advantages of Rail-ways and Steam Carriages Over Canal Navigation.” iv, v. Archive.org.
George Iles, Leading American Inventors. 11-13, 16. Archive.org.
J. Elfreth Watkins, "John Stevens and His Sons." 8. Stevens Family Collection.
Jim Hans, 100 Hoboken Firsts. 4-6, 11, 15, 56.
“New York World’s Fair Bulletin,” Hoboken Chamber of Commerce. 1-4. Stevens Family Collection.
Wheaton J. Lane, From Indian Trail to Iron Horse. Steamboats, 175-184; Gibbons v. Ogden, 184-194.