Telling the Story of the "Steam Coffin"


Frank L. McGuire Maritime Library Collection

Courtesy of John Laurence Busch


University of Georgia Press and

Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum

Savannah, Georgia  1963

Although brief accounts of the voyage of the Savannah began to appear soon after her return from Europe, we are indebted to two contemporary maritime historians for the full story: John Laurence Busch, author of Steam Coffin - Captain Moses Rogers and The Steamship Savannah Break the Barrier (2010), and the late Frank O. Braynard, author of S.S. Savannah - The Elegant Steam Ship (1963, reissued 1988).  A shorter, well-balanced account is offered by British historians Robert Gardiner and Basil Greenhill in The Advent of Steam: The Merchant Steamship Before 1900 (1993), and a somewhat skeptical summary, focused largely on the design of the engine, appears in American Steamships on the Atlantic (1981), by Cedric Ridgely-Nevitt, for 29 years a professor of naval architecture. (Pictured below)

Captivated by the story of the Savannah, Busch and Braynard were determined to make it known to a wider public.  In his preface, Braynard wrote, "The [premature] death of Captain Rogers ended a career that should rival Fulton's in our school books.  It is distressing to the maritime historian that Rogers has been almost completely ignored."  As the first full treatment of its subject, this engaging book deserves our attention even though later research shows some of the author's facts or assumptions to be questionable or incorrect.

More than four decades later, John Laurence Busch took up the challenge of restoring the pioneering voyage of the Savannah to prominence, delving into the widely scattered historical record to write a detailed account that corrects errors which had crept into the story from the beginning, usually perpetuated by the newspapers of the day. Busch's advocacy of the Savannah's achievement did not end with the publication of Steam Coffin, as may be seen on his active website, Hodos Historia.

The achievements of Moses Rogers and the Savannah have always had detractors, as recently as 2018 when a naval historian declared in an review of Steam Coffin that she was not the success Busch, Braynard, and many others claimed she was. In 1981, Cedric Ridgely-Nevitt, a professor of naval architecture, summarized the Savannah project from a 20th century engineer's point of view, finding little to admire in the design of her engine. He also felt that adapting a conventional sailing packet to accomodate a steam engine, rather than creating a purpose-built ship from the keel up, displayed a lack of imagination.

While some writers have complained that the British and Canadians favor the achievements of their pioneering steamships (Sirius, Great Western, and Royal William) over Savannah's, the British editors of The Advent of Steam present her story in a balanced way, picturing the (inaccurate) Smithsonian model and acknowledging Savannah's place as first on the list of steam-powered Atlantic crossings. One would expect nothing less from its well regarded publisher, Conway Maritime Press. 

Note:  In a chapter devoted to early steam navigation, the editors of The Advent of Steam describe the development of shipping lines into Long Island Sound, a natural expansion of commerce on the Hudson River. Robert Fulton's Fulton made its first trip from New York into the Sound in 1815, which Moses would have known about, and in 1816 a second boat, the Connecticut, enabled scheduled runs as far east as New London. It was the dawn of the great age of the steamboat on the Sound, linking New York, New Haven, New London, Providence and Boston by water for more than a hundred years.