The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Early Steamboating Reminiscences
Oswego Palladium (Oswego, NY), 4 Apr 1876

Full Text
Early Steamboating Reminiscences
From the Ontario, Martha Ogden and United States.

By Captain James Van Cleve

A day or two since Hon. Alvin Bronson received a large book containing as the fly leaf denotes:

"Reminiscences of the Early Period of Steamboats and Sailing Vessels on Lake Ontario, with a History of the Introduction of the Propeller on the Lakes," for examination and suggestions. The book a large one, and very valuable for the information it contains, is in manuscript, and has many illustrations in watercolors of steamers, propellers and historical points of interest on the great lakes and the waters adjacent. It was prepared for the Buffalo Historical Society of Buffalo by Captain James Van Cleve of Lewiston, a gentleman who by his long service on the lakes, is competent to write of many things of interest not spoken of in history. We understand that it is the intention of Captain Van Cleve to prepare a copy for presentation to the citizens of Oswego. Should he do so, we know that no book in our public library will be more prized by lovers of history. Yesterday we were permitted to look at the book, and learn from it much that is not given in printed books of the early history of steam on Lake Ontario.

The first steamer built on the lakes was built under a grant from the executors of Robert Fulton; who had the exclusive right to use steam on the waters of New York. She was commenced in Sackets harbor in the year 1816, completed in 1817, named the Ontario and launched. She was modeled after the "Sea Horse," a boat then plying on the East river and was the following dimensions: Length on the deck 110 feet, beam 21 feet depth of hold 8 1/2 feet and measured 240 tons. She had two masts with fore and aft sails, a low pressure beam engine and two single flue boilers. Her owners were Major General Brown, U.S.A., Captain M. T. Woolsey, U.S.N. Hooker & Crane, Elisha Camp, Jacob Warring, Sackets Harbor, Eri Lusher, Ogdensburg, and Charles Smyth (grandfather of C. H. Smyth), Albany.

The captain of the new steamer was Captain Francis Mallby, U.S.N. On her trial trip, which was made in 1817, she was greeted with demonstrations of joy wherever she stopped. Up to the time of the appearance of the Ontario it was unsettled question whether a steamer could be used on the lakes, or the ocean, for it was contended by many that the waves would disarrange the machinery and leave the boat at the mercy of the waters. The passage to this port and to Genesee was unattended by anything save a realization of the fondest hope of those on board. Soon after leaving Genesee, on her way to Niagara, the new boat and experiment met with her first mishap, and how the croakers, if there were any on board, must have chuckled and whispered "I told you so." While she was steaming along a northeast storm arose, lashing the lake into a fury that no other steamer had ever encountered and she pitched and rolled heavily. It was thought when the boat started that the weight of the shafts and the wheels would be sufficient to hold the ends of the shafts resting in the bearings on the guards in place without putting a top on the bearing and bolting the top down, but a short experience with the storm convinced all on board that a mistake had been make. The huge waves lifted the wheels from the bearings and as the wheels revolved they caught in the in the paddle boxes or coverings, damaging themselves and completely destroying the coverings. As soon as the storm subsided the Ontario has headed for Sackets, whither she returned and where repairs were made. When she went out again, the ends of the shafts were secured in bearings which held them in place.

In 1824 the Ontario was owned by Jesse Smith of Smithville, Jefferson County. Luther Wright, one of our oldest and most respected citizens, was captain and clerk of the boat in that year, and had for his sailing master the late Judge Hawkins of Henderson. Two years later Captain Van Cleve became clerk, but who the captain was at that time the book does not state. Experiment though she was, she crawled through the water at the rate of seven miles an hour and ran with great regularity. After fifteen years of service, in which she had seen her kind multiply on the waters, she was hauled out here in Oswego and her hull was broken up.

The Steamer Martha Ogden, to which we referred the other day, was the second boat built on this lake. She was built at Sackets Harbor(then the great naval station on the lakes) in 1819. Her first commander was Captain Dan Reed of Sackets who commanded her some time. In 1830 Capt. James Van Cleve was promoted to a captaincy, and took command of the Ogden, his first boat, and remained in command two years. The Ogden was lost in November 1832 on Stony Point while under the command of Captain William Vaughan U .S. N.

The pride of the inland seas, the steamer United States, was launched at Ogdensburg in 1831, but did not start on her first trip until July 4, 1832. The late Captain Elias Trowbridge, formerly of this city, was her first commander with Captain Bates as sailing master. I n 1833 and 1834 Captain R. J. Van De Water was in command with Joel F. Tyler, of this city, sailing master. Captain Van Cleve was a candidate for captaincy in 1834 but was made clerk instead, followed by a promotion to captain in 1835. He was captain in 1835-36-37-38 and was followed by Captain Joseph Whitney who commanded the boat in 1839-40-41. Capt. William Williams, a hale, hearty, old veteran now Marine Inspector at this port, commanded her in 1842.

The United States figured in what was known at the Patriot war in 1838, but against the wishes of the officers. Captain Van Cleve says that contrary to his suggestions, the owner decided that the United States must leave this port on the 11th November 1838, and accordingly he went. It was well known that a large number of patriots under General Von Schultz were on board but it was not thought that any danger would result to the boat from the fact. Soon after leaving Cape Vincent, on route to Ogdensburg, the United Sates fell in with two schooners, which the owner, who was on board the steamer, told Captain Van Cleve, he was anxious should he get through to Ogdensburg.

Desirous of aiding the man, Captain Van Cleve took the two schooners and made them fast, one on each side of the steamer, and started. In a short time after the vessels were taken in two their hatches were raised and a number of men swarmed out of their holds and boarded the steamer. Captain Van Cleve thought there would be trouble, and wanted to run the steamer ashore in Alexander Bay, but two of the directors of the boat, Col Morgan and L. B. Crocker of this city, who were on board, objected and the steamer went on. On reaching Morristown , where the steamer stopped, nearly all the patriots and the two vessels left, anxious to get to Ogdensburg to assist in the assault on Prescott, which was to take place the next day. The United States reached Ogdensburg early the next morning and the town was wild with excitement. During the forenoon she was boarded by the Patriots, who took forcible possessions, and steamed down to Wind Mill Point, on the Canada side, where she landed a number of men. In returning to Ogdensburg she was fired into by the British steamer Experiment, the ball passing through the head of Solomon Foster, a wheelsman, who was in the wheelhouse, killing him instantly. On arrival at Ogdensburg Bill Johnston, and the others who seized the boat, left. Captain Van Cleve complains that the owners of the boat to save her from forfeiture made a scapegoat of him.

Captain W. S. Malcolm of this city was customs officer on the Untied Sates at the time, and when she was seized by the government he was put in charge as marshal and sent with her to Sackets Harbor. During a greater portion of the season of 1841, Captain Malcolm commanded the steamer Captain Whitney having been compelled by sickness to withdraw from the boat. After the old boat had lived her day of usefulness; she was sold to John Cochrane of this city, who hauled her out at the foot of West Third street to re-build her. She did not open very sound when the workmen began to rear her down, and the work was discontinued. Soon after she was burned. Judging from the picture of the United States, painted by Captain Van Cleve, the boat was not a handsome one. She was built in the old fashioned ship style, very bluff in the bow, with huge projecting guards. She had a house on deck, not beautiful by any means, and an awning over the upper deck aft.

Van Cleve, James
Media Type:
Item Type:
Date of Publication:
4 Apr 1876
Personal Name(s):
Van Cleve, James
Corporate Name(s):
Lake Ontario Steamboat Company
Richard Palmer
Language of Item:
Geographic Coverage:
  • New York, United States
    Latitude: 43.4678097970306 Longitude: -76.513933227539
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Early Steamboating Reminiscences