Movie poster for "Little Old New York" (1940), reading "Darryl F. Zanuck's production of Little Old New York with Alice Faye, Fred MacMurray, Richard Greene, and Brenda Joyce, Andy Devine, Henry Stephenson, Fritz Feld. Directed by Henry King, Associate producer Raymond Griffith. A 20th Century-Fox Picture."
Last week we learned about the real Robert Fulton and the launching of his North River Steamboat on August 17, 1807. This week we thought we'd have a little fun with the 1940 historical drama, "Little Old New York," a fictionalized account of Robert Fulton's struggle to get his steamboat funded and in the water.
The most famous scene is when local sailors, angry at the prospect of lost jobs, set the boat on fire. Like many historical dramas from the 1940s and '50s, this one is light on historical accuracy.
In the film, Fulton doesn't meet Livingston until he arrives in New York. In real life, Livingston met Fulton in France in 1801 and was impressed with his work. Livingston had already been interested in steam navigation and had been given a monopoly on steam navigation in New York in 1794. Together, they financed an experimental version of the steamboat in Paris. With no success in convincing either the French or British government to adopt his design for a submarine, Fulton returned to New York in 1807 to work with Livingston on a second steamboat. That would become the Steamboat (no additional moniker was needed for the only one) which traveled the Hudson River against wind and tide in August of 1807.
There is also zero evidence that Fulton received any assistance from a pretty tavern keeper in Lower Manhattan, although it makes for good storytelling. Thankfully, the film writers had her fall for sailor "Mr. Brown" instead of Fulton. Robert Fulton married Robert Livingston's niece Harriet Livingston in 1808. They went on to have a son and three daughters.
Although "Little Old New York" is far from historically accurate in storyline, the producers of the film did re-create Fulton's steamboat based on historical plans. The film also reflects an early 20th century interest in the "great men" of the American past and Robert Fulton stood large in that pantheon for decades. Ultimately, his legacy of successful steam navigation did change the Hudson Valley, New York, and the world forever.
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This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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