First steam ferry boat 206 years ago — New York and New Jersey State Quarter Coins

Today, the New York and New Jersey State Quarter Coins remember Mr. John Stevens, his inventions and his steam ferry boat that began operations October 11, 1811.

From the Genealogical History of Hudson and Bergen Counties, New Jersey edited by Cornelius Burnham Harvey and published in 1900:


John Stevens was born in New York City about 1749. He was the son of John Stevens, Sr., who was born there about 1708, and whose father, also named John, came from England in 1699, at about the age of seventeen.

The second John settled in New Jersey and was one of the joint commissioners for defining the boundary line between New Jersey and New York in November, 1774. He resigned as Royalist Councilor in 1776, and from August of that year until 1782 was Vice-President of the Council of New Jersey.

In November, 1783, he was elected to the Federal Congress, and on December 18, 1787, presided over the State convention that ratified the United States Constitution. He died in 1792.

John Stevens, the subject of this sketch (son of John and a grandson of John Stevens, the immigrant), was graduated from King’s (now Columbia) College in 1768, was admitted to the bar, and during the Revolutionary War held several offices, being Treasurer of New Jersey from 1776 to 1779.

Afterward he married and resided in winter on Broadway, New York, and in summer on the island of Hoboken, which he then owned.

His life was devoted to experiments at his own cost.

In 1790 he petitioned Congress for protection to American inventors, which resulted in a law, passed April 10, 1790, that formed the foundation of the American patent law.

Having begun experiments in the application of steam in 1788, he now continued them, especially with his associates, Nicholas I. Roosevelt and the elder Brunel, who subsequently built the Thames tunnel.

Mr. Stevens, his brother-in-law, Robert R. Livingston, and Nicholas I. Roosevelt built a steamboat and navigated the Hudson River near the close of the eighteenth century, the Legislature of New York having offered a monopoly of exclusive privilege to the owners of a boat that should attain a speed of three miles an hour under given conditions.

Their boat, however, failed to develop the required speed, and their joint proceedings were interrupted by the appointment, in 1801, of Livingston as Minister to France.

In Paris Mr. Livingston met Robert Fulton and afterward was associated with him in establishing and developing steam navigation.

In 1804 Mr. Stevens built a vessel propelled by twin screws that navigated the Hudson, which was the first application of steam to the screw propeller.

The engine and boiler of this steamboat were subsequently deposited in the Stevens Institute at Hoboken.

In 1807 Mr. Stevens and his son Robert built the paddle wheel steamboat “Phoenix,” which was used on the Delaware River for six years.

This boat, according to Professor James Renwick, “was the first to navigate the ocean by the power of steam.”

Among the patents taken out by Stevens was one in 1791 for generating steam; two in the same year described as improvements in bellows and on Thomas Savary’s engine, both designed for pumping; the multi-tubular boiler in 1803, which was patented in England in 1805 in the name of his eldest son, John C.; one in 1816 for using slides; an improvement in rack railroads in 1824; and one in 1824 to render shallow rivers more navigable.

In 1812 Mr. Stevens made the first experiments with artillery against iron armor.

On October 11, 1811, he established the first steam ferry in the world with the “Juliana,” which was operated between New York City and Hoboken.

In 1813 he invented the ferryboat with the paddle-wheel in the middle, which was turned by six horses. This sample of horse-boat was long used on the East River and on the Hudson.

In February, 1812, five years before the beginning of the Erie Canal, he addressed a memoir to the commission appointed to devise water communication between the seaboard and the lakes, urging the construction of a railroad.

This memoir, with the adverse report of the commissioners, was published at the time, again in 1852, and again by the Railroad Gazette in 1882.

His plan was identical with that of the successful South Carolina railroad built in 1830-32, which was the first long railroad in the United States.

In 1814 Mr. Stevens applied to the State of New Jersey for a railroad charter from New York to Philadelphia, which he received in February, 1815.

He located the road, but proceeded no further.

In 1823, with Horace Binney and Stephen Girard, of Philadelphia, he obtained from the State of Pennsylvania a charter for a railway from Philadelphia to Lancaster along the route of the present Pennsylvania Railroad.

These were the first railroad charters granted in this country.

On October 23. 1824, he obtained a patent for the construction of railroads.

In 1826 he built in Hoboken a circular railway having a gauge of five feet and a diameter of 220 feet, and placed on it a locomotive with a multi-tubular boiler which carried half a dozen people at the rate of over twelve miles an hour.

This was the first locomotive that ever ran on a steam railroad in America.

Mr. Stevens’s name will ever be linked with the origin and early development of steam as a motive power for water and land transportation, and to him belongs the honor of putting this great force into direct operation.

He was also an enthusiastic botanist and amateur gardener, importing and cultivating many new plants. He built Castle Point at Hoboken, and in 1835 replaced it by the present mansion. He died there March 6, 1838.


The New York and New Jersey State Quarter Coins show with an artist’s image of John Stevens, inventor.

New York and New Jersey State Quarter Coins