Last week we stripped Trinity Church back to its foundations. This week I’d like to take a look at the history the building watches over. The churchyard is the final resting place for a number of revolutionary soldiers and Daughters of the Revolution, as well as a number of notable New Yorkers who helped shape the destiny of the colony. Let’s take a look at one of these churchyard residents.
There are two large markers in the churchyard: that of Alexander Hamilton and Robert Fulton. As the story of Hamilton is widely known, we’ll focus on his neighbor Robert Fulton, the American engineer and inventor credited with developing the first commercially successful steamboat—the North River Steamboat. Fulton’s creation ferried passengers between New York City and Albany. It seems fitting that Fulton has a place here at Trinity not just because he had a major influence locally, but because he shared something in common with Richard Upjohn, the architect for Trinity Church: both following a passion that was different from their intended profession.
Though Fulton demonstrated an interest in all things mechanical at an early age, he also learned to sketch at an early age and appears to have been influenced by family friend and artist Benjamin West to pursue a career as an artist. He moved from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to the city of Philadelphia in his late teens where he made a living doing landscapes and apparently made some powerful friends, including Benjamin Franklin. In 1788, at the age of 23, Fulton decided to go to England where he lived with West and earned an income painting portraits and landscapes—but like those driven by other interests, he continued to develop and tweak mechanical tools and paraphernalia—similar to the way Upjohn continued to study architecture while working as a woodworker to make ends meet.
Fulton did not invent the steamboat. The technologies necessary for this endeavor were fleshed out by the French inventor Denis Papin in the late 17th-century. His ideas were expanded on by his English and German colleagues (similar in many ways to the DIY revolution of today). And eventually the steamboat grew out of the efforts of Claude de Jouffroy in 1774. In the U.S., it was not until 1787 that a successful steam powered boat was developed by John Fitch, who hosted a demonstration on the Delaware River, but failed to secure a monopoly on the patent which is actually what opened the door for Fulton's success.
Meanwhile, Fulton would move to France in 1797, where he was recognized for his inventions, and was able to learn about steamers from James Rumsey and Claude de Jouffroy. He set his sights on submarines, and designed the Nautilus, which survived submersion for a full hour at a depth of 25 feet (7.6 m). He tried to get the French government to subsidize the plans for the Nautilus, but they were not interested, and he turned his sights back to steamboats in 1801 after meeting Robert Livingston, the US Ambassador to France. The two designed and built a steamboat that they sailed up the River Seine, only to have it sink after the run. Not one to be discouraged, Fulton tried again, and the result was the North River Steamboat.
Fulton’s legacy in New York echoed in the fish market that bore his name for more than a century. The market was successful partially as a result of the ferry service that brought customers across the East River from Brooklyn. When the Brooklyn Bridge was built, declining ferry service was a primary reason the Fulton market faltered and eventually found it necessary to refocus its business. His physical mark on the city is preserved today in the streets that bear his name in Manhattan and Brooklyn, that stand like the halves of broken trail on either side of the East River.