209 years ago today, Robert Fulton’s North River steamship made the first commercial steam voyage from Manhattan to Albany, along the Hudson River. Fulton was an impressive figure, but contrary to popular belief he wasn’t really the inventor of the steamboat – just its first real promoter. Others in Britain had invented and deployed it, and Fulton took designs and ideas from the UK into account in creating his own ship.
Still, Fulton’s voyage ushered in a new era of American transportation; before the railroad, and before the opening of the country’s first truly interstate travel canal, the Erie Canal, the steamboat was the first major step into the transportation revolution that would reshape American life, open the west, and begin to establish an American identity as a nation of tinkerers and mechanics.
Fulton’s grave, pictured at top, is in the Trinity Church Burial Ground in Manhattan, just feet from Alexander Hamilton, about whom I wrote earlier this week. Fulton would be amazed at the technological marvels that ferry people around New York today, from the subways underneath to the soaring spans of the Brooklyn and GW bridges above.