Delaware River Steamboats in 1876

An excerpt from

Magee's Illustrated Guide
of Philadelphia
and the Centennial Exhibition

Published by
Richard Magee & Son, 808 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. 1876.
Pages 40-43


When Penn, our city's founder, wrote home to his friends, this sentence— " The Delaware is a glorious river!"—he expressed a truth which is manifest until the hour of our writing. Whilst gazing upon its strong, broad and rolling [PAGE 41] tide, bearing its great stores of finny wealth in its bosom, the treasure of the world upon its breast, and the myriads of crafts plying up and down

The History of Philadelphia's Watersheds and Sewers

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Historical Consultant
Philadelphia Water Department
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Market Street Wharfs, with the steamboats 'Baltic' and 'Arctic', ca. 1880
Courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia/Print and Picture Collection

before us, let us go back, almost a century, to 1788, when John Fitch, of Philadelphia, launched the first steamboat ever known.... It was 60 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 4 feet deep, and was worked by paddles. The trial trip, at which the Governor and many distinguished men were present, was made over a mile course in front of Water street. Although the experiment was considered successful, the project was abandoned, and it was left to Robert Fulton to practically demonstrate the theories of steam navigation.

In the FEDERAL GAZETTE AND PHILADELPHIA ADVERTISER, of that period, appears the following, and the first steamboat advertisement of the inventor, John Fitch:"The STEAMBOAT sets out to-morrow morning at ten o'clock, from Arch street ferry, in order to take passengers for Burlington, Bristol, Bordentown and Trenton, and return next day." PHILADELPHIA, July 26, 1790.

Eighty-six years ago, that primitive steamer is advertised for the same trip, and from the same wharf, where the large and elegant steamer, EDWIN FORREST, now leaves on her daily excursions. [PAGE 42] We now have steamers and sailing crafts of all dimensions and from all parts—foreign and inland—crowding our water's thoroughfare for miles; and we boast the only line of steamers for foreign ports that floats COLUMBIA'S STARS, which for speed and safety have not been surpassed.

To the acquatic [sic] excursionist, Philadelphia affords most inviting scenery and facilities. From the foot of Chestnut street, the elegant and commodious steamers, the "JOHN A.WARNER" and the "TWILIGHT," leave twice a day for Burlington and Bristol; two salubrious and well-built rural cities, situated eighteen miles up the Delaware.

Steamboat 'John A. Warner' on the Delaware River in 1898. Photograph by Alex Christian.
Cpyright 2005 by Historical Society of Frankford. All Rights Reserved.

The steamers stop on their trips at a number of beautiful villages upon the Pennsylvania and Jersey shores; the excursionist, at first, having an excellent view of the northern front of the city, passing the vast coal piers at Richmond; the great ship yards; the United States' Arsenal, at Bridesburg, distinguished by the national flag waving over it; the House of Correction; the villages of Tacony, Riverton, Torresdale, Andalusia and Beverly; the sites of elegant academies, boarding-schools, etc.; the entire shores lined on both sides with luxuriant lawns and picturesque villas, forming, as they present themselves, a charming and diversified panoramic picture. Burlington was the site first thought of for a city by Penn, and was formerly a Quaker settlement. It is the birth-place of the Decaturs, of naval celebrity, and other eminent public worthies.

Crossing the beautiful and silvery bay, we touch Bristol, and visit its rich gardens, farms and romantic environs.

By the steamer EDWIN FORREST, passengers reach the city of Trenton, the capital of New Jersey, the head of tide-water, and the scene of the great crossing of the Delaware by General Washington and his troops, on Christmas Eve, 1776. On this trip, the visitor should visit Bordentown, six miles above Bristol, on a high and airy bluff on the Jersey shore.

It was here, that the gallant Commodore Charles Stewart, of the old IRONSIDES, resided for many years, on what he was proud to name, "the site of health;" and well might the hero have called it so, for he lived there till he attained the advanced age of 92 years.

Bordentown is rendered somewhat noted from its having been the residence of Joseph Bonaparte, (Count de Survilliers,) the ex-King of Spain. Having been created king by his elder brother, Napoleon the Great, he was three times driven from his capital at Madrid, and in 1815, was glad to leave his tottering throne for a peaceful home on the banks of the quiet Delaware. The writer, when a child, remembers well his dignified and graceful walk, and his bland-ness of manner.

He adopted the name of Count de Survilliers, but when he chanced to be addressed as Mr. Bonaparte, he would usually repeat its' Corsican pronunciation—[PAGE 43] Bawn-a-par-tee. The Count de Survilliers had a grand and extensive seat and ornamented grounds, and at times entertained many European celebrities. Portions of the principal dwelling, and some of the grounds, can. still be seen north of the principal thoroughfare by the visitor. On the accession of Louis Phillippe in 1831, Joseph Bonaparte returned to Europe, where he died in 1844. Mr. Thomas A. Cooper—the great tragedian of the day—then resided at Bristol, where the king of the mimic world endeavored to rival the ex-King of Spain, in the extent of his gardens, walks, statuary, etc.

The steamboat 'John Smith' at Smith Island in the Delaware River, ca. 1880
Courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia/Print and Picture Collection

For excursions on the Delaware, on the south of the city, we have a number of steamers plying to points of interest—the battle-ground of Red Bank, fought in, October, 1777—some of the earth-works and other relics being still visible; the city of Chester, now celebrated for its ship-yards; Wilmington, in the State of Delaware; Bombay Hook, etc., making a run altogether of 70 miles. Opposite the city, we have the little fairy steamer, JOHN SMITH, for Smith's Island, with its baths, breezes and pastimes, all for the sum of ten cents. From South street, we have steamers for Kaighn's Point, New Jersey, every 20 minutes; and Gloucester, a few miles down on the Jersey shore, with its excellent bathing, boating and romantic walks; and for a visit or a trip to the ocean, we no longer are obliged to "go down to the sea in ships," for by taking the Camden and Atlantic line, at the foot of Vine street, for Atlantic City; or Cape May line, at the foot of Market street, for Cape May, a distance of only 60 and 100 miles, we can muse on the waving ocean in its cooling spray within from two to three hours. Indeed, so complete are the arrangements, and so rapid the transit, that to the residents or visitors of our city, the sea-shores at Atlantic City, Cape May, etc., appear almost like a part of our metropolis.


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