On this day in 1819, this ship, the SS Savannah, became the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. I know it doesn’t look much like a steam ship, but if you look carefully, you can see a paddle wheel on the side. She left Georgia, in the United Sates, in May and arrived in Liverpool on June 20th.
Although the ship had a full set of sails, she also had two 16 ft paddle wheels, one on either side, that were driven by a steam engine. The ship was too small to carry much fuel, so the wheels were only intended for use when the sea was calm and there was not enough wind to fill the sails. When not in use, they could be folded like a fan and stowed away on deck. It was something of a one-off design, the only ship known to have had retractable paddle wheels. Below decks, she was fitted out in a luxurious style with three large and comfortable saloons and sixteen state rooms, each with two berths.
In spite of this, they had a great deal of trouble persuading anyone to sail with them. Crossing the Atlantic was a dangerous undertaking at the best of times, but in such an unusual ship, no one was prepared to take the risk. They weren’t keen to travel on the Savannah, and they didn’t care to send any freight on her either. It was hard enough even to find a crew. No one thought such a ship had a hope of making it across the Atlantic in one piece. She was quickly dubbed ‘The Steam Coffin’. Their departure was delayed several times, including an occasion when an inebriated sailor fell off the gangplank and drowned. Despite last minute appeals for passengers and freight, no one came forwards. The ship’s historic voyage would be purely an experimental one.
Twice on the journey they were hailed by passing ships who were concerned because, seeing the smoke rising from the funnel, they assumed that the ship was on fire. Firstly, on May 29th, she was spotted by a schooner. They saw the smoke and pursued the ship for several hours but couldn’t catch up with her, On the second occasion, a ship called the Kite sighted her just off the coast of Ireland. After chasing her for some time, they eventually brought the ship to a halt by firing several warning shots across her stern. The Kite’s commander demanded to come aboard to inspect the ship and was surprised and ‘much gratified by the inspection of this naval novelty’.
When she approached Liverpool hundreds of boats sailed out to greet the unusual ship. Some were concerned though, that she had been sent by Jerome Bonaparte to rescue his brother Napoleon from prison on St Helena. One of their visitors was a British warship, demanding that they take down their American flag, which was perceived as some sort of insult. One of its officers told the captain, Moses Rogers, that if he would not take it down, he would send someone to make him. The captain, responded by calling to his engineer to “get the hot-water engine ready.” There was no such piece of equipment on board, but the threat of it was enough to dissuade the officer from pressing the point.
The Savannah sailed on to Russia, Denmark and Sweden. Captain Rogers, was showered with gifts from royalty and offers to buy the ship. But she recrossed the Atlantic, returning to her home port in November. Sadly her first crossing was her only one. A fire in the city of Savannah the following year damaged the business of the Savannah’s owners and they were forced sell the ship’s engine. She remained in use as a sailing ship until 1821. It would be almost another twenty years before steamships began to make regular trips across the Atlantic.