(Adapted from a slide presentation created in January of 2000, which was based on my article in Steamboat Bill: Journal of the Steamship Historical Society of America, No. 225, Spring 1998.)
Phil Lord 10/2012

Anyone with a passing knowledge of steam navigation in New York State history knows that the first operation of a steamboat in the region was Robert Fulton's Clermont, (below) launched on the Hudson River in 1807 (Guillet 1933:466).

It used a British engine to drive paddle wheels in what could rightly be called a deep water channel.

In 1809 the Accommodation (above) was launched at Montreal with a Canadian engine to ply the waters of the St. Lawrence, with mixed results (Guillet 1933:466).

On Lake Ontario the Frontenac (above, left) and the Ontario (above, right) were launched in late 1816 and early 1817 respectively (Guillet 1933:442), and on Lake Erie, the boat Walk-in-the-Water (below) sailed in 1818 (Durant 1982:136)

The several bodies of water on which these steamships sailed - Hudson River, St. Lawrence River, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie - stood at the extremities of an interior network of rivers, lakes, streams, and portages that made up the inland navigation corridor connecting the Atlantic to the Great Lakes; from the port at Albany, on the Hudson, to the emerging western harbor at Oswego, on Lake Ontario (see map below).

Navigation of these inland waterways was frustrated by the occurrence of numerous rifts, or shoals, (below) which obstructed waterborne transport right up to the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. 

That canal effectively bypassed this chain of natural waterways with one, continuous slack water channel from Albany to Buffalo, on Lake Erie.

But prior to the Erie Canal, the tiny harbor at Schenectady (above) was the eastern terminus of the inland waterway. It stood at the foot of the Mohawk River navigation; the largest segment of the system.


"Navigation on the Mohawk", from eyewitness account, 1807.

For over a century, prior to the advent of steam, relatively effective navigation had been accomplished along the Mohawk by means of batteaux (above, left); and later Durham boats (above, right). Both boats were flat-bottomed, shallow draft, and well suited to a navigation interrupted by numerous rifts.
The river was obstructed between Schenectady and Rome by over 90 rifts or rapids, some as shallow as a foot, and few more than two. Therefore, both types of boat were propelled primarily by means of poles, jammed against the stoney bottoms of the rivers.

The batteaux, which first came into general use along this corridor during the military campaigns of the last half of the eighteenth century, were about 30 feet long and carried a ton and a half of cargo.
The crew of a batteau might be as few as three. One man steered from the stern with a long oar, or paddle. The other two stood in the bow, facing forward, and poled by using an hand-over-hand technique to push the pole behind them alongside the gunwale. This poling style can still be seen in places as diverse as the rivers of England and the swamps of South America. The poles were 12-16 feet long and had a small wrought iron tip attached at the end to protect from wear, as well as to give the boatman purchase against submerged boulders and bedrock. 

The larger, and later, Durham boats were twice as long, but still very narrow, many being less than 10 feet in width. They were poled by as many as six men walking along each side on cleated walking boards, as shown in the 18th century woodcut above, right. This image of how large river boats were moved on the Mohawk should be remembered for our later discussion.

Durham boats ranged from 60 to 70 feet in length. They could be managed by a crew of five or six, one serving as a steersman. A sweep oar of up to 23 feet in length, pivoting on an iron pin in the sternpost, kept the keel-less craft in some degree of alignment, as it navigated the currents up and down the river. The mode of operation, when poling, was significantly different than that of a batteau, and was observed by a traveler on the Mohawk in 1807:

It is not often, however, that a fair wind will serve for more than three or four miles together, as the irregular course of the river renders its aid very precarious; their chief dependence, therefore, is upon their pike poles. These are generally from eighteen to twenty-two feet in length, having a sharp pointed iron with a socket weighing ten or twelve pounds affixed to the lower end; the upper end has a large knob, called a button, mounted upon it, so that the poleman may press upon it his whole weight without endangering his person. This manner of impelling the boat forward is extremely laborious, and none but those who have been for some time accustomed to it, can manage these poles with any kind of advantage.

