Fulton's Folly

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FULTON'S FOLLY. In 1798, the exclusive privilege of navigating boats propelled by steam within the state of New York was given to Robert R. Livingston. In Paris, where he was minister to France, Livingston met the American painter and inventor, Robert Fulton. In 1803, they revived the monopoly, with themselves as joint beneficiaries. In 1807, Fulton built the steamboat Clermont, soon widely known as Fulton's Folly. The small, snub-nosed boat made the 150-mile run from New York City to Albany in 32 hours. A regular passenger service was inaugurated, and a new era in water transportation began. In 1809, Fulton applied for, and obtained, a federal patent.

The Livingston-Fulton monopoly caused much grumbling. Fulton had not invented the steamboat and had no right to a monopoly, competitors charged. The courts affirmed Fulton's monopoly but, with no way to enforce the verdict, he was forced to compromise with a rival company in Albany. During 1811, Fulton built two vessels—used along the Hudson River—and a ferryboat to shuttle travelers between New York City and New Jersey. The question of interstate ferryboats and navigation on rivers that formed boundaries between states became a source of protracted litigation and landmark Supreme Court decisions.

Spurred on by their success in New York, Livingston and Fulton attempted to gain monopolistic control of all steamboat traffic on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. In 1811, Louisiana gave them a monopoly for a limited time on the Mississippi. Fulton accordingly built the New Orleans, the first steam craft to navigate the interior of the country. Litigation continued until the monopolies were broken up by the 1824 decision of Chief Justice John Marshall in the Supreme Court case of Gibbons v. Ogden.


Baxter, Maurice G. The Steamboat Monopoly: Gibbons v. Ogden,1824. New York: Knopf, 1972.

Haites, Erik F., James Mak, and Gary M. Walton. Western River Transportation: The Era of Early Internal Development, 1810–1860. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.

Philip, Cynthia O. Robert Fulton, A Biography. New York: F. Watts, 1985.

A.C.Flick/a. r.

See alsoHudson River ; Mississippi River ; Ohio River ; Steam Power and Engines ; Steamboats .

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