Before the invention of the steam engine, boats could only work by sail or rowing. The steam engine harnesses steam through the boiling of water. Water is fed into a boiler that heats until it produces steam. The steam is then fed into a piston cylinder. It pushes the piston up to the top of its stroke. When it reaches the top, a valve is opened in the side of the cylinder to vent out the steam. The valve drops down again, and the whole cycle starts again.
An early steamboat engine
The boiler and condenser used to feed steam to the engine
Although steamboats had been in use since 1737, it was American-born Robert Fulton who built the first commercially successful steamboat. Fulton benefited from many others who had experimented with improved steam engines.
Fulton launched his steamship in 1807. The North River Steamboat, later known as Clermont, carried passengers between New York City and Albany, New York. Clermont was able to make the 150-mile trip in 32 hours.
Fulton's first steamboat the North River, later renamed the Clermont
Soon, steamboats were found on nearly every river and lake in the United States. In 1811 the commercial passenger steamboat left the dock at Pittsburgh, sailing down the Ohio River to join the Mississippi River and eventually, to New Orleans.
An early map of the Lake Champlain Basin
The Champlain Valley is a region of the United States around Lake Champlain in Vermont and New York.
Steamboats in the Lake Champlain Basin
The Champlain Lake Valley holds most of Vermont’s population and stretches east from its shoreline to the base of the Green Mountains. The state's largest city, Burlington and its surrounding suburbs are located on the lake. Once outside of this urban area, however, the remaining portion of the Champlain Valley is rural, comprising the most productive agricultural region of Vermont.
The New York portion of the Champlain Valley is mostly part of the Adirondack Park, offering tremendous views of the Adirondack High Peaks region and many recreational opportunities in the park and along the relatively undeveloped coast line of Lake Champlain.
In New York, the Champlain Valley is bordered by the city of Plattsburgh to the north, and the Town of Ticonderoga on the south. The northern shore of Lake George touches Ticonderoga and is considered a part of the Champlain Valley. Long before the advent of steamboats, the value of the lakes as a waterway was understood and valued.
Early military explorers under both the French and the British realized the "natural highway" formed by these lakes. With short overland portages, it was possible to travel from the Richelieu River on the Canadian border, to the southernmost tip of Lake George, then into the Hudson River via a portage and on to New York City and into the Atlantic.
This region was the site of fierce fighting during the 1750s, as both nations realized the strategic importance of controlling the waterways.
From the earliest days of non-native settlement, those living in the Champlain/Lake George region traded furs and fish for store goods. As early as 1765, pioneer William Gilliland noted in a journal entry that cattle for his settlement at Will’s Borough had arrived by ferry.
The First Commercial Steamboat on a Lake!
The steamboat Vermont was launched on Lake Champlain in 1809. The Vermont is believed to be the first commercial steamboat on any lake, anywhere in the world.
The James Caldwell
In 1817, the Lake George Steamboat Company launched its first steamboat, named for the company’s founder, the James Caldwell. The village of Lake George was originally founded by Caldwell. The Caldwell burned in 1821 and was soon replaced by the company’s second steamboat, the Mountaineer.
The Champlain Canal
In 1823, the 60-mile long Champlain Canal was opened, linking the southern end of Lake Champlain with the Hudson River.
These events of the early 19th century opened the region for a boom in both commerce and tourism. Steamboats became the accepted means of transportation for both goods and people, as the waterways provided for much greater speed and efficiency over land routes.