A cutting wind blew down the Susquehanna River whipping into freezing spray the water cascading over Nanticoke Falls near Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Despite the cold, John Elgar had taken off his coat and was prepared to swim in case his little steamer, the Codorus, met disaster in her attempt to surmount the hazardous rapids. It was April 1826, the testing time for Elgar’s belief in the quality of iron as a boatbuilding material.
So begins the opening paragraph in an article by Alexander C. Brown, entitled “America’s first iron ship.” The article, with illustration, appeared in the Sept./Oct., 1966, issue of Steelways; The Magazine of the American Iron and Steel Institute.
If you mention First Steamboat; most people think of Robert Fulton, because of his self-promotion and the many books written about him. While Fulton did not invent the steamboat, he was the first to successfully develop them into a viable form of transportation, after the maiden voyage of the wooden-hulled Clermont up the Hudson River on August 17, 1807.
If you mention First Iron Steamboat; John Elgar comes-to-mind for few people. John Elgar, a Quaker from York, Pa., was the first to prove metal-hulled boats were viable in America with the November 22, 1825, successful maiden voyage of his Iron Steamboat Codorus on the Susquehanna River.
Many historians wrote about Fulton’s achievements, including numerous school readers and textbooks. John Elgar’s achievements were primarily the subject of local history books until Commander Alexander C. Brown, U. S. Naval Reserve, championed The Codorus, and the accomplishments of John Elgar, in numerous publications between 1950 and 1966.
Commander Brown was called to active duty in the Naval Reserve in 1942 as a Communications Officer. Following the war, he was a member of the staff of Captain Samuel E. Morison, USNR, and assisted in the preparation of the early volumes of his History of U. S. Naval Operations in World War II.
The quote at the end of this post is from Commander Brown’s 1950 article “John Elgar—America’s First Iron Shipbuilder.” This work appeares in Volume 76 of the United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Annapolis, Maryland.
Continue reading for John Elgar’s own words describing the Iron Steamboat Codorus tackling Nanticoke Falls.
The Codorus made her successful maiden voyage November 22, 1825; in the Susquehanna River at Accomac, Hellam Township, York County, Pa. The shipbuilder John Elgar, became Captain Elgar in proving out his iron steamboat on the Susquehanna through the end of 1825; where he traveled north, no further than Harrisburg.
The goal of John Elgar’s backers from Baltimore, was to prove out the viability of the navigability of the Susquehanna, due to the shallow draft afforded by the iron-hulled steamboat. In the Spring of 1826, after all the ice had cleared from the Susquehanna River, Captain Elgar commenced a voyage up the Susquehanna River to Binghamton, New York.
The 19-foot drop of the Conewago Falls on the Susquehanna River at York Haven could be navigated easily via the canal and locks, which opened in 1797. (See the post First Working Canal in Pennsylvania was in York Haven) On his voyage upriver, there were many areas with tricky rapids, however the Nanticoke Falls, below Wilkes-Barre, was the biggest obstacle. These falls were essentially steep rapids about half the height of the Conewago Falls.
I’ve annotated the following 1864 Map of Luzerne County, Pa., showing the location of the Nanticoke Falls in the Susquehanna River as it cuts through the Nanticoke Gap in the Shawnee Mountain Range. In 1864, a dam and canal were in place to provide for easier navigation through the Nanticoke Gap; however these were not in place when John Elgar tackled the falls on April 12, 1826.
John Elgar wrote a letter to his niece containing his account about tackling the Nanticoke Falls. For his 1950 article, Commander Brown quoted from John Elgar’s letter, which is in the Collections of the Library of Congress:
Thee cannot readily conceive the dangers I sometimes had to dare. Being constitutionally a coward, it required great exertion of mind to meet them in the face. To give Thee an instance, at Nanticoke Falls (where more boatmen have been lost than at any other place on the river) we had to throw out the tow line to a number of men on shore who had come down from Wilkes-Barre to see us ascend the falls. Five of us remained on the boat, four good polemen to brace her off the rocks along shore, that the steam power might be used without endangering the wheels, myself to tend the engine and, tho’ a cold morning, icicles hanging to houses 2-ft. long, I took off my coat, preparing to swim out in case of accident, resolved that the boat should go up or sink.
When all was ready the boat was pushed out of an eddy into the main current & all the steam power put on, which was at least 25 horses, but to little effect. The violence of the water being so great, it seemed to increase the motion of wheels. The boat remained stationary for several minutes; at length the greater exertion at the rope drew her bow so low that the rush of water dashed over the deck. I saw the boat was in great danger of being drawn under.
I ran forward with my knife opened to cut the rope, which is considered when necessary a very dangerous resort on account of the boat swinging round in the current & over-setting. But to my joy she bounced up like an egg & began to move ahead. This was a greater voluntary hazard than I would like to run again . . .
A few days later, a steam pipe burst when The Codorus was thirty-seven miles up river from Wilkes-Barre; luckily no one was injured. They floated back to Wilkes-Barre for some lengthy repairs to the steam engine. On May 20, 1826, The Codorus reached her goal, Binghamton, New York; which was about 300-miles distance and 600-feet higher elevation than her launching point at Accomac, York County, Pennsylvania.
The return trip downriver was plagued by low water; even for the slight six-inch draft due to the use of the iron-hull. Several times they had to tie-up and wait for river water levels to rise. The design of the iron-hull and operation of The Codorus had proved successful, however it was the erratic nature of the rocky Susquehanna River that ultimately did not permit establishment of commercial steamboat operations over the length of the river.
Related posts include:
- The Design of America’s First Iron Steamboat
- The Iron Steamboat Codorus heads to North Carolina
- Phineas Davis designed Grasshopper Locomotives
- First Working Canal in Pennsylvania was in York Haven