Within the boat on each side is fixed a plank running fore and aft, with a number of cross cleats nailed upon it, for the purpose of giving the polemen a sure fotting in hard poling. The men, after setting the poles against a rock, bank or bottom of the river, declining their heads very low, place the upper end or button against the back part of their right or left shoulders, (according to the side on which they may be poling), then falling down on their hands and toes, creep the whole length of the gang-boards, and send the boat forward with considerable speed.   Christian Schultz, 1810

These large freighters dominated inland navigation in New York from about 1798 to a few years after the opening of the Erie Canal, and such boats continued to carry the transferred cargos of Hudson River and Great Lakes sloops across New York until that canal was completed in 1825.

History records that although steam navigation quickly emerged as the propulsion method of choice in the deep waters at either end of this inland passageway, it was never attempted on the Mohawk River itself ‑ with one exception. And it is that Singular exception that is the subject of this presentation.

In his comprehensive chronicle of the early history of the Mohawk river town of Utica, in Oneida County, published in 1877 but drawing on personal interviews conducted much earlier, Moses Bagg reveals, in the following fragmentary notice, a unique event in the navigation history of the region:

"Mellen Battle, living near the starch factory, advertised in December 1810, what he termed the American Wheelwright's Labor Saving Machine; it being a machine for making all kinds of carriage wheels, and also spokes, axe helves, &c. He obtained a patent in 1809. This Battle deserves to be remembered as the man who built the only steamboat that has ever traversed the Mohawk above the falls at Cohoes."     (Bagg 1877: 292)

The 1810 patent still exists for his millwright's machine (above). In searching for further elaboration for the unprecedeted occurrence of launching an experimental steamboat on the Mohawk, one needs only look further along in Bagg's publication, where he provides a more ample description of the developments in internal transport in the first quarter of the nineteenth century:

With the opening of the season of 1822 ... the canal had now become so great a curiosity that by midsummer the public houses (in Utica) were crowded with strangers from the East, on their way to see it and ride upon its waters. Mellen Battle was building a steamboat for the Mohawk designed to ply between Schenectady and Little Falls.   (Bagg 1877: 530-31)

The painting below (right) is from an eyewitness at Utica in 1823, observing the new Erie Canal.

Perhaps at this point a brief review of the geography of the inland navigation route would help place this project in perspective. Entry into the Mohawk from the Hudson, just north of Albany, was blocked for navigation immediately upstream from the junction by the Great Cohoes Falls (below), at what is now Cohoes (Albany County). A land route was established from Albany to Schenectady, the nearest suitable embarkation point, 16 miles to the west. 

From that point to Little Falls, 53 miles further west, navigation did not require any portages. But at Little Falls (above) passage by boat was restricted by the rapids until after 1795.

In 1793 a private navigation company - The Western Inland Lock Navigation Company - began its second year of operation by beginning a short canal of just over a mile (above) to surmount the rapids at Little Falls (Herkimer County). This canal, completed along the north bank in 1795 and refurbished in 1803, would have served to carry Battle's steamboat past the falls in 1822. But Bagg's description of his intent indicated that Battle inetnded only "
... to ply between Schenectady and Little Falls." It is probable that since the Erie Canal was building eastward from Rome and had just reached Little Falls in 1821, Battle saw his steamboat to provide fast service on the river between Schenectday and the east end of the canal, where passengers could board regular canal boats, or disembark the canal to take his river service down to Schenectady.

It is not surprising, given the shallow conditions of the Mohawk channel, that the paddle wheel technology employed by steamboats running in deep water situations had not been tried on the river prior to 1822. With rifts as shallow as 12-18 inches, such a propulsion mechanism could only serve to thrash itself apart as it dredged its way against the current, and any stray rock encountered would instantly smash the paddles to bits in any but the deepest parts of the channel.

