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Inventing America’s First Successful Steamboat

Maria Zandri, Marist ’07

Hudson River Valley Review Vol. 23, No. 2

Clermont State Historic Site will be hosting a large exhibition celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Clermont, the Hudson River’s first working steamboat, opening in May 2007. The exhibition recognizes the partnership between Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, Jr., and Robert Fulton, the Clermont’s designer.

Located in Germantown, New York, Clermont was home to seven generations of Livingstons, one of the most distinguished and influential families in American history. In 1686, royal Governor Thomas Dongan granted 160,000 acres to Robert Livingston, who in turn left 13,000 acres to his son, Robert Livingston, Jr. Described as a self-made man, “Robert of Clermont” developed his estate through tenant farming and land speculation in the Catskill Mountains. When he died in 1728, the estate, which he had increased forty times over, was left to his son, Robert R. Livingston. Involved with New York Whigs during the outbreak of tensions prior to the Revolutionary War, Livingston advocated moderation and compromise.

In December 1775, Livingston unexpectedly passed away, leaving the title of Clermont to his son, Robert R. Livingston, Jr. Very much involved in Revolutionary politics, Robert Jr. was elected a member of the Second Continental Congress. At this time, Margaret Beekman Livingston, Robert Jr.’s mother, acted as caretaker to Clermont. Through her determination, the home was rebuilt after British troops burned it to the ground in 1777. A quarter mile south of the main house, Chancellor Livingston constructed a new home, known as New Clermont, in 1792.

While serving as America’s minister to France, Livingston befriended Robert

Fulton. The two men eventually became partners. Not only were they eventually able to produce the first successful steamboat, but they also maintained a monopoly on New York waters for almost twenty years and set off a transportation revolution in the United States. Livingston died in 1813. The Clermont estate was passed to his two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret Maria Livingston.

Elizabeth and Margaret Maria were the first Livingston women to hold the title to Clermont, and were very devoted to their family. In order to ensure the continuation of the Livingston family name, both sisters married distant cousins and made their homes on the Clermont estate. By 1843, both women and their husbands had passed away and the estate was passed along to the next generation. New Clermont passed to Margaret Maria’s youngest son, Montgomery Livingston. Old Clermont was inherited by Clermont Livingston, Elizabeth’s eldest son.

While Clermont Livingston was having success with Old Clermont, the same could not be said for Montgomery. New Clermont eventually fell into such disrepair that it was auctioned off to Anna and Emily Clarkson for $61,250 in 1857. They renamed the home Idele. Meanwhile, title to Clermont passed to Clermont Livingston’s son and daughter, John Henry and Mary, who soon after passed away. Idele did not remain in the Livingston family; it passed along to the nephews of Anna and Emily. In the 1870s, John Henry operated a dairy farm at Clermont for a short time before using it simply as a country home. John Henry’s wife, Alice Delafield Livingston, took great interest in Clermont and completed Colonial Revival renovations in the 1930s, as well as adding many gardens. After John Henry’s death, Alice moved into the smaller Clermont Cottage and transferred the title to Clermont and much of the surrounding land to New York State. She retained the cottage and ninety surrounding acres, which would eventually be passed to Alice and John Henry’s daughters, Honoria and Janet Cornelia. The Clermont Cottage remained in the hands of the Livingston family until 1991, when Honoria deeded seventy-five more acres to the state. Since this time, more property has been added, and the Clermont State Historic Site has been established in order to recognize the Livingston family’s importance.

While the Livingstons are known for their prestige, and especially their involvement with the American Revolution, less is known about their important connection to Fulton’s steamboat. While in France, Robert Livingston, Jr., and Robert Fulton, an artist and inventor from Pennsylvania, collaborated on plans to produce a boat powered by steam. The combination of Fulton’s ideas and Livingston’s monetary support and interest in technology led to the development of America’s first successful steamboat.

