Steamboats vs. Steamships


Frank L. McGuire Maritime Library

Steamboat Phoenix

Phoenix, built by John Stevens, 1808

American Heritage Picture and History Cards: Steamboats, 1961

Frank L. McGuire Maritime Library

It is important to note the difference between steamboat and steamship. Simply put, the latter is built to withstand the rigors of waves and storms on a heaving ocean, while the former is designed for the calmer waters of rivers, bays, sounds and lakes.

Robert Fulton's North River Steam Boat (better known as the Clermont) was the first commercially successful boat to be propelled by steam power. Inventors in Europe and America had experimented unsuccessfully with steamboats for decades, but the title of First Successful Steamboat goes unequivocally to Fulton.

John H. Morrison's History of American Steam Navigation (1903), describes the evolution of the steamboat with emphasis on its history in Long Island Sound (waters Moses Rogers knew well), and the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. 

In 1807-1808 Moses Rogers was captain of the New London sloop Lydia, making frequent trips to New York at the time when Fulton was conducting trials on the East and Hudson Rivers. Whether Moses actually worked with Fulton has not been proved, but he is known to have observed his steamboatperhaps even boarding her.  

By 1809 he was sufficiently impressed by the commercial potential for steam vessels that he joined forces in New Jersey with Fulton's rival, Colonel John Stevens, as captain of the steamboat Phoenix, gaining practical experience during the four years he operated her on the Delaware River. Those years had followed a risky trip to Delaware Bay, sailing in the open Atlantic along the Jersey shore. They made it to Philadelphia, but it was obvious that a lightly constructed vessel with flimsy paddlewheels would not long survive the rigors of the ocean. Captain Rogers realized that it would require a strongly built ship, not a boat, to venture very far into the Atlantic.