Thursday, January 23, 2014

From copper mine to steamboat, the New Jersey ventures of Nicholas Roosevelt

When inclement weather forces us Hidden New Jerseyans to curtail travel, we often turn to other means of exploration. The reference books and histories we've picked up over the years aren't quite those roadside markers we stop to check out on county roads, but they've got some unexpected gems, nonetheless.

One of my new favorites is the New Jersey Almanac Tercentenary Edition published by the Trenton Evening Times in 1964 to commemorate the state's 300th anniversary. Besides giving an illuminating look at life in the Garden State 50 years ago, it contains lists upon lists of interesting tidbits like two-sentence bios of notable New Jerseyans, brief descriptions of towns and cities, and a year-by-year guide to events of importance.

It's an entry in that last category that caught my eye during a recent snowstorm. The big event for the year 1794 is: "Nicholas Roosevelt made first steam engine ever built entirely in America at his shop "Soho" in Belleville."

Roosevelt? As in Teddy Roosevelt and FDR? The New York Roosevelts?

Absolutely. Nicholas Roosevelt was not only the cousin (several generations back) of both Presidents Roosevelt, you could say he was one of New Jersey's first industrialists.

Born in New York in 1767, Roosevelt's first foray into New Jersey was in the early 1790s, when he became linked to what, even then, was thought of as the old Schuyler Mine in North Arlington. Originating in 1719 when an enslaved worker on Arent Schuyler's farm found a copper nugget on the property, the mine closed in 1772 after a disastrous fire. Roosevelt and partners formed the New Jersey Copper Mine Association in 1793 to restart mining operations at the site, a venture that ultimately failed.

Though the mine was a disappointment, it was the stepping stone into New Jersey that led to Roosevelt's greater acclaim. Purchasing land in Second River (now Belleville), he built a foundry, smelter and machine shop to build steam engines. Dubbed Soho after a similar enterprise in Birmingham, England, the shop became known as one of the nation's top foundries, supplying engines for notable clients like the Philadelphia Waterworks. The business took a severe financial hit, however, when a government contract to supply rolled copper for warships was cancelled.

Among those taking note of the quality of Soho's engines was transportation engineer John Stevens. Already experimenting with steam-driven boats, he and his partner Robert Livingston commissioned Soho in 1797 to build an engine for the Polacca, a craft with a stern-mounted propeller. Roosevelt was already familiar with self-propelled boats, having experimented with spring-driven paddleboat technology as a youth. When the Polacca proved to be much slower than anticipated, Roosevelt advocated the use of a side-mounted wheel, but Livingston refused to consider the concept.

Roosevelt had, indeed, come up with a solution so workable that it was later adopted by Robert Fulton. You might recognize that name: he's the engineer who's usually linked most directly with the successful development of the steamboat. I've seen a few different accounts of how this came to be, but the most interesting one is that Livingston suggested the side-mounted wheel to Fulton without telling him where the idea had originated. And according to a website citing sources at the FDR Library and Museum, some Roosevelt family members continue to claim that Nicholas was the true inventor of the steamboat.

It's not clear exactly when Roosevelt left New Jersey for good, but by 1810 he'd entered into a partnership with Fulton and Livingston to run a steamboat down the Mississippi River. He died in Skaneateles, NY in 1854, his contributions to steam powered technology now largely forgotten while other inventors continue to enjoy acclaim.

I just wonder what other gems are hiding in the Tercentenary Almanac, just waiting to be unearthed.

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