On the Water

Rigged Model, Auxiliary Steamship Savannah

The steamer Savannah holds pride of place in American history as the first steamboat to cross the Atlantic. Measuring 98’-6” and 320 tons, the little two-decker began as a sailing vessel at a New York shipyard. Local ship captain Moses Rogers and his partner William Scarbrough of Savannah, Ga. formed a Savannah-based steamship line, and Rogers had the shipyard convert the vessel to a 75-hp auxiliary steamer for a total cost of $66,000. It was luxuriously appointed, with 32 berths in 16 cabins, full-length mirrors, mahogany-lined public areas, and other amenities.

On May 22, 1819 the Savannah cleared Savannah, Ga. under steam for Liverpool. It carried 25 cords of wood and 1,500 bushels of coal for fuel, but neither a single passenger nor any cargo. No one—not even the owners—trusted the new technology enough on the open ocean to invest their own money. On the 29-day passage to Liverpool, the Savannah operated its engines for about 100 hours, or 16% of the time. The rest was spent under sail.

The failure to secure any paying cargo or passengers altered the company’s plans for transatlantic service. The steamer left Liverpool for Stockholm, Sweden on July 23, 1819, again unladen. Under steam 28% of the passage to Sweden, the Savannah became the first steamboat in the Baltic on August 13. Capt. Rogers declined an offer for the ship from Swedish King Charles XIV for $100,000 in hemp and iron, as well as an offer from Russian Tsar Alexander for an exclusive monopoly on steam navigation in the Black and Baltic Seas.

The Savannah returned to Savannah in November 1819 and almost immediately sailed for Washington, DC. After two months in Washington, Rogers had failed to interest the U.S. Navy in his vessel, and it was sold to Capt. Nathan Holdridge of New York. He promptly removed the engine and began packet service between New York and Savannah. On its first voyage in October 1820, the Savannah sailed with 24 passengers and a full cargo hold. Ironically, four of its prior owners consigned cargo aboard the ill-fated vessel, now that it was an old-fashioned sailing ship. After a successful year as a packet, the Savannah wrecked at Fire Island, NY on November 5, 1821.

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated May 22 as National Maritime Day, in honor of the day that the Savannah hoisted anchor on its inaugural transatlantic passage. The Smithsonian has Savannah’s original logbook detailing that pioneering voyage.

ID Number:
29 1/2 x 39 x 14 in.; 74.93 x 99.06 x 35.56 cm

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