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(.66 cu. ft.:  2 DB)

by: Don Darroch & Robert Harding, June 1989


John Stevens (1749-1838) of New York, inventor and engineer, graduated from King's College (now Columbia University) in 1768. Admitted to the New York Bar in 1771, he served as treasurer of New Jersey during the Revolutionary War. He became interested in steam-powered navigation in 1787 and for the next fifty years was active in building and promoting steam boats and trains, securing numerous patents, and inventing such important developments as the screw propeller. He established the world's first steam ferry, between New York City and Hoboken, New Jersey and later built the first operating steam locomotive in the United States Stevens secured a charter from the Legislature of Pennsylvania for the Pennsylvania Railroad, from Philadelphia to Lancaster County. Two of John Stevens' seven sons, -- Robert and Edwin -- also were prominent engineers and developers of transportation equipment who collaborated with their father.

Scope and Content

The main component of this collection is a double-spaced typed document of 858 pages compiled by J. Elfreth Watkins, curator of the Section of Transportation and Engineering in the U.S. National Museum from 1895 to 1903. The document, which is arranged in roughly chronological order, includes copies of John Stevens' correspondence as well as newspaper articles, technical papers, legal documents and other material relating to Stevens' professional work, 1808-1830. There is no table of contents or index and there is some repetition. The correspondence includes letters to and from rival inventors such as Robert Fulton (commonly credited with building the first steamboat), and to several famous figures, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Martin Van Buren.

Other documents in the collection are the original 1831 articles of incorporation of the Danville and Pottsville Railroad and a carefully detailed survey and cost estimate of the Camden and Amboy Railroad done in 1830 by civil engineer John Wilson. Although there is no reference to John Stevens in these documents, he had actively campaigned for local railroads in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.


This Collection was transferred from the Division of Transportation to the Archives Center in June 1989. Acquisition of this collection was never recorded by the Division. On June 15, 1989 the Archives Center requested John Stine supply memo to Harding on provenance.

