Page images
PDF
EPUB

the idea of preventing a downward draught while moving at high speed against the wind,' and though the engine rested on a rectangular truck with four solid and flanged wheels, this model of a steam-engine has always been discussed as one for a steamboat mechanism. A St. Louis newspaper of 1854, while the original model was in that city, said:

“It was evidently thus arranged for the purpose of exhibiting the power of steam in propelling boats, and was constructed on a railway immersed in a trough of the proper depth for the paddles to strike the water, and when the motion was given, the wheels would guide it along the submerged railway."

The theory here expounded, and since accepted by those who have known of Fitch's last model or seen it, appears questionable when considered in connection with what had already been done by the man who designed and built it. Fitch had not found it necessary, in proving that steam could be used in moving a boat, to drag down the hull by a wheeled truck and keep the whole fabric on a submerged track along which it should move in a straight line. The added weight of truck and wheels, and the friction of wheels on submerged rails would retard the progress of the boat, if motive power was imparted to paddles alone. In practise the laying, maintaining and repairing of such a track would not be possible. River bottoms do not lend themselves to such a method of transportation. In deep water the wooden hull would either float the wheels off the track or else the wheeled underbody would pull the hull down, with unpleasant consequences to crew and passen

* The same idea was suggested for railroad locomotives a half century afterward. When the early lithographer made the picture reproduced in this work he showed the smoke.stack elbow pointed forward! Doubtless the whole stack had been twisted around.

2 With the wheels inside the truck, as some early railway engines and cars were first constructed. * The “Democrat."

[graphic][subsumed][subsumed][subsumed][subsumed]

71.—Last known handiwork of Fitch, made in Kentucky a short time before his

death, in 1798. The model of a steam-engine is of brass and has a truck and fanged wheels to enable it to run on rails. If it operated successfully it was a miniature steam railway locomotive. When in possession of the St. Louis Mercantile Library, in 1854, the model was considered to be that of a steamboat engine.

gers. In short, the suggestion that the model under consideration was designed as a practical appliance to move a floating steamboat apparently reduces itself to an absurdity. Fitch, by successive steps covering years of time, had created the steamboat out of a mental vision. He had built such a craft and operated it in regular advertised traffic for months at a stretch, covering a thousand miles or more at the rate of from six to eight miles an hour. He had sclved that particular problem, and his whole habit of mind while engaged in his work had always exhibited a steady process of progression toward something a little better and more practical. Yet his last thoughts regarding the application of steam power to travel and transportation found their expression in an engine resting on a rectangular truck and moving over rails on four flanged wheels. He had said:

"Neither do I conceive that all the Improvements that are yet to be made on steam are to be done on the water.” It is perhaps possible to believe that he took the one last forward step; that he saw the railroad of the future just as he had seen the steamboat, and in the American wilderness, in 1798, built in miniature the first free moving, railway steam locomotive created by the brain and hand of man. The model was in existence a few years ago, and if it still remains intact a competent examination and test of it under its own power on a railway track might finally determine the purpose for which it was built.

The many letters and utterances of Fitch show he had a clear comprehension of the service he had performed, and that his chief impulse was the accomplishment of his task for “the benefit of our Empire.” While his fellow men, still dazed at the discovery of their own independence, stood looking backward into the past like a boy who gazes awestruck into the chasm he has leaped, Fitch looked into the coming years and saw what they were yet to do. But his arguments, pleadings and

[graphic]

OF THE

ORIGIN

OF

STEAM BOATS,

WRITTEN IN 1810,

AND NOW COMMITTED TO THE PRESS

By W. THORNTON,

[graphic]

or the City of Washington

ALBANY:

TRINTED BY E. ARD I. AOSFORD, STATE-STRET.

1818.

72.-Early literature relating to travel in America. Title page of Thornton's pamphlet in description of Fitch's boats. Thornton was a member of Fitch's

company in Philadelphia, when the vessels were built and operated.

demonstrations were necessarily without effect. The collective popular opinion of a newly created state resembles in many ways the mentality of an individual in the early period of self-consciousness. Some things are beyond its comprehension.

A knowledge of what Fitch did has been easy of access. The contemporary records, some of which are here reproduced, have been open for men to read. Yet it has been the custom to dismiss him, in discussing the development of steam travel in America, by saying he lived before his time. The expression is a familiar one, often adopted by a people for application to such a case in an effort to rid themselves of responsibility and place the blame where they wish it might belong on the man who had presumption to do things his contemporaries did not appreciate. But the splendor of inspiration and original creation is not dimmed by such an artifice. No man is born before his time, for the days in which he lives belong to him, and are the ones that witness the performance of his labor. If what he offers is not accepted by his fellow men it is not because he is before his time, but because they refuse to walk beside him and accept the years of advancement that lie within his gift. The greater loss is theirs; not his. So it was in this case, and so passes the last individual figure of the story. Fitch was a genius cursed with a knowledge of the greatness of his own derided achievement. There can be no fate more sad than that.

It is idle to consider what would have happened if men of power had fought with one another for the privilege of aiding him and enriching themselves, as would be the case in like circumstance to-day. Had that thing happened the whole country east of the Mississippi would probably have been overrun by the aid of steam some

« PreviousContinue »