Philadelphia

Philadelphia at Last

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"Philadelphia at Last"
the seventh chapter of
Talbot Hamlin, Benjamin Henry Latrobe (New York: Oxford University press, 1955).

Nicholas Roosevelt remains a baffling and fascinating personality. He was born in New York in 1767, the son of Jacobus, a prosperous goldsmith, and his early acquaintance with metals and the techniques of working them contributed not a little to his future career. But goldsmithing itself was too tame a career for him. He received an excellent general education and showed his delight in machinery even as a child; during the British occupation of New York, when the Roosevelts were living at Esopus, he claimed to have made a model boat operated by spring- driven paddle wheels. 5 Later he secured a patent on the use of paddle wheels for steamboats, but it was never tested in court. As a young man he had gone into the manufacture of steam engines in partnership with J. Smallman, an English-trained engineer for many years a foreman for Boulton & Watt, and by the time of Latrobe's visit he was acknowledged as the master engine builder in the country; only later was his supremacy to be challenged by Oliver Evans of Philadelphia and others. Engine building, however, was but one of Roosevelt's interests. He became a speculator in land and in mineral resources; he had enormous paper assets and great actual debts. With a partner, Jacob Mark (or Marks), he tried in 1797 to obtain from Congress a monopoly in copper prospecting and mining in the United States, and in 1799 he was the proprietor of the famous Schuyler copper mine on the Passaic River in New Jersey a mine that could be worked only because it was kept water-free by a steam pump which he had built.

Through his wide speculations and his reputation as an inventor, Roosevelt had become closely associated with Robert R. Livingston, "the Chancellor," and together, in 1797, they worked on the application of steam power to boats. Their first model, constructed in 1798, refused to run at a practical speed; it had an elaborate system of propulsion (devised by Livingston) consisting of a submerged box into which water was to be received from ahead and ejected aft by means of steam-driven horizontal water wheels. Roosevelt tried to get Livingston to adopt his system of side paddle wheels, but Livingston, who was furnishing the money, refused. Finally, years later, Fulton came into the picture, and it is claimed that Livingston conveyed to him the idea of the Roosevelt side wheels; he used these to propel the Clermont. Livingston, Roosevelt, Stevens, and Fulton were all "in" on these early steamboat efforts, sometimes in close co-operation, sometimes in open hostility.

Into this net of crisscrossing interests Latrobe, through his friendship with Roosevelt, was eventually drawn, just as, almost from the beginning, he was drawn into the tangle of Roosevelt's confused and optimistic financial concerns. One instance of this occurred when Philadelphia wanted some surety that Roosevelt would complete his contract for the waterworks engines. To use engines was revolutionary enough, but what if Roosevelt defaulted on his contract through accident, bankruptcy, or the plain visionary character of the scheme?. When Roosevelt offered his lease on the Schuyler copper mine as his bond, the Councils the two governing bodies that together ruled Philadelphia--were still hesitant, because the mine was not then being worked. Latrobe reported favorably on the mine and a year later enlarged his report into a pamphlet, American Copper Mines (1800), addressed to the Committee of Commerce and Manufactures of the United States Congress, in support of a petition by Roosevelt and his associates (probably Staudinger, an English-trained engineer, Smallman, and Jacob Mark) for an act of incorporation of a mine and metal company. Then, too, in 1797 Congress had authorized the building of a number of large warships--the "74's"--to be as heavily armed and well built as the best that England or France could construct. They were to have coppered bottoms, and Roosevelt had received the order for the sheet copper. Here also Latrobe later found himself disastrously involved, for he had freely signed notes for large amounts in connection with prepayments to Roosevelt.

Yet at the time of their first meeting all was glowing hope; the prospects of future demands for the services of both men seemed boundless. Steam was to conquer the world, American copper was to supersede English copper, the prosperity of the new country was to be expressed in numberless beautiful buildings and great engineering schemes. The future was rosy.

And more than this common faith drew the two young men (Latrobe was thirty-four and Roosevelt thirty-one) together. Both were mercurial, emotional, optimistic. Both had a need for affection that their ordinary business associates could not satisfy. Both were brilliantly imaginative, and both had felt that crushing sense of frustration or despair which comes when the brightest visions, the greatest talents, and the widest generosities are received with misunderstanding, scorn, or open hostility. For years they remained the closest of friends, and Latrobe's letters--even when sharply critical of his friend's unwisdom or impracticality--usually end with the warmest, least conventional subscripts.

The year 1798 brought to Latrobe another acquaintance who was to be of fateful importance to him--Justus Erich Bollmann (1769-1821), known in America as Eric Bollman, whose track we have already crossed. Bollman had been Mme de Staël's agent in helping to get her little band of refugees out of France and to safety in England in 1792. Then, two years later, after he had traveled widely around Germany and Austria, ostensibly on business but probably in the interests of French refugees, came his audacious, vain, but so nearly successful attempt (November 5, 1794) to liberate Lafayette from his Austrian prison at Olmütz. He and his colleague Francis Kinloch Huger of South Carolina, whom he had met in Vienna, were both arrested but set free in July, 1795. Most of the money for this extraordinary coup had come from Americans, through a Mr. and Mrs. Church in London. After the failure of the scheme it was natural for Bollman to think of coming to the United States, where his attempt to free the famous friend of America would, he thought, guarantee him a brilliant future. As a German compatriot said of him, on meeting him in London, he "is an amiable man, possessing imagination, and is very clever, but he is light-hearted and not accustomed to work continuously." Bollman sailed for America in October, 1795, and arrived in New York on New Year's Day, 1796. There he met Roosevelt, became interested in his steam engines, and then proceeded to Philadelphia. He had a letter to Alexander Hamilton, who sent him on to Mount Vernon; here he found young Lafayette solicitous that something more be done to aid his imprisoned father, and apparently Bollman pressed the matter. Washington himself was prophetically suspicious of him from the beginning and wrote Hamilton (May 8, 1796) that Bollman "will be found a troublesome guest among us."

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