Picturing the S.S. Savannah: What Did She Really Look Like?

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Savannah with a straight smokestack

Frontispiece in James Rogers of New London 

and His Descendants, 1902

Frank L. McGuire Maritime Library

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Frank L. McGuire Maritime Library

The iconography of the Savannah has a checkered history: her plans had disappeared and errors were perpetuated in early drawings and engravings. Artistic license led the artist of the frontispiece of the Rogers genealogy to substitute a conventional smokestack for the ship's unusual bent stack. 

Even the attractive stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service in 1944, on the 125th anniversary of Savannah's voyage (shown later), uses an inaccurate drawing, probably based on the flawed model in the Smithsonian dating from about 1890. 

In 1961 Howard I. Chapelle, Smithsonian curator of transportation, published an account of research undertaken to build a more accurate model. Information was assembled from the Savannah's logbook, the registry description in the Savannah Custom House, drawings by Jean-Baptiste Marestier, a French naval architect who spent two years in the U.S. studying steam vessels, and a St. Petersburg newspaper account of the ship's visit.

When the new model was displayed, historian Frank O. Braynard believed that certain features were still incorrect, in particular the height of the smokestack and the placement of the paddlewheels and wheel house, features that distinguished her so radically.  

In his 1981 study of American steamships, Cedric Ridgely-Nevitt, a naval architect and historian, also criticized Chapelle's rendering and, though generally dismissive of the Savannah's historic achievement, regarded Jean-Baptiste Marestier's drawing (see below) as the most accurate depiction on record, a view supported by John Laurence Busch in Steam Coffin.

Of one thing we can be sure:  the hybrid Savannah looked like no other ship of her day.

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Picturing the S.S. Savannah: What Did She Really Look Like?