by Lou Varricchio
The bottom of Vermont’s 548-acre Lake Morey, originally known as Fairlee Pond, is alleged to be the watery grave of the world’s first steamboat.
This cold, shallow Orange County lake may conceal the silt-covered, water-logged remains of the Aunt Sally, credited by some to be the world’s first steamboat.
The story goes that the steamboat Aunt Sally was built by Vermont inventor Samuel Morey and scuttled there only to await future recovery from the namesake lake. But before we delve into this legend of the lost, let’s take a look at the life of the pioneering internal combustion engine inventor.
The U.S. Patent Office tells us that Samuel Morey’s first patent was granted in 1793. The patent details plans for a small steam-powered spit, a boat perfectly designed for shallow waters such as old Fairlee Pond.
But soon after creating his steam-spit plans, Morey added a paddle wheel and steam engine to a small boat and powered it up and down the Connecticut River between Vermont and New Hampshire.
“Legend has it, this was done on a Sunday morning, when the town was at church, to avoid ridicule if he failed,” according to Frederick H. Getman, the author of “Samuel Morey, a Pioneer of Science in America”.
Morey’s steam-puffing boat must have been a strange sight to the residents along the Connecticut River, but in those days the population was much less than it is today and “buzz” about such an apparition would have traveled slowly.
Dartmouth College graduate Leon Maurer researched the life and legends of Morey as well as of the Vermonter’s rivalry with credited steamboat inventor Robert Fulton of Clermont fame.
Many of the local Vermont stories about Morey, including Aunt Sally (allegedly now at the bottom of Lake Morey), are oral tradition and hard to substantiate. Yet, hard facts about the steam-engine inventor’s life are in the historical record.
Maurer recounts a letter Morey sent to 19th-century New York State Rep. William Duer.
“Morey describes how over… three summers he traveled down to New York, and the following summer to Hartford, Connecticut, to improve and exhibit his (steam) boat. Finally, in 1797 he went to Bordentown, New Jersey… and built a boat employing two side-mounted paddle wheels. At this point, Morey considered his boat ready for commercial use and sought financial backers. For reasons that are unclear, his backing fell through because of ‘a series of misfortunes’. This is likely the end of Morey’s direct work with steamboats – although there are many tales of a later fourth steamboat, but not the end of his steam engine patents. In addition to one received in 1795 for improvements he made working on the steam engine in the boat, he received patents for other applications and improvements in 1799, 1800, and 1803.”
Maurer also reports that “despite Morey’s success in building a working steamboat, credit for the first successful steamboat line goes to Robert Fulton and his financier, Chancellor Robert Livingston. This was a cause for contention, as Morey claims that they took some of his ideas. His account, which seems more reasonable than later, derived accounts, is laid out in his letter to Duer…”
Regarding the lost steamboat in Fairlee Pond, today’s Lake Morey, author-researcher W.C. Jameson recounts the Vermont legend in “Buried Treasures of New England” (August House 1998).
“A few months after Robert Fulton’s Clermont slid from New York City’s shipbuilding docks into the Hudson River, Samuel Morey climbed into his own steamboat, fired the engine, and guided the vessel toward the middle of (Lake Morey)… Morey scuttled the boat on the lake and as it sank to the bottom, the inventor, clinging to a plank, paddled back to shore,” Jameson claims. “Later, standing on a low hill overlooking the lake, Morey glanced one last time at the place where his steamship went down, turned, and walked away…”
That, we are told by Jameson, is the last we ever hear of Samuel Morey.
The inventor died at the age of 83 in Fairlee, Vermont, April 17, 1843.
There appears to have been only one, serious attempt — made during the 1990s — to search for Aunt Sally’s remains.
“When the…salvor…announced plans to raise Morey’s steamboat and sell it, state officials informed him that, as a historical artifact, the vessel would immediately become the state’s property. When the salvor offered to raise it for the state a fee, he was turned down,” according to Jameson.
It remains unclear whether or not the actual remains of the vessel were located by the salvor which thus fuels more speculation and helps lure the occasional, amateur treasure hunters to Lake Morey.
Today, a Vermont road marker near the lake tells the story: “Samuel Morey, resident of Orford (New Hampshire) and later Fairlee (Vermont), successfully operated a steamboat on the Connecticut River in 1793. Making over 4,000 experiments, this early scientist patented an internal combustion engine in 1826 to anticipate the age of the motor car and airplane.”
The real “lost treasure” of this story is a trove of Morey patents located in 2004; the tawny patents had been misplaced in the Dartmouth College archives for over a century. Among the documents located was Morey’s patent for an internal-combustion engine, the first-ever of its kind ever filed.
In history, what goes around, often comes around: Here we have a Vermonter who invents the internal combustion engine in the 19th century, and 21st-century legislators in Montpelier seek ways to ween Vermonters off the use of fossil fuels burned by said combustion engine.
“A taste for irony,” wrote author Robert A. Heinlein, “has kept more hearts from breaking than a sense of humor, for it takes irony to appreciate the joke which is on oneself.”