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While John Fitch proved that a working model of the steamboat could be built and used on America’s rivers, more than anyone else of his era, Robert Fulton deserves credit for changing the image of the steamboat from that of a frivolous novelty to a commercially lucrative and socially desirable means of transportation.
Fulton’s background as a self-made engineer, his work on Britain’s canal system, and his experimentation in the cutting-edge field of submarine warfare sparked a deep interest within him in the possible construction of a steam-powered rivercraft. In 1802 Fulton, fascinated and enticed by the possibilities of an emergent America united by this new and exciting technology, partnered with the American minister to France, Robert Livingston, to secure the exclusive rights to operate a steamboat in New York waters. Modern historians delight in reminding many who would now idolize Fulton that during his lifetime he was anything but idolized, most especially by the common riverman. Fulton’s monopoly of steam-power in the northeast and his attempts to gain similar control of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers led to outrage among bargemen and boat-hands of all types of vessels whose livelihoods were threatened by this new contraption and its ravenous owner.
Despite the outcry from river communities, it seemed that everyone not directly affected by the monopolies were delighted and captivated by Fulton’s energetic experimentations. By 1807, Fulton and Livingston had triumphed with the construction and test run of a steamboat on the Hudson River. Commonly called the Clermont, this vessel was not named such by Fulton, who called the vessel the North River Steamboat and later the North River Steamboat of Clermont. Regardless of its name, Fulton’s first steamboat was quickly established as a packet steamer and proved to be a great success. With this experience firmly tucked under his belt, Fulton set his sights on a much more lucrative area, the Ohio-Mississippi River trade with New Orleans.