Bordentown: The Dawn of Innovation

Following the end of the Revolutionary War and subsequent years with the implementation of the US Constitution, the adoption of the Bill of Rights, and the creation of political parties, our young republic established the foundations of a prosperous economy that grew steadily and brought extraordinary cultural diversity with the influx of European immigrants. At the end of the 18th century, the revolution of that brought independence was now directed on industry. The newly developed factory system and the ability to operate machinery often led to a higher standard of living than working on a farm. The downside was that factory conditions were often unhealthy and unsafe. Uncompromising when it came to these issues, shrewd businessmen turned their attention to improved transportation systems on land and water where people could travel further, raw materials could reach factories, and manufactured goods could be shipped to their destinations.

Innovators like John Fitch tried to capture people’s attention with the ingenuity of the first stream-powered vessel. Although he was a talented individual that worked as a clockmaker, silversmith, gunsmith, and map maker, his inability to understand marketing concepts involving the first steamboat passenger service along the Delaware River led to his undoing. In 1790, regular service began between Philadelphia and the New Jersey river towns of Burlington, Bordentown, and Trenton. Traveling at a speed of eight miles per hour, the odd looking contraption consisted of several side paddles that were lifted by a moving rail as opposed to a paddle wheel.  In light of its appearance, it had the potential as a viable alternative to stagecoach travel. However, too many obstacles persisted. The erratic travel route, onboard fires, lack of financial support from investors, and Fitch’s volatile temperament quickly spelled its untimely downfall. Despondent by overwhelming failure and poverty, he died by his own hand eight years later.

Demonstrating that not every inspiration followed success, Fitch was eventually recognized by the fact that powered ships would one day rule our waterways.

It was this inspiration that embraced a 37-year-old Baptist minister by the name of Burgess Allison as he and other curiosity seekers observed Fitch’s vessel in astonishment from the shoreline. Born and raised in Bordentown, Allison understood the fundamentals of overcoming adversity. As a young man, he sought theological enlightenment and founded the town’s first educational academy for boys in 1778 when the landscape was ravaged by British troops. Years after attaining a great reputation as a classical boarding school, Allison left his position as principal in 1796 to pursue other endeavors. One of these involved improvements to the steamboat with the placement of paddlewheels at the sides. In addition, he collaborated on other ideas with a young Bordentown resident by the name of John Isaac Hawkins. An English immigrant, Hawkins had an intuitive mind for civil engineering. He invented a device called the autopen that made duplicate copies of a handwritten original letter or document. Upon holding a private demonstration in Philadelphia where the federal government was initially seated, the multi-talented Thomas Jefferson was so enamored by its functionality that he brought one to his beloved home in Virginia. Hawkins also exhibited his musical versatility with the invention of the “pianino” which was a portable upright piano held within an iron frame. In 1803, he decided to move to London with his wife but moved back to New Jersey with his third wife in 1848 in hopes of recapturing his former achievement. But this was not meant to be. Scarred by years of misery, he died a broken man in 1855.

Divinity inspired a different path for Burgess Allison. He resumed leadership of his school in 1801 but resigned years later due to ill health. In 1816, he was living in Washington, DC when he was elected chaplain to the House of Representatives. After his term expired, he was appointed chaplain of the Washington DC Navy Yard. He held that post with reverence until his death in 1827.

Like his predecessors, Stephen Sayre delved into innovations that improved the field of navigation. In 1807, he received a US Patent for the improvement of rigging vessels. He also designed a warship. Spending 17 years of his life in England, this former Long Island native navigated the choppy waters across the European political spectrum as a self-appointed diplomat defending colonial rights in America.  He was a firm believer that the breadth of his varied career would solidify his destiny for greatness within social and political realms.

In 1773, he was elected for a term as the sheriff of London. Two years later, he married Elizabeth Noel, a wealthy aristocrat that would bore him a son named Samuel. Although he enjoyed the privileges that were bestowed upon him as he frequented English society, he desired to return to America where he felt that his services would be appreciated. In 1783, he set sail alone, leaving his wife and son behind. This proved to be a foolhