Historical Markers
Robert Fulton Birthplace Historical Marker
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Robert Fulton Birthplace

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
At site on US 222, N of Goshen Mill Rd.

Behind the Marker

"Lock the doors, the devil is coming up the river in a blazing sawmill! "

-A farmer witnessing the Clermont's maiden voyage on the Hudson River, August 17, 1807

Illustration of a ship on the water
An early image of Robert Fulton's North River Steamboat–the original name...
On August, 17, 1807, Robert Fulton fired up the boiler of the Boulton and Watt steam engine on The North River Steamboat of Clermont, a name the press and the public quickly shortened to the Clermont. As thick, black smoke belched from the single chimney, the side paddle wheels turned, the vessel moved, then stopped. Fulton wrote of that moment, "[I] almost repented of my efforts". But Fulton fixed the problem, and the ship began to chug up the Hudson River towards Albany.

Twenty-four hours later, Fulton's steamboat had traveled 110 miles to his partner Robert Livingston's "Clermont" estate, near present-day Saugerties. The next morning, at 9 a.m., the boat, with Livingston on board, continued north to the state capital at Albany, where it arrived at 5 p.m. Fulton's steamboat had journeyed from New York to Albany in thirty-two hours -a trip that usually took four days by sail. Its arrival marked the beginning of a new era in American history.

Head and shoulders, oil  on canvas
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Robert Fulton, by Charles Willson Peale, from life, 1807.
Robert Fulton was born on November 14, 1765, in Little Britain, Pa. After losing their farm in 1772, the family moved to nearby Lancaster, where Fulton's father worked as a tailor. In his mid-teens, Robert worked as an apprentice jeweler in Philadelphia painting miniatures (small portraits for brooches and lockets). There, too, he was exposed to the latest scientific thinking, for the city was then the nation's center of science and invention. In the spring of 1787, he traveled to England to study painting, but quickly grew weary of art. Ambitious, clever, and intelligent, he became fascinated with engineering.

Inspired by a canal building boom in England and France, Fulton drew up plans for a horse-drawn canal-digging machine. He devised prefabricated iron bridges and aqueducts for canals, and experimented with the idea of steam-powered boats. In 1796, he published A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation, then moved to France in search of the government contracts that could turn his dreams into fame and fortune. Fulton presented the French government with plans for a "Nautilus," a submarine that could be armed with torpedoes or mines for use against the British navy. The submarine worked well enough in early test trials, but Fulton abandoned the project after its later poor performance. In 1802, he met Chancellor Robert Livingston, one of the American agents in France negotiating the Louisiana Purchase.
Robert Fulton. Submarine drawing with self-portrait
Robert Fulton. Submarine drawing with self-portrait

Livingston's interest in a steamboat, and his willingness to finance its development, would later lead to Fulton's history-making demonstration on the Hudson River. First, however, Fulton returned to England in 1804 and convinced the British government to pay him for the development of explosive underwater mines. In December 1806, Fulton returned to the United States with a tidy nest egg, which he invested to build his steamboat.

The idea of steam-powered boats was not new. In 1787 marker John Fitch had run a vessel on the Delaware River in Philadelphia on trips that Fulton may well have witnessed. But neither Fitch nor anyone else had figured out how to make a profit on a steamboat. Fulton thought he had the solution: operate commercial steamboats on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Livingston, however, had received a state monopoly to operate steamboats on New York waterways, and in 1807, he was anxious to get the project under way. So the two men formed their partnership.

Oil paint on metal plate/lid of a steam ship.
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Detail of a folk painting of the New Orleans Steam Ship , constructed in Pittsburgh,...
On August 20, 1807, commercial steamboat service began in the United States when Fulton took on paying passengers and freight on his return trip down the Hudson. By early September, the Clermont, now making marker regularly scheduled trips, was greeted by large crowds marker all along its route. In 1810, Fulton turned his attention westward. With his partner Nicholas Roosevelt, he built the steamship New Orleans in Pittsburgh. Known as the "Golden Triangle" for its location at the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers, Pittsburgh was already a major river port. Launched in 1811, the New Orleans traveled to its namesake city near the mouth of the Mississippi River and from there ran between the Crescent City and Natchez, Louisiana.

By the end of 1835, more than 650 steamboats had been built west of the Appalachian Mountains, including 304 in Pittsburgh. markerPittsburgh area shipbuilders constructed more than 2,000 steamboats before the Civil War. Philadelphia also benefited from the steamboat as a shipbuilding center and a starting point for ocean voyages. In short, the steamboat's impact on America's economy was phenomenal. Trade, travel and westward emigration boomed, notwithstanding the constant danger of boiler explosions. As Mark Twain said in 1906, "It is the peculiar honor and privilege of our commercializing age to estimate [Fulton's] majestic service at its splendid and rightful value."

Fulton proudly but incorrectly claimed that he invented the steamboat. It is more accurate to say that he perfected the technology created by others. On the other hand, he was the one who successfully commercialized steamboats, made them popular, and revolutionized American travel as a result. But the country's newest hero also faced stiff competition and challenges to his monopoly from other steamboat developers. Just fifty years old, Robert Fulton died on February 23, 1815.
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