Battle was aware of this and proposed an alternative technique (his patents above) for his steamboat, as Bagg recounts:

“It was quite peculiar in construction, its steam being used not for the working of paddles, but to put in motion poles that were to reach the bottom of the river and push the boat onward. These poles, of which there were two on a side, were joined to the upper extremity of upright beams, and were made by means of cranks to rise alternately out of the water and to set themselves again on the bottom. The boat was a failure, and never made more than a single trip. This, or another like it, was also tried on the canal."      (Bagg 1877: 531)

In attempting this, Battle tried to match the newly harnessed power of a steam engine, apparently of his own improved design (see patent near top of this page), to the tried and true method of poling, used for generations by hundreds of Mohawk River boatmen. Since setting poles had always worked well against the rifts and currents of the Mohawk in the past, it could be reasoned they may work as well when driven by the unlimited power of steam, thus continuing a competetive service of river transport that might even surpass the sluggish pace of canal boats, drawn by mules and horses along the newly built Erie.


But Battle was by no means the first to imagine steam harnessed to setting pole mechanisms, instead of paddle wheels, as the method of overcoming the rapids of inland rivers. Nor was he the first to look to crankshaft linkages for his drive train. That honor goes to John Fitch, the first man to venture out on American waters in a steam driven boat. 

In 1786 he demonstrated his boat on the Delaware River, near Philadelphia, (above and below) and reported the event in the December issue of the Columbian Magazine.

"Philad, Dec. 8, 1786. ... It is expected, that the engine, which is a 12 inch cylinder, will move with a clear force of 11 or 12 cwt. after the frictions are deducted; this force is to act against a wheel of 18 inches diameter. The piston is to move about three feet, and each vibration of the piston gives the axis about 40 evolutions. Each evolution of the axis moves 12 oars, or paddles 5 feet, (which work perpendicularly, and are represented by the stroke of the paddle of a canoe). As 6 of the paddles are raised from the water, 6 more are entered, and the two sets of paddles make their strokes of about 11 feet in each evolution. The cranks of the axis act upon the paddles about 1/3 of their length from the lower end, on which part of the oar the whole force of the axis is applied. Our engine is placed in the boat about 1/3 from the stem, and both the action and re‑action turn the wheel the same way. With the most perfect respect, Sir, I beg leave to subscribe myself your very humble servant. JOHN FITCH
                     (Fitch 1786:174)

One might speculate that Fitch’s boat was close in design to a 60 foot Durham boat (above), or perhaps even was one. Durham boats by that time had plied the lower Delaware between the Durham iron mines above, from which they derived their name, and Philadelphia for over 40 years. It was these very same ore boats that General Washington enlisted that night in 1776 to carry his army across the Delaware to attack the British at Trenton. Fitch's boat was of a similar size:

"We...certify that we have been in John Fitch's Steam boat of 60 feet in length in the River Delaware when the said boat was propelled through the water ... by the force of steam..."           (Fitch 1788:1079)

In 1787, as New York was being admitted to the Union and the Federal Constitution was being debated, Fitch decided to extend his grasp beyond the Delaware River and petitioned the New York State Legislature asking for exclusive rights to develop his steamboats for inland navigation. He understood that the waterway route across New York was to become the highway of the Nation, even in the age of riverboats. He indicated that he had:

...invented a method of propelling vessels through the water by the force of steam... a method of rowing boats by oars worked by cranks which was never heretofore used which applies not only to the force of steam but the strength of a horse or any other power to equally as good advantage as men with oars, whereby inland navigation must be benefited nearly as much, as the labor of horses is cheaper than the labor of men.   (Fitch 1788: 1087)

The mechanism employed in Fitch's paddled boat approximates that apparently used in Battle's, or vice versa. However, the use of setting poles was substituted for that of paddles in the latter. Battle was not the first to attempt this.

