Today in Transportation History – 1819: The First Steamship to Cross the Atlantic

The SS Savannah became the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

The ship was built in 1818 by the New York shipbuilding firm of Fickett & Crockett. During its construction, Captain Moses Rogers asked the Savannah-based shipping company, Scarborough & Isaacs, to convert it to a steamship with the goal of providing the world’s first transatlantic steamship service. A steam engine and paddles were added according to Rogers’ direction in addition to the normal complement of sails. She also boasted 32 passenger berths divided among 16 staterooms.

After a short sea trial in New York harbor, and an extended trip down the Atlantic coast to her home port of Savannah using sail only, she was visited by President James Monroe who took a short excursion up to Tybee Lighthouse and back on board. He was delighted by the prospect of using the ship as a cruiser against Cuban pirates and invited the owner, William Scarborough to sail her to Washington on her return from her long voyage.

Rogers and the crew then began provisioning and prepping the Savannah for her trip, but were unable to secure any passengers for the crossing, steam power then being considered too experimental and dangerous. (It didn’t help that the departure was further delayed by one of the crew returning to the ship drunk, falling off the gangplank, and drowning.)

Finally, at 5 a.m. on May 24 the Savannah set off for Liverpool, England under both steam and sail. Rogers switched her solely to sail that same day, but during the voyage, she was spotted by several other ships with smoke billowing from her stacks and outpacing sailing ships along the route.

On June 18, out of fuel for her boilers, Savannah was becalmed off Cork, Ireland and sailed the rest of the way to Liverpool on wind power alone. She was greeted by large crowds at the dock as she made anchor at 6 p.m. It had taken 29 days and 11 hours, 80 hours of which were under steam.

The SS Savannah was also the first steamship to ply the waters of the Baltic when she subsequently visited Denmark, Sweden and St. Petersburg, Russia. She eventually returned to her home port on November 30, six months and eight days from setting out on her record-breaking voyage.

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