A Steamboat Legacy

Among the favorite topics for local history fans and collectors are the Chautauqua Lake steamboats. The Fenton Historical Society’s first historical publication was our steamboat book compiled by Harold Ahlstrom in 1971.

The first steamboat on Lake Erie was launched and began visiting Dunkirk in 1818. The first run of a steamboat on Chautauqua Lake was 10 years later, July 4, 1828.

Depending on what you call big and whether you rate them by deck number, length or passenger capacity, there were around 17 big boats on the lake all told, a maximum of 10 in any one year. 1891 was the peak. Around 25 smaller steamboats that served as public conveyance of one sort or another plied the lake.

Chautauqua was typical of the era. Steamboats were everywhere. There were even six on Findley Lake, two on Cassadaga Lake and at least one on Conewango Creek.

Our early settlers were familiar with water power which had been used for over 2,000 years and increasingly in Europe for the past 700 years, but the steam engine seemed a much more artificial source of power and it revolutionized life more in decades than water had in centuries. Early observers marveled at its “sinews of steel” that never tired. They compared it to animal power more than to water power and regularly marveled that engines “panted like great beasts,” “pulsed” and were “self motivated.”

For all its marvel and majesty and the superiority of the 19th century engines over the feeble and lumbering 18th century Newcomen engines, the best locomotives achieved 8 percent thermal efficiency. Our lake steamboats probably scored half that. Besides wasting heat (energy) in prodigious fashion, they emitted dense clouds of noxious smoke and cinders and created large volumes of ash. The ashes were dumped in the lake or anywhere else convenient.

The engine in the yard of the Fenton Mansion is the one that served the last surviving member of the old fleet, the City of Jamestown, for all of its 77-year career. No other Chautauqua Lake steamboat had a run nearly as long and many of those with long runs did not keep the same engine.

The engine is an upright two cylinder compound double acting engine. Steam passed first into a smaller, high pressure cylinder then the partially spent steam was directed to the larger low pressure cylinder. This saved fuel and increased efficiency. Valves directed the steam to first one end of the cylinder and then the other. Power was produced on every stroke or twice every revolution. In gas engines it is every other revolution, one stroke out of four. Our engine has a complex and ingenious reversing linkage. Steam engines do not require a transmission, gearing or belts to reverse the propeller. They run either direction and have low speed torque vastly superior to gas engines.

This engine was made by the Trout Company in Buffalo in 1891. It probably produced at least 300 horse power at 100 r.p.m. and operated on over 100 pounds per square inch of steam pressure. It was refurbished and donated by James Webster, builder of the Chautauqua Belle, in November 1975, shortly after the City of Jamestown was dismantled and cut up. Engines for the other Chautauqua Lake steamers were made in many locations: Lockport, Pittsburgh, Warren, Jamestown and Dunkirk.

The first all steel hull boat in the fleet was launched in 1891 as the W. C. Rinearson, named after the general passenger agent of the Erie Railroad in Cincinnati. He attended the launching. The next year it was renamed City of Cleveland and in 1931 City of Jamestown, the fourth boat on the lake with the name Jamestown although strictly speaking the only “City of Jamestown.”

In our collection we have many other items from the City of Jamestown: the search light, the signal bell, the hold ladder, the coal scuttle and some coal from the last run, many photos and a short movie clip, tickets, a life jacket, even rotten fragments of the hull. Many of these came from Russ Fuscus, manager of the former Great White Fleet Museum at Bemus Point.

Engines, unlike most artifacts, are best preserved by infrequently running them or at least turning them over. The Fenton is planning a project to free and lubricate the steam engine, repaint it and build some kind of cover from the weather.