In 1798, Robert R. Livingston, Jr. (1746-1813) requested and obtained a monopoly from the New York State Legislature granting him the exclusive right to operate passenger steamboats on the Hudson River.
The Livingston family was very wealthy and owned the large estate, Clermont, just south of Albany. They ran an iron foundry and machine shop for many years where they had installed a steam engine to power the equipment.
Robert knew that the sailing ships of the day were very dependent upon weather conditions and he felt that a steam engine would be a steady, more powerful and more dependable power source for commercial watercraft. Robert set out with his foundry and equipment to develop a steam-powered boat.
At that time, New York State’s stagecoach lines, ferries, paved roads and bridges were inadequate. Since there were no income taxes or property taxes, it was up to private enterprise to undertake these improvements. The risks were high however, and many of these efforts ended in failure.
In order to encourage development and protect investors, the New York State Legislature was in the practice of granting monopolies to developers for a set amount of time to allow them to recover their investment. Livingston was granted his monopoly with the requirement that he would develop an operating passenger steamboat within one year. When he didn’t meet the requirement, his monopoly expired.
In 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte signed the Treaty of Ildefonso with Spain transferring all Spanish land in the United States to France. Hoping to obtain the Port of New Orleans, Thomas Jefferson appointed Robert Livingston U.S. Minister to France and sent him to meet Napoleon in 1801 and try to purchase New Orleans. At first Livingston was unsuccessful, but Napoleon suddenly changed his mind and offered all of the Louisiana Territory to Livingston. Under the direction of U.S. Secretary of State James Monroe, Livingston negotiated the Louisiana Purchase for $15 million.
While in France, Livingston met an artist named Robert Fulton. Fulton and Livingston discussed the problems associated with using a steam engine to somehow create forward motion in a large boat and Fulton made several excellent suggestions. Livingston hired Fulton to come to his estate at Clermont to work on the steamboat.
Returning to the U.S. in 1803, Livingston convinced the New York Legislature to give him a new monopoly. By this time, there were small boats operating on steam power but nothing large enough to transport passengers in a regular commercial venture. Livingston was given two years to build and operate a steam-powered passenger boat of a certain size to run between New York City and Albany. Again he failed to meet the deadline and the monopoly expired. In 1807, Livingston convinced the legislature to give him another two years to have the boat up and running under the same requirements.
Under the direction of Fulton, a boat was constructed at New York City with a side-wheel paddle powered by a steam engine imported from England. On its first experimental trip to Albany, it left New York City on Monday August 17, 1807. Stopping once for wood fuel and adjustments at Livingston’s estate at Clermont, it arrived in Albany on Thursday August 19th. The 142-foot, smoke-billowing craft with an uncovered paddle-wheel was met at Albany with much amazement and curiosity. One observer wrote that he’d seen the devil arrive at Albany, riding a sawmill.
The boat docked at Albany’s pier at the foot of Lydius Street (today’s Madison Avenue) and Fulton and his passengers stayed overnight. Departing the next morning, August 20th, the return trip to New York City took 20 hours. Although the trip was a success, the boat could not yet comfortably accommodate the number of passengers required by his legislative mandate.
Converted for passenger service, the boat, owned 50-50 by Fulton and Livingston, was registered with Hudson River shipping authorities on September 3, 1807, giving her name as North River Steam Boat (the early Dutch name for the Hudson River was the North River). It was frequently referred to as the North River Steam Boat of Clermont, later shortened to Clermont.
On September 4, 1807, the Clermont made it to Albany in 28 hours and 45 minutes, her first commercial trip, meeting the legislature’s requirements and gaining for Fulton and Livingston a 20-year monopoly. The initial fare from Albany to New York City was $7. After that first trip, steamboat service between Albany and New York City continued unabated for over 150 years. By 1823, the Fulton and Livingston Line was running daily Monday through Saturday and the following year they added the James Kent with the Saratoga, alternating the two boats every other day, one leaving Albany and the other leaving New York City.
Court challenges were, however, brought by other boat owners who were still operating sailing ships and wanted to convert them to steam. Livingston’s monopoly was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1824, ruling that the Hudson River was an interstate waterway and New York could not restrict vessels from other states from traveling the interstate waterways in New York, opening steamboat service to other competitors.
For the next ten years however, steamboats of the Hudson River Steamboat Association, which included those of Fulton and Livingston, dominated the trade.
Illustrations: Above, Robert R. Livingston Jr. (portrait attributed to Gilbert Stuart); and below, the Clermont.