The story of the Savannah is a colorful chapter in the history of our merchant marine, and always hovering in the background is New London, the Connecticut port founded by John Winthrop the Younger in 1645. Its harbor, docks, shipping and maritime services were the economic engine of the town from the start. New Londoners grew up surrounded by the maritime industry and a great many of them joined it as sailors, fishermen, boat- and shipbuilders, and sea captains.
The Savannah would not have made her history-making voyage had it not been for the enterprise of the two New Londoners featured in this documentary, and the maritime milieu into which they were born. The efficacy of steam propulsion had been proved by Robert Fulton in 1807, and it was only a matter of trial, error and time until the steamship would supplant the sailing ship on the world's oceans. Moses Rogers and his associates and backers were real pioneers, and to them goes the prize of first transatlantic crossing using steam power.
Moses and Stevens Rogers were part of a long line of hardy mariners who began their careers on the New London or Groton waterfronts. The rich maritime heritage of the two towns is outlined in Robert Owen Decker's The Whaling City; they were busy commercial ports, they harbored many of the privateers which harassed the British during the American Revolution, and early in the 19th century New London began its rise to become one of the three most important New England whaling ports. And when the era of the legendary Long Island Sound steamboats - more like ships than boats - reached its peak before World War I, New London had long been a regular port of call.
Shipbuilding became a major industry. Even more obscure than the story of the Savannah is the fact that sister steamships built in Groton in the early 1900s for tycoon James J. Hill, S.S. Dakota and S.S. Minnesota, were for a time the largest in the world. Today, submarines are built near the site of those shipways and in 2018 the port appeared to be on the cusp of expansion from efforts to develop the State Pier and environs to support emerging technological and commercial opportunities.
Regrettably, the Savannah's career was cut very short. A figurative storm of financial, political and social problems had kept her from commercial viability, well described by her historians. In 1821, only two years after her history-making voyage, a real storm drove her onto the south shore of Long Island, where she foundered and broke up. By this time her engine had been removed and she was operated as the sailing packet she was designed to be until Moses Rogers turned her into something else.
It is a great irony of maritime history that the Savannah went to her death in a gale because the reliable steam engine which might have saved her, which had helped her cross the Atlantic to England, Scandinavia and Russia, to ride out several storms, and return home safely, had been removed only months before.
---Brian Rogers, Librarian