In a treatise written in 1788 supporting the primacy of his own steamboat design over claims made by James Rumsey (above), who had displayed a similar invention in Virginia, Fitch writes:

Here it is to be observed, that no mention was made to General Washington of steam at the time of the exhibition; the principles on which the boat was propelled, were entirely unconnected with, and distinct from steam; being simply a model propelled by water wheels, cranks, and setting poles; a mode which was many years ago tried on the river Schuylkill by a farmer near Reading, but without success.      (Fitch 1788: 1046)

Frank Prager, who has written extensively on the life of John Fitch, describes the mechanism utilized by Rumsey:

The boat was powered by a pair of paddle wheels mounted on it. These paddle wheels were rotated by the stream on which the boat floated. They actuated setting poles, which were to engage the bottom of the stream. In this way the boat was to "walk upstream" automatically.    (Prager 1976: 8)

He also suggests that in addition to Rumsey, and the anonymous Pennsylvania farmer, a Dr. James McMechen in Delaware, also developed a powered setting-pole boat, around 1783, and offered to demonstrate it to the Continental Congress. (Prager 1976: 8)

So it appears that Battle, who had already patented an improved steam engine for the powering of mill machinery in 1810 (above), combined that power source with an overhead set of cams and linkages almost identical to that of John Fitch, created a generation earlier. The description of Battle's experiment, given by Bagg (1877), and that of Fitch, recited by himself (1788), appear nearly identical.

Battle patented his steamboat concepts, as well as his engine, so we have another opportunity to visualize his engineering in operation via this series of early patent drawings. Although there is no way to be certain these patented poled boat designs, recorded on March 12, 1812, were the ones used a decade later when his boat entered the Mohawk on its maiden voyage, it  of great interest to note in them a departure from the overhead crank and linkage system used earlier by Fitch, and others. Unfortunately we do not have text to accompany the earliest of these drawings.

The application of a rotary steam engine is suggested (above), which drives, in each case, a set of reciprocating bars to which are attached pairs of setting poles. While one sketch (above, top, left) suggests a continually circulating chain to which four poles are attached, and while such a drive would, in fact, serve to set and thrust each pole as it came around the front cog, it would appear the the poles being drawn forward in a "coasting" mode would interfere with those being driven aft in a "power" mode, and it is not clear this is actually what Battle intended to protray with the sketch.

The mechanism is better understood by the drawing above. Two half-geared wheels, driven by the engine, rotate counterclockwise, engaging two toothed bars to which the poles are attached, presumably on pivots at their upper ends. These bars are fastened to a continuous chain, which runs around a pulley at each end. One of these assemblies would be attached to each side of the boat (above).

Here is how it works. STAGE 1: As the lefthand wheel (X) rotates, it's geared half engages the toothed bar (A) and propels it foreward, dragging the poles along the bottom of the river. Since the poles are on a continuous chain, that means those attached to bar B are moved toward the back, which is allowed because the geared half of the wheel (Y) is not engaged in the bar. This thrusts the poles (B) backward into the river bed, moving the boat forward. STAGE 2: As wheel X disengages and wheel Y engages the process is reversed, with poles mounted on bar A thrusting backward as poles on bar B being dragged foward to get in position for another thrust stroke.

This would mimic the action of live boatmen poling Durham boats upriver. After making their rearward thrust by walking back along the cleated boards, the boatmen would lift their poles, run to the front of the boat dragging their poles, and then repeat the process. 

In the patented boat design above, the mechanical action is the same, and the poles are attached in pairs to bars that are fastened to a continuous chain running around pulleys. The action of the bars is reciprocating, and slots in the hull are provided for the bars to run along. Friction here must have been a factor.

But instead of being driven by a pair of half-geared wheels, it seems to be driven by a rod, attached to the forward bar of poles, and driven off a cam on a flywheel on the engine. The aft bar is simply linked to the forward bar by the continuous chain, and thus mirrors any movement of it 
by a reverse action.

This mechanism seems, on the face of it, more likely to work effectively. But it would appear, if Bagg's description of the voyage is to be trusted, that the actual boat was set up differently. The observation of "poles... joined to the upper extremity of upright beams..." (Bagg 1877: 531) for Battle's maiden voyage is similar to what Fitch demonstrated on the Delaware River years earlier (above). The reported failure of the design, whether this or another not patented, suggests that Battle was better at engineering steam engines than drive trains, especially those applied to river navigation.

