Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What did Fulton have that Fitch didn't?

This post is the first in a series dealing with early tourism on the Hudson ...

If you were visiting Clermont during out Halloween season, you might have encountered the ghost of John Fitch. He was the cranky one watching the ships steam by on the Hudson.

John Fitch was the first person to build and operate a steamboat. Named the Perseverance, it was an odd looking craft with banks of vertical oars – see the sketch on the right. Backed by a number of stockholders and working with a partner, Fitch carried passengers for a full season in 1790 – that's 17 years before Fulton was able to make his famous run.

From early spring until the winter ice, Fitch operated his boat on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. (This raises the question of what he was doing haunting the Hudson, but I make it a policy to never question the undead.) The Perseverance traveled somewhere between 1,800 and 3,000 miles, averaging only one breakdown per 500 miles – not a bad record for such an early ship.

Despite all this, the Perseverance failed to make money. In fact, it lost money on every trip. At the end of the season, after some more bad luck and a failure to raise money, Fitch left the Delaware behind and traveled to France.

In order to understand what Fulton was able to do, it's worth looking at what went wrong for Fitch. What problems did Fitch contend with that Fulton didn't?

For starters, John Fitch had to deal with John Fitch. Fitch had a hard life, and it left him with an abrasive temperament. In his own words: “... when in wretchedness [I am] haughty, imperious, insolent to my superiors, tending to petulance ... And a man of this disposition ... can never get through the world easy.”

Fighting to build and maintain a type of ship that many people considered to be a crackpot idea meant dealing with a lot of “wretchedness.” Throw in the fact that in 1790 Fitch was the losing side of an uncomfortable love triangle, and you start to understand why Fitch just left the country after the failure of his business.

Fitch's abrasiveness meant that he had problems dealing with his financial backers and this limited his ability to raise money. Fitch's attitude also cost him with his customers. It seems that Fitch had to be prodded by his backers into making concessions for his guest's comfort. Given his druthers, Fitch would have left the Perseverance as a simple craft with nothing to distract him from the technical problems of the engine.

Fulton, on the other hand, started off with a stocked bar on-board. It may seem excessive, but it was touches like that that made him a hit with the traveling classes. And that was important, because his connection to Livingston meant that he had an connection with the upper tier of New York society.

With the help of his connections and his business sense, Fulton was able to do something that Fitch couldn't: he made the steamboat fashionable. Whereas Fitch piloted an odd ship that was seen as a floating fire-trap with a wood-fired boiler on board, Fulton's North River Steamboat was well received and made its creator a fair sum of money.

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