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Belated Honor For The Little Savannah

July 2024
2min read

When the world’s first nuclear-powered merchant vessel, now under construction at the New York Shipbuilding Corporation, was named Savannah , it was belated vindication for another Savannah , which in 1819 became the first steampropelled ship to cross the Atlantic. The original Savannah was actually a hybrid—half steamship, half sailing packet. In addition to three masts carrying a full set of sails, she had a one-cylinder, go-horsepower steam engine—no bigger than the engine in a small speedboat today, but powerful enough to keep the loo-foot, 320-ton Savannah moving through the water, unassisted by wind or current, at a speed of six knots.

To everyone except her builders she must have been an ungainly sight. Amidships she had two huge paddle wheels; in heavy weather—or when her captain wished to take advantage of a favorable wind—these could be collapsed and brought aboard while canvas was shaken out from the yardarms. Slightly astern of the paddle wheels was a huge smokestack, its top angled and capable of being swiveled about to direct sparks away from the sails when both means of locomotion were in use.

Yet it was a proud moment when on May 22, 1819, sails set and puny engine chugging bravely, she weighed anchor off Savannah, Georgia, and headed for Liverpool, her hold jammed with 1,500 bushels of coal and 25 cords of wood. She had cost $50,000, but fear that fire might break out on the long voyage had resulted in very little cargo being entrusted to her, and no passengers occupied her 32 richly appointed staterooms. It was a bad omen.

On her way across the Atlantic the Savannah was hailed by the sailing ship Pluto , whose crew gave “the elegant steamship” three rousing cheers. The captain of the British revenue sloop Kite , seeing smoke pouring from the Savannah and being unaware of her revolutionary power plant, thought she was on fire and came up to assist her. She soon outdistanced him without a sail set. Racing, however, was a rare luxury for the Savannah ’s skipper, Captain Moses Rogers. He had to husband his fuel carefully; in fact, he used his engine for only ninety hours on the entire voyage and still arrived off Cork, Ireland, with “no cole to git up steam.” He had to put in for more so that he could enter Liverpool Harbor—29 days and 11 hours after leaving America—without using his sails.

The English were jealous and suspicious of the “adventurous Yankee teakettle.” In St. Petersburg, where the Savannah ’s backers had hoped to sell her to gadget-conscious Czar Alexander I, Rogers got a medal and a guitar but no offers to buy. Disappointed, he sailed home—entirely under canvas.

The Savannah ’s basic trouble was that in a profit-conscious age she was unprofitable. America was concentrating on its clipper ships—and with what seemed good reason: the Savannah had lost money, whereas the clipper Rainbow , built several years later at less than half the Savannah ’s cost, returned a 200 per cent profit on her maiden voyage. Eventually the Savannah ’s owners, unable to sell her, removed her engine and put her into the coastal cotton trade. On November 5, 1821, she ran aground in a gale and sank off Fire Island.

There for the past year, with the help of Navy blimps, Frank O. Braynard of the American Merchant Marine Institute (who drew the picture of the Savannah above) has been trying to find her and raise her bones. He is convinced that the Savannah does not deserve to remain forgotten.

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