It is unlikely that any pole-driven boat could ever be run effectivly by mechanical means. A problem with a system of setting poles driven by other than men is that the uneveness of the bottom and the variety of surfaces encounted - from bedrock to gravel to mud - put immense stresses on any mechanical linkage which drives the poles into the ground.

Unlike linkages that run paddles or oars, which merely sweep smoothly through the water, linkages to setting poles transmit uneven and often dramatic shocks through the entire structure. While any uneveness of thrust, when running paddles, can easily be compensated for by the steersman, uneven or erratic thrust in a setting pole apparatus is much more difficult to compensate for due to the immediate and direct contact made between the pole tips and the river bottom.

While creeping along a smooth, gravel bottom of uniform depth below the hull with such a powered poling mechanism can certainly be envisioned as an advantage, rarely did such uniform bottom conditions occur in the Mohawk River. It does not take a very creative imagination to see how a poorly placed submerged boulder, or a mixed sand and rock bottom, could shock the linkages to smitherines, or at best produce an erratic and uncontrollable forward course.

This weakness in the concept seems to be confirmed by what Bagg wrote:
"The boat was a failure, and never made more than a single trip. This, or another like it, was also tried on the canal."      (Bagg 1877: 531)

Of perhaps peripheral interest, but evidence of his persistence in the area of inland navigation technology, is a patent recorded in 1840, some 20 years into the operation of the Erie Canal, in both words and drawings (above), by "Mellen Battel, of Albany, New York". This vessel, drawn pretty much on the pattern of an early Erie Canal packet boat, had a central well in the hull in which was situated what at first appears to be a large paddle wheel, driven by a steam engine mounted inside the boat (below).

However, a reading of his description of the machine reveals that Battle had NOT designed a paddle sheel, at least not exclusively, but a "propelling-wheel", which would

"...run upon the ground at the bottom of the canal, and to propel the boat in great part by its bearing upon and friction against the bottom..."     (United States Patent Office microfilm)

It is not clear if it was this very much advanced design that Battle actually tried later on the canal, or if it was his earlier poled version, as Bagg suggests.

It is interesting that Battle would attenmpt steam navigation in the Erie Canal. It no doubt had a greater potential than the river for providing a successful environment for testing his design, with its uniform bottom and uniform depth. But with canal boats being easily pulled by livestock along a continuous tow path, the advantages of a steam-driven boat, poled or rolled, would hardly seem to present themselves. In addition, the eventual damage and deterioration of the canal floor itself must have been perceived.

Although Robert Fulton (above) experimented with steam-driven canal tugs in England as early as 1793, the first application of steam to canal vessels was a very long time into the future.

Is more known or to be discovered about this man and his innovative enterprises? One thing must be recognized in all of this. Mellen Battle (or Battel) remains the only man ever to attempt, in that early period, the operation of a steamboat in the Mohawk River, and perhaps demonstrates, in that adventure, a tenancious attachment to the era of river navigation that most of his contemporaries were perfectly willing to leave behind, as the "Age of Canals" achieved a firm foothold in the history of New York State.

Guillet, Edwin C. Early Life 
in Upper Canada. Ontario Publishing Company. Toronto, 1933.

Durant, Smauel W. History of St. Lawrence County, New York. Heart of the Lakes Publishing. Interlaken, 1982 (reprint of 1878 original).

Schultz, Christian. Travels on an Inland Voyage... London, 1810.

Bagg, M.M. The Pioneers of Utica... Curtiss & Childs, Utica, 1877.

Fitch, John. Letter in The Columbian Magazine, or, Monthly Miscellany. Vol. 1, December, 1786.

Fitch, John. The Original Steamboat... Philadelphia, 1788.

Prager, Frank D. The Autiobiography of John Fitch. The American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1976.

Early Unnumbered United States Patents 1790-1836. Research Publications, Inc., Woodbridge, Connecticut, 1980.

United States Patents 1790-1836, Reel 5, A thru Z including Drawings - Alphabetical by Pattentee, 1790-1836. Microfilm. New Yorjk State Library.

A Digest of Patents Issue... 1790 to January 1, 1839. Peter Force. Washington, 1840.

Comments and questions: email plord@nycap.rr.com