Box Folder
1 1 pp. 1-73 Letters by and to John Stevens from Robert Fulton and others; excerpted newspaper articles, patents, proposals, specifications, articles of incorporation, drafts of legislation (state of New Jersey); all relating to steamboats and their components and projects of John Stevens. 1808-1812.
2 pp. 74-144 Correspondence of John Stevens with William J. Duane of Pennsylvania State Legislature and others relative to a project for elimination of a sandbar that obstructed navigation of the Delaware River below Trenton, NJ. A 20 page letter ("statement of facts") of Robert Fulton to Cadwallader Colden, Esq. detailing alleged misdeeds and false claims of John Stevens relevant to steamboats. Also draft agreements between John Stevens and Robert Fulton and others regarding rights of steamboat navigation on the Delaware, Chesapeake, Santee, Savannah and Connecticut Rivers and between Providence and Newport, 1813.
3 pp. 145-208 Letters of John Stevens to Cadwallader Colden, including a 52 page reply (apparently never sent to Colden) to Robert Fulton's "statement of facts" (see folder 2), detailing Stevens' negotiations with Fulton and Livingston over rights to operate steamboats and Stevens' history of inventions and improvements in developing the steamboat. 1813.
4 pp. 209-279 Correspondence of John Stevens with Robert L. Stevens (his son) regarding manufacture of steamboats and with James A. Stevens (son) including notes by John Stevens on possible steamboat routes and resulting revenues in Europe. Application to James Monroe, U.S. Secretary of State, for a patent on methods for propelling boats (the U.S. Patent Office at that time was in the Department of State). Correspondence of John Stevens and Louis Condit, U.S. Representative from New Jersey, regarding Congressional action to extend Stevens' patents. Letter by Stevens stating his intention to sue "the owners of the Burlington boat" for infringement of Stevens' and Fulton's patents. Letter by Stevens to W.A. Duer on principles of hydro-dynamics of paddle-wheels. Report of NC legislature's committee on claims of Robert Fulton and Oliver Evans which were in conflict with Stevens' patents regarding navigation by steamboats in NC and other states. 1814-1818
5 pp. 280-343 Several documents asking relief by the legislatures of New York and Pennsylvania from grants of exclusive rights of steamboat navigation to Fulton and Livingston. Proposals for improving navigation above tide-water on the Susquehanna and Delaware Rivers by a new system of locks invented by John Stevens. An act by the Pennsylvania Legislature authorizing construction of such locks. An agreement between three of Stevens' sons to establish the Union Line of steamboats to run from Philadelphia to Trenton and New Brunswick in New Jersey. 1819-1825.
6 pp. 344-374 Philadelphia newspaper account of first run of new steamboat Burlington on Delaware and testimonials to John Stevens. Secretary of Treasury Samuel D. Ingham's letter to John Stevens inviting suggestions for means of preventing explosions of steam boilers. Extract from 7th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica on American development of steam navigation giving large credit to Robert L. Stevens. Letter of Stevens' four sons offering for exhibition a replica of John Stevens' 1804 steamboat. Opinion of three judges appointed by the American Institute who after examining Stevens' 1804 replica, attested to its validity as to time of manufacture and to design of screw-propeller. "Reminiscence of an Old Traveler" describing career of John Stevens. New York World newspaper account of development of Hoboken ferry service by John Stevens and his sons, including the "horse boats" (paddle-wheel ferries driven by horses). 1830-1879.
7 pp. 375-402 John Stevens' technical descriptions of steam pipes, boilers and other components of steam engines. ca. 1826-1829.
8 pp. 403-431 John Stevens' "Essay on High Pressure Steam Engines" including disasters resulting from explosion of steam boilers. (no date).
9 pp. 432-444 Sketch of John Stevens' life and work from Prof. Robert H. Thurston's "Growth of the Steam Engine." This contains detailed descriptions of Stevens' technical improvements in steamboats and trains. c. 1850.
10 pp. 445-525 "Pamphlet on Railroads" by John Stevens, originally released in 1812 and republished with a preface by Charles King in 1852. This pamphlet proposed the construction of a railroad from Lake Erie to Albany in lieu of a canal which had been proposed by a New York State Commission. Stevens' railroad, which would have propelled a 100-ton cargo at four miles per hour using a 20-horse power steam engine, was estimated by him to cost only one-third the projected outlay for the canal. Stevens' proposal was rejected by a New York State government committee which had doubts about the feasibility of the scheme.
11 pp. 526-553 Letters and statements by John Stevens proposing the construction of railroads between various points in New Jersey. 1812-1815.
12 pp. 554-577 Letter to President James Madison dated 3/9/1816 from John Stevens proposing construction of a combined railroad-water transportation system from Providence, RI to Savannah, Georgia, a distance of more than 1,000 miles. Stevens argued this route would reduce transit time by half and would have important national defense benefits by avoiding the risks of enemy naval interference with commerce on the open seas (as in the war of 1812). A letter (unsigned) to Senator Calhoun (1/22/1817) seeking U.S. Government support for a Trenton-New Brunswick (NJ) railroad. John Stevens' letter to President Monroe (10/21/1818) further supporting railroads. Letter to W.H. Crawford, Secretary of the Treasury (10/31/1818) further asking public support for railroads. Letter to Thomas Jefferson (11/7/1818) and a reply from Jefferson (11/23/1818) pleading "infirmities of age" for not reading Stevens' papers, but supporting generally "every improvement which may better the condition of mankind". A similar reply from James Madison (11/17/1818). A letter to W.H. Crawford (11/27/1818) and reply (12/4/1818) stating that no money was available to support Stevens' plans.
13 pp. 581-593 Letters by Stevens to John Jay and William Duane proposing railroad construction in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Letter to John Stevens from his son, James A. Stevens, raising questions about feasibility of using wooden railway tracks. 1819-1920.
14 pp. 595-678 Letters and memorials to state legislatures of New York and Pennsylvania proposing construction of railroads including routes from Philadelphia or Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, and from Utica to Albany. Text of a bill introduced in Pennsylvania Legislature to authorize construction of a "Pennsylvania Railroad" from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh by John Stevens. A paper written by Stevens to induce sales of Pennsylvania Railroad stock. "Journal of Route of Railroad" begun by Stevens on 7/14/1823 which was a survey of the proposed route from Philadelphia to the Susquehanna. 1821-1823.
15 pp. 679-702 Letter to John Stevens from Timothy Dewey in Liverpool, England on railroad construction problems and railroad stock prices there. Stevens letter to director of Pennsylvania Railroad and letter to Matthew Carey. Patent granted to Stevens for method of railroad construction (tracks elevated on pillars). 1823-1824.
16 pp. 703-760 Letters and memoranda of John Stevens relating to construction of railroads and comparison of efficiency of using horses or steam as motive power. Letters promoting the concept of railroads and the bright economic future for them. 1824-1826.
17 pp. 761-802 Letters to DeWitt Clinton and others promoting the proposal of a railroad from Albany to New York City. A description of Stevens' proposed "Improvements in the construction of railways, steam-carriages and steam engines adapted thereto". Additional descriptions of Stevens' proposal for improving steam-driven "inclined planes" and the engines for powering them. Letter to Martin Van Buren, Secretary of State, outlining improvements Stevens foresaw in railroads. 1826-1830.
18 pp. 803-858 Papers by Stevens on various subjects, including: the superiority of railroads over canals and steamboats; elevated railways; high pressure steam engines; comparison of Stevens' engines with those used in England. Finally, a eulogy of Stevens by Senator Stockton of New Jersey in 1852. 1822-1852
2 1 Handwritten documents recording establishment of Danville and Pottsville Railroad, 1831.
2 Detailed survey and cost estimates for construction of the Camden and Amboy Railroad submitted by John Wilson, civil engineer, 1830.
3 Original folders (4 in number) of 858 page document.
4 Duplicate pages for 858 page document.


Revised: January 25, 2002