Officially named the North River Steamboat (but renamed the North River Steamboat of Clermont, and known simply as the Clermont), the ship made itsmaiden voyage from New York City to Albany in mid-August 1807. The successof the steamboat activated an agreement that Livingston had made with the NewYork State Legislature. Livingston was given the “privilege of navigating all boatsthat might be propelled by steam, on all waters within the territory or jurisdictionof the state, for the term of twenty years.” The one condition of the agreement wasthat the boat must exceed four miles per hour, which the Clermont did. Livingstonand Fulton were equal partners in this lucrative Hudson River monopoly, whichallowed the men to seize any steamboat operating without a license and collecta penalty for each trip unlicensed boats made on the river. The U.S. SupremeCourt’s 1824 ruling in Ogden v. Gibbon put an end to their monopoly.

After almost four years of planning, the Clermont State Historic Site will pay homage to the Livingston-Fulton partnership with the presentation of the Steamboat Bicentennial Project, which will celebrate the 200-year anniversary of the Clermont’s first trip. After extensive research and cooperation with other institutions and museums around the world, the staff at Clermont has compiled an extensive exhibit that tells the story of the first successful steamboat in America and celebrates the 200th anniversary of the Clermont’s maiden trip up the Hudson. A large part of the exhibit will be housed in the Visitor Center at Clermont. It will include paintings by James Bard and Robert Fulton, correspondence between Fulton and Chancellor Livingston, account books from the North River Steamboat Company, and a piece of the Clermont’s hull.

Another element of the exhibit, featuring art of the steamboat era, will be on display in the Livingston manor. It will include works by famous artists during the steamboat era, from James Bard, Antonio Jacobsen, and Samuel Ward Stanton. Many of these paintings are on loan from descendants of the Livingston and Fulton families or the artists.

Another key event of the Steamboat Bicentennial Celebration will be a scholarly symposium, which will take place on June 1 and 2. The event is sponsored by both the Friends of Clermont and Bard College. Merritt Roe Smith, a professor of history of technology and director of the Program of Science, Technology and Society at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will be the keynote speaker. The event is open to the public. Its proceedings will be published by the Friends of Clermont in 2008.

In addition to the activities occurring at Clermont, its museum staff has developed several programs to engage the community in the steamboat bicentennial. “Days of the Steamboat” school programs have been developed for students in grades three through five. These programs will combine a field trip to Clermont with pre-and post-visit activities educating students about the development of the Clermont and its importance to America. While at Clermont, groups may choose to spend from ninety minutes to four hours at the site, participating in any of the seven different educational stations, as well as enjoying time on the grounds. For educators who are interested in the program but unable to arrange a visit to Clermont, the packet of ten lesson plans and activities can be purchased. The Clermont staff also has developed outreach programs for local historical societies, as well as senior citizen groups. These outreach and educational efforts will be focused on the 2007 bicentennial year, but they will remain available after this time.

In special commemoration of Robert Fulton’s historic thirty-two hour trip from New York City to Albany, Clermont is presenting a three-day Steamboat Day Festival. Activities will include a collection of steam vessels, model steamboat races, special exhibits, and lectures. Food, music, and entertainment of the steamboat era—and fireworks—also will be part of the festivities. It will take place from August 17 to 19, 200 years to the day of Clermont’s first successful trip.

It is the hope of all at Clermont involved with the Bicentennial Steamboat exhibit that much will be learned of Robert Fulton and the Livingston family, as well as the construction of the Clermont. It’s also hoped that the activities will help further the expansion of the Clermont State Historic Site with the restoration of the old steamboat dock and the bridging of the Amtrak right-of-way to permit direct access to the Hudson River.

More information on the Steamboat Bicentennial taking place at Clermont State Historic Site can be found on the Friends of Clermont website at www.friendsofclermont.org. For those interested in visiting, Clermont is located in Germantown, Columbia County. The visitor center and historic home are open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The site also is open on Monday holidays from 11:00 .m. to 5:00 p.m. The grounds are open daily from sunrise to sunset.

The Steamboat Bicentennial is the first in a series of celebrations leading to the Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial Celebration in 2009; for more about the history and events surrounding this commemoration, please visit: http://www.exploreny400.com/home.php .

 

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