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Fulton: Artist, Inventor and Entrepreneur

This issue’s engineer is Robert Fulton and many cities and counties around the country are named for him including, but not limited to:

Fulton, New York
Fulton, Missouri
Fulton, Illinois
Fulton County, Kentucky
Fulton County, New York
Fulton County, Pennsylvania

Robert Fulton was born on November 14, 1765 in Little Britain, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He was inquisitive and inventive as a boy but took up painting and became well known for his portraits and landscapes in the Philadelphia area. At the age of 21, he sailed to England to work with Benjamin West another well-known artist. He was successful in getting commissions for portraits, etc. His inquisitive nature turned him from artist to investigating the new field of technology and machines. He became interested in canals and wrote, A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation in 1796 with his title R. Fulton, Civil Engineer. In 23 chapters he gave the history of canals and his ideas on how to improve them. His most innovative proposal was to raise canal boats on inclined planes by steams engineers rather than by locks. He also wrote three chapters on bridges that were ahead of his time. This book can be read on line

The reader is urged to read this book, as it is the work of man with vision and talent. He asked in the Preface that men like Jessop, Whitworth, Outraim, Miln, Rennie, Telford, Cockshot, Chapman and Benet, the leaders in English canal building to review and comment on his work.

 Fulton Statue
 Statue of Fulton with his steamboat, Statuary Hall,
U. S. Capitol

He then went to France and worked on developing a steamboat, a submarine and a torpedo. He returned to the United States in 1806 and with Robert Livingston, first Chancellor of New York (1777 – 1801), developed the first successful steamboat, The Clermont of North River, and sailed it up the Hudson River to Albany, New York in 1907. He and Livingston obtained a monopoly on steamboat traffic on the river from the state that was in place for many years. He was not the first man to design a steamboat in the United States as men such as John Stevens, John Fitch, Oliver Evans, James Rumsey, and James Morey had built boats powered by steam. It was, however, Fulton and Livingston that made the steamboat commercially successful.

He died of tuberculosis in 1815 in New York City and is buried Trinity Church Cemetery in the City.

Fulton, Illinois is located 130 miles due west of Chicago and on the Mississippi River at a significant narrowing of the river. Two large islands broke the river into two channels and one was called Little Rock Island. The city was named in honor of Fulton by Ransellaer Jenks around 1859. The Chicago and Rock Island Railroad entered the town in 1854 and the need arose for a bridge across the river to connect with western railroads. Work on the bridge, located just south of Fulton, across the eastern channel started in January 1859 with seven 200 ft. wooden McCallum Trusses reaching to Little Rock Island. The railroad extended its tracks to the island where the cars were carried across the western channel by ferry and connected to the Chicago, Iowa & Nebraska Railroad. The Civil War slowed railroad construction and a bridge across the western channel was not opened until January 1865 just before the end of the war. This bridge consisted of three wooden Howe Trusses and an iron swing bridge built with Bollman Trusses. The swing span gave a clearance on both sides of the swing pier of 123 ft. 

 West Channel Bridge 1865
 West Channel Bridge 1865, Bollman Truss Swing Bridge


 Original Bollman Swing 1865-1909
 Original Bollman Swing and Iron trusses 1865-1909

Steamboat companies were against the bridge claiming it impeded traffic on the river. The Albany Railroad Bridge Company, to get around an injunction, built a 400 ft. long crib pier parallel to the axis of the river and built the swing span on the pier. On the day the injunction was lifted, they swung the span and the link across the river was complete. A parallel two track steel bridge was built in 1907. In September 1892, a high level cantilever bridge for wagons was built nearby, but, unfortunately two of the approach spans blew down in a windstorm in July 1904.

Fulton, Missouri is also well known as the city in which Winston Churchill gave his famous Iron Curtain Speech on March 5, 1946 at Westminster College.