FreightWaves Classics: SS Savannah was first steamship to cross the Atlantic

A model of the SS Savannah. (Built by Francis Fickett/hughevelynprints.com)FreightWaves Classics profiles the SS Savannah, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

A model of the SS Savannah. (Built by Francis Fickett/hughevelynprints.com)

In 1819 the SS Savannah became the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

The ship

The ship was being built in 1818 as a traditional sailing ship by the New York shipbuilding firm of Fickett & Crockett. However, while the ship was still on the slipway and being built, Captain Moses Rogers (with the financial backing of the Savannah Steam Ship Company), purchased the vessel. He instructed the shipbuilders to add an auxiliary steam engine and sidewheel paddles, in addition to ship’s the normal complement of sails. Rogers supervised the installation of the machinery. 

What was the purpose of the steam engine and paddlewheels? Rogers’ goal was to begin the world’s first trans-Atlantic steamship service. 

A diagram of the SS Savannah. (Drawn by G. B. Douglas/The Rudder, May 1919)
A diagram of the SS Savannah. (Drawn by G. B. Douglas/The Rudder, May 1919)

However, the ship was too small to carry much fuel (75 tons of coal and 25 cords of wood). Therefore, the engine was intended to be used only in calm weather, when the sails were unable to provide a speed of at least four knots. 

The ship’s wrought-iron paddlewheels were 16 feet in diameter with eight buckets per wheel. To reduce drag and avoid damage when the engine was not being used, the paddlewheel buckets were linked by chains instead of bars, which enabled the wheels to be folded up like fans and stored on the ship’s deck. In addition, the paddlewheel guards were made of canvas stretched over a metal frame; it could also be packed away when not in use. The process of retracting the wheels and guards only took about 15 minutes. The SS Savannah is the only known ship to have been fitted with retractable paddlewheels.

The Savannah was fully rigged like a normal sailing ship, with the exception of having no royal-masts and royals. Contemporary engravings of the ship show that the Savannah’s mainmast was set further astern than in other sailing ships of the time. This was done to accommodate the engine and boiler.

The ship also was equipped with 32 passenger berths divided among 16 large and comfortable staterooms. Quarters for women were “entirely distinct” from the men’s quarters. There were three fully furnished saloons, furnished with imported carpets, curtains and hangings, and decorated with mirrors. The ship’s interior was described as more closely resembling a pleasure yacht than a steam packet.

The SS Savannah. (By Unknown/in Steamships and Their Story by E, Keble Chatterton)
The SS Savannah under both steam and sail.
(By unknown/in Steamships and Their Story by E, Keble Chatterton)

Preparations 

When it was learned that Stevens intended to use the Savannah for trans-Atlantic service, critics and doubters in New York City began to call the ship a “steam coffin.” Because of that, Rogers was not able to hire a crew there. Instead, seamen were hired in New London, Connecticut. 

A short “sea-trial” of two hours was conducted in New York Harbor to test the Savannah’s engine on March 22, 1819. Less than one week later, (March 28) the Savannah sailed from New York to her operating port of Savannah, Georgia. On the morning of March 29 the ship’s steam-powered engine was started, but was only used for 30 minutes before being shut down due to rough weather. The paddlewheels were stowed and sail power was again used to keep the ship moving. The Savannah reached her namesake port on April 6. The steam engine and paddlewheels were used for 41.5 hours of the 207-hour voyage. 

A Presidential excursion

The fifth president of the United States, James Monroe, took part in an excursion aboard the Savannah shortly before her historic voyage.

President James Monroe. (Public Domain)
President James Monroe. (Public Domain)

A few days after the Savannah arrived in Savannah Harbor from New York, President Monroe visited nearby Charleston, South Carolina, on an inspection tour of arsenals, fortifications and public works along the East Coast (this was less than five years after the War of 1812 had ended). When the Savannah’s principal owner, William Scarbrough, heard about Monroe’s visit, he instructed Rogers to sail to Charleston and to invite the President to visit Savannah aboard the steamship.

Savannah departed under steam for Charleston on April 14, and arrived at Charleston on April 16. Scarbrough’s invitation to President Monroe was delivered, but Charlestonians objected to the president leaving South Carolina on a vessel from Georgia. Therefore, Monroe promised to visit the ship at a later date. On April 30, the Savannah left Charleston, and arrived on May 1 after a 27-hour voyage.

On May 11, President Monroe arrived to take his promised excursion on the ship. After the President and his retinue had been welcomed aboard, the Savannah departed under steam for Tybee Lighthouse. Monroe dined on board the ship and expressed his enthusiasm to Scarbrough regarding the prospect of an American vessel inaugurating the world’s first trans-Atlantic steamship service. 

In addition, President Monroe was impressed by the ship’s machinery, and invited Scarbrough to sail the ship to Washington after her trans-Atlantic crossing for an inspection by Congress. Monroe thought the ship could be used as a cruiser against Cuban pirates.

The first trans-Atlantic steamship leaving the port of Savannah in May 1819. (Painting: John Stobart/scrimshawgallery.com)
The first trans-Atlantic steamship leaving the port of Savannah in May 1819. (Painting: John Stobart/scrimshawgallery.com)

The first trans-Atlantic voyage

Following President Monroe’s departure, the Savannah’s crew, with Captain Moses Rogers in command and his cousin Stevens Rogers as sailing master, made final preparations for the Atlantic crossing. 

The ship’s owners sought passengers and freight for the voyage, but no one was willing to risk lives or property on the novel vessel. This was several years before steam-powered railroads were founded, and steam power was considered “too experimental and dangerous.” Therefore, the ship made her historic voyage with its crew only. 

At 5 a.m. on May 24, 1819, the Savannah set off for Liverpool, England under both steam and sail. Rogers ordered sail-only power that same day; however, during the voyage the ship was spotted by several others with smoke billowing from her stacks while it outran sailing ships along the route.

The schooner Contract spied a ship on May 29 “with volumes of smoke issuing,” and assuming it was on fire, followed it for several hours but could not catch the Savannah. Contract’s captain eventually concluded that it must have been a steamboat, and thought it “a proud monument of Yankee skill and enterprise.”

Then on June 2, the Savannah, moving at a speed of about 10 knots, passed the sailing ship Pluto. After being informed by Captain Rogers that his ship was functioning “remarkably well,” the Pluto’s crew gave the Savannah three cheers, as “the happiest effort of mechanical genius that ever sailed the western sea.” Savannah’s next recorded encounter took place off the coast of Ireland on June 19. The cutter HMS Kite made the same mistake as Contract three weeks earlier; it chased the steamship for several hours believing it to be on fire. Unable to catch the Savannah, Kite fired several shots from its cannons; causing Captain Rogers to halt the Savannah. The Kite’s commander then asked permission to inspect the ship. The British sailors were “much gratified” to satisfy their curiosity about the Savannah.

A painting of SS Savannah, 1819, by Hunter Wood
An 1819 painting of SS Savannah by Hunter Wood. (armstrong.edu)

Liverpool

By June 18 the ship had run out of coal and wood for its boilers. The Savannah was off Cork, Ireland, and sailed to Liverpool on wind power alone. By June 20, the ship reached Liverpool. Hundreds of boats sailed out of Liverpool Harbor to meet the unusual vessel, including a British sloop-of-war. The ship was greeted by large crowds when it anchored at 6 p.m. The voyage across the Atlantic Ocean had taken 29 days and 11 hours, of which 80 hours were under steam (or about 11% of the total time).

The Savannah stayed in Liverpool for 25 days, during which the crew scraped and repainted the ship, tested the engine, and replenished fuel and supplies. During the time it was in Liverpool, the Savannah was visited by thousands of people, including officers of the army and navy and other “persons of rank and influence.” On July 21 the ship departed Liverpool bound for St. Petersburg, Russia.

Scandinavia

The Savannah reached Elsinore (now known as Helsingor), Denmark, on August 9. The ship was quarantined for five days and then sailed for Stockholm, Sweden on August 14. It became the first steamship to enter the Baltic Sea.

Moses Rogers. (Image: househistree.com)
Moses Rogers. (Image: househistree.com)

Arriving at Stockholm on August 22, the Savannah was visited by the Prince of Sweden and Norway on August 28. The ship was used for an excursion around local islands on September 1. This was attended by the “American and other ambassadors, nobles and prominent citizens.” 

While the Savannah was in port at Stockholm, the Swedish government sought to purchase the ship, but the terms were not good enough in Moses Rogers’ estimation and he rejected the offer. On September 5, Savannah departed for Kronstadt, Russia, and arrived there on the 9th.

Russia

The Emperor of Russia came aboard the Savannah and presented Captain Rogers with a gold watch and two iron chairs. From Kronstadt, the ship sailed on to St. Petersburg, arriving there on September 13. During the voyage from Liverpool to St. Petersburg, the Savannah’s engine was used more frequently (a total of 241 hours).

The American ambassador to Russia invited numerous prominent figures to visit the ship, and on September 18, 21, and 23, the Savannah made several steam-powered excursions in the waters near St. Petersburg. Those on the ship included members of the Russian royal family and other noblemen, as well as army and navy officers. As in Sweden, the Russian government tried to purchase the ship; once again Moses Rogers turned down the offer.

SS Savannah profile art print. (Robert North Jr./pixels.com)
SS Savannah profile art print. (Robert North Jr./pixels.com)

On September 27 and 28, the crew of the Savannah loaded coal and stores for the return journey to the United States. 

Homeward crossing

The Savannah sailed for Kronstadt on September 29 on the first leg of her journey. Several days of rough weather delayed the departure from Kronstadt, and the ship lost an anchor and a hawser (a thick rope or cable used to moor or tow a ship). The Savannah finally left Kronstadt under steam on October 10 bound for Copenhagen. It arrived there on the 17th, then  continued on to Helsingor to pay the toll to exit the Baltic. It then stopped at Arendal, Norway, where it waited out more bad weather before beginning its transit of the Atlantic Ocean. The ship was plagued by gales and rough seas for almost its entire westward voyage. The engine was not used until the Savannah neared the United States. The crossing took 40 days; the ship steamed up the Savannah River and arrived safely back at the port of Savannah at 10 a.m., November 30, six months and eight days after she had departed.

A model of the SS Savannah. (Photo: National Museum of American History/Smithsonian Institution)
A model of the SS Savannah. (Photo: National Museum of American History/Smithsonian Institution)

Washington, D.C. and then bad luck

The Savannah only stayed at her home port until December 3. As was promised to President Monroe, she set sail for Washington, D.C., arriving there on the 16th. While the ship was docked at Washington, a major fire swept through the city of Savannah on January 20, 1820, severely damaging the business district. William Scarbrough and his partners, the owners of the Savannah, suffered financial losses in the fire and were forced to sell the ship.

Savannah’s engine was removed and sold for $1,600 (about $40,000 today) to the Allaire Iron Works, which had originally built the engine’s cylinder. It was preserved by James P. Allaire, and was later displayed at the New York Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1856. 

After its engine was removed, the Savannah was used as a sailing packet, operating between New York and Savannah. However, the Savannah ran aground along the south shore of Long Island on November 5, 1821, and subsequently broke apart.

A mounted model of the SS Savannah along the Savannah Riverfront in Savannah, Georgia. (Photo: freemansrag.com)
A mounted model of the SS Savannah along the Savannah Riverfront in Savannah, Georgia. (Photo: freemansrag.com)

Legacy

A hybrid sailing ship/sidewheel steamer built in 1818, the SS Savannah was the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Despite this historic voyage, the space taken up by her large engine and its fuel left little room for cargo, and the public’s anxiety regarding her revolutionary steam power kept the Savannah from being a commercial success as a steamship. 

Nonetheless, the Savannah proved that a steamship was capable of crossing the ocean. However, it would be almost another 20 years before steamships began making regular crossings of the Atlantic (and the first ships to do so were British). Another American-owned steamship would not cross the Atlantic Ocean until 1847.

The Savannah was the subject of a 3¢ U.S. commemorative stamp that was issued on May 22, 1944.

The 3-cent stamp issued on the 125th anniversary of the SS Savannah's trans-Atlantic crossing. (Image: postalmuseum.si.edu)
The 3-cent stamp issued on the 125th anniversary of the SS Savannah’s trans-Atlantic crossing.
(Image: postalmuseum.si.edu)