Camp Martin Travels

These entries will be a combination of historical day trips, graduate level travel courses, and just little stops along the way. I have been teaching 8th grade American History for over 25 years. I am also a Civil War Reenactor and have traveled to Germany and Austria with several groups of exchange students and written about our adventures. Please check all my posts by using the monthly Blog Archive tabs shown below. I have posted over 150 Blog Episodes since 2009... Please explore them all!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Robert Fulton Birthplace

Robert Fulton Birthplace
New Britain / Lancaster County

Farmhouse of Fulton's Birth
One of the famous Americans I teach about in my eighth grade American history class is a local namesake, Robert Fulton.  He is honored by having many things in Lancaster County named for him, including businesses, institutions, schools, and roadways... just to name a few!  There is the Fulton Bank, Fulton Theater, Fulton Steamboat Inn, and the Robert Fulton Highway... just to name a few.  He is most famous for being an inventor who created the first successful steamboat named the Clermont.  However, that is open to historical debate, depending on what craft really gets the distinction as the very first real steamboat.  In any case, he is probably the most famous person in history from Lancaster County.  Well, there was that Buchanan guy who was President of the United States but there isn't a bank named after him.  Apparently, when you are ranked as the worst president in history by most presidential historians, your market value goes right down the privy! 

Fulton Commemorative Stamp
I was curious to see if the Fulton family still had a homestead that survived and was pleasantly surprised to discover the Robert Fulton Birthplace was still in existence and open for public tours.  I was glad I researched the site online because it is only open on weekends for 4-5 hours a day during the summer months from Memorial Day through Labor Day.  The colonial era home is located in Quarryville area at the southern tip of Lancaster County, a few short steps from the state border with Maryland.  I was expecting the home to be right near the center of town where you usually find the oldest buildings in any given area but I was wrong.  The home was located about 7.5 miles out in the middle of nowhere.  Thank goodness for GPS!  I traveled south down the Robert Fulton Highway, which seemed more like a well paved country road.  I passed a small modern school building appropriately named Clermont Elementary School... I was getting close!

Farmhouse Front Parlor
It was a bright sunny summer day and the drive was beautiful, right through the middle of rural Lancaster County's farmland... God's Country.   Aside from the macadam roads and modernized housing, the landscape had probably changed little over the past two centuries.  I came to a bend in the road and the blue Pennsylvania State Historical Marker announced I had arrived.  The home was beautiful, an unmistakeable classic colonial home constructed with irregular shaped stones pulled directly from the surrounding fields, as they cleared them for crops.  I instantly realized I had a problem because I had my wallet but forgot some cash for the four dollar admission fee to tour inside the house.  I doubted this place took debit or credit cards.  I checked my cell phone and the closest bank ATM was a 12 mile round trip.  I ducked inside a small side barn, which was a makeshift gift shop for the local Southern Lancaster Historical Society.  The cash register turned out to be an old school... self-serve... honor system... little metal box with a small slit on top.  No way to accommodate my debit card here...  Now what?  

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin
(Painting Credit / Robert Fulton)
I decided to get out to stretch my legs and check under the seats on the outside chance there was four bucks worth of change... Just some petrified french fries, several used tissues, and a Taylor Swift CD case.  No greenbacks or coinage!  I got out and took some pictures of the exterior of the house and surrounding grounds.  I was soon approached by a friendly museum volunteer and we exchanged some historical small talk about the property.  I decided to play dumb... I'm good at that... and asked him if they took plastic for admission to see the interior of the house.  No dice... but after hearing I was a teacher and wrote a historical themed blog, he was kind enough to give me a quick walk through.  It is always my hope that my postings will increase interest and visitation to local historical points of interest.  The rural location of the house puts it out of reach to most tourist visitors, affecting the site's funding.

Detailed Model of the Clermont
Robert Fulton was born in rural Little Britain Township in Lancaster County in 1765 to immigrant parents from Ireland.  Robert Fulton Sr. had moved west out of Philadelphia, where he first entered the country and put down roots in the rich farmland near Quarryville.  However, his father was not a good farmer and the family sold the farm the following year and moved the family to Lancaster city.  Two short years later, Robert Fulton Sr. suddenly died, leaving a wife and five children without someone to care for them.   As a child, young Robert was very gregarious and was often known to tinker with anything mechanical, developing an eye for innovation and design.  He later found an interest in art and began painting landscapes and miniature portraits.   Robert was later apprenticed out to a jeweler in Philadelphia.  However, he continued to paint and developed a friendship with fellow local artist Benjamin West, who was originally from Springfield, Pennsylvania and had previously worked in Lancaster.  Fulton had talent as an artist and gave up his apprenticeship to concentrate on his art skills.  His artwork paid the bills and he was even able send money back home to help his family. 

Fulton Experiments with Steamboats
(Painting Credit / Quarryville Historical Society)
Benjamin West was able to help Fulton make contacts with some of the elite citizens of the city of Philadelphia and he even painted a portrait of Benjamin Franklin.   His artwork in landscapes and industrial sketches enabled him to save enough money to purchase a small farm in Washington County for his mother and family.  At the age of 22 Robert Fulton left America's shores to travel to Europe to take up residence with his friend Benjamin West, who had grown to become a world renowned artist.  How many sons could say they were able to return back to the Old Country after their father had departed the continent to escape poverty within a single generation?  He was proof of the American Dream and a living tribute to the fact great things could happen to those with talents in the New World.  In Europe he continued to paint with West but was intrigued by the new technologies being created in the realm of the mechanical world within the evolving Industrial Age.  

Backyard Herb and Vegetable Garden
English Inventor James Watt had invented the first practical steam engine in 1763 and made subtle improvements over the next two decades.  Many other inventors jumped in to apply the new power source to a useful purpose, including Peter Cooper with the locomotive, Edmund Cartwright with the power loom in the textile industry, and various others, including Fulton, who focused on steam powered watercraft.  About a decade after residing in England as an artist, he moved to Paris to focus on his interests as a civil engineer, learning much about man-made canals as a transportation system.  As he studied, he devised improvements and communicated his findings to contacts back in America, including George Washington.  Fulton's interests and creativity seemed to exist without boundaries as he began designs on the worlds first submarine.  After several failed attempts he received approval and financial investment from the French Government in 1800 to begin construction of his concept of the submarine.

Submarine Design / Nautilus
(Illustration Credit / Robert Fulton)
 The Nautilus was tested extensively with success in 1801, able to submerge down 25 feet below the surface for over an hour.  It was self propelled by hand cranks and was supplied with fresh air from the surface by a leather snorkel.  He continued to make improvements and even destroyed a ship target provided by the French Navy by attaching a explosive mine to the ships hull underwater.  The Nautilus was able to speed away from the target before the device exploded.  Many credit Fulton with inventing an early version the first torpedo.  As talk of Fulton's submarine continued to gain attention, Napoleon wanted to see it for himself.  However, he was not impressed as it began to leak and his opinion of Fulton matched his assessment of his invention.  Fulton was later swayed back to England who saw value in the submarine and did not want the French to further develop the concept.  Fulton planned to build his second version of the Nautilus for the British Government but there was no room for it in the Royal Navy, who continued to have success with traditional war ships.  Fulton viewed the Nautilus project as a failure and abandoned the idea all-together.  He left England frustrated in 1806 and returned back home to America to start over.    
Clermont on the Hudson
Back on American soil Robert Fulton connected with an old friend, Robert Livingston, who was famous for negotiating the Louisiana Purchase for America and later becoming the United States Ambassador to France.  While in France, Livingston and Fulton developed a friendship through similar mechanical interests.  They worked together to design a paddle wheel steamboat and tested it successfully on the Seine River in 1803.  Upon returning home, Livingston was able to get an exclusive patent for steam vessel service on the Hudson River in New York.  He reached out to Fulton and together they built the North River Steamboat, later named the Clermont by the New York press.  As she was being built, skeptics nicknamed the strange looking vessel Fulton's Folly, never imagining it would actually work.  However, on August 17th in 1807, the North River Steamboat / AKA: Clermont made its way against the current and the wind of the Hudson River from New York to Albany at a steady pace of five miles her hour.  The trip home went equally well and proved mechanical steamboats could be practical and profitable.  Livingston and Fulton capitalized on the opportunity, expanding their service with several additional ships.  The rest is history!  Bon Voyage!

Former Pasture of Fulton Farm
Robert Fulton did not invent the steamboat but his mind for mechanical innovation and creativity made the idea come to life.  It was an improvement that impacted the lives of everyday people and later led to two way travel on the Mississippi River with the iconic rear paddle-wheel steamboats of the Mark Twain Era.  The small stone house in Little Britain on the edge of the Pennsylvania wilderness was the birthplace of a great mind that went forth to make a difference in the history of America and perhaps the world.  He only resided in the home for a single year before moving for the first of many times.  It was sold by his father to the Swift family in 1766 who cared for the home, retaining the colonial integrity of the residence.  It remained in ownership of the Swift Family for two centuries until 1965, when it became a National Landmark under the care of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.  It is not a big place but the drive down the Robert Fulton Highway is filled with the beautiful rural farmland that defines Lancaster County.  Just remember to bring some cash for admission and souvenirs! 

Portrait / Robert Fulton
(Painting Credit / Thomas Sully)
Did you know that Yankee's pitcher Corey Lidle who played for various organizations over nine seasons was a direct descendent of Robert Fulton?  In fact, his middle name was Fulton.  Sadly, he tragically died in October of 2006 when the small craft plane he was learning to fly with a co-pilot instructor crashed into an apartment building in New York City.  He was in his first season with the Yankees, who wore black arm bands in his honor during the 2007 Season.

 Cory Fulton Lidle
(1972 - 2006)

Please See Additional Photographs of Robert Fulton's Birthplace at...

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