Last week we spoke of the first ocean crossing ever made by a steam-powered ship, the Savannah, captained in 1819 by Moses Rogers, whose birthplace at the corner of Main and Hill streets in New London I saw each day as a youngster delivering newspapers.
The Savannah sailed on May 22, 1819, for Liverpool, England, taking just 29 days for the voyage, which easily bettered the 40-day average Atlantic crossing time. The Savannah, however, did not sail under steam power the entire way. It was specially built to demonstrate the practicality of a ship that could sail under steam when needed, or could use its sails when wind supplied free power, so it only ran its engine part of the time.
However, the Savannah didn’t stop there. Its sponsors were out to demonstrate that a steamship could navigate any and all waters. It next sailed to Elsinore, Denmark, and stayed there five days. Then it achieved another first, becoming the first steamship to ever enter the Baltic Sea as it sailed to Stockholm, Sweden, where the Prince of Sweden came aboard, followed by prominent citizens and ambassadors from several nations who were given a demonstration of the Savannah’s capabilities as it steamed upwind and downwind around local islands. Highly impressed, the Swedish government offered to buy Savannah, but had to be turned down.
Rogers then sailed for Russia, stopping first at Kronstad where the czar himself came aboard with gifts and praise. Then it steamed to St. Petersburg, where it spent 10 days briskly steaming around local waters with members of the royal family, other officials, and army and navy officers. The Russian government immediately offered to buy Savannah; in fact, it also offered to employ Rogers, but he politely turned down both offers.
On Sept. 29 Savannah sailed for home. However, very little was written about her historical voyage because another story captured the headlines of the day. A devastating fire roared through Savannah, Ga., burning down the company that had so deeply invested in the Savannah. Suddenly, the company found itself faced with a $5 million fire loss, the equivalent today of roughly $20 billion dollars. To stay alive it was forced to remove the engine and driving mechanism from Savannah and sell her as an ordinary sailing vessel.
Rogers, a stockholder in the company, but not one to be beaten by mere chance, became captain of a steamboat running between two widely separated cities in South Carolina, transforming a plodding 20-day run into one taking only two days. Trade skyrocketed and his crew cheered their “active and enterprising commander.”
Rogers planned to soon be at sea again, but in November 1821 he fell victim to yellow fever and died long before his time, barely aged 42. Not long afterward, the Savannah also died, driven ashore and wrecked by a great storm barely a year after her captain met his maker.
As a result, most Americans know very little about a courageous, innovative, and forward thinking American who was so far ahead of his time that his 1819 voyage was not duplicated until 1838. However, his fellow maritime officers remember him well.
At the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., the equivalent of the U.S. Navy’s Annapolis, stands Rogers Hall, serving as a midshipman barracks. In 1933 Congress recognized Rogers’ achievements by setting May 22, the Savannah’s sailing date, as National Maritime Day.
Moses Rogers: A name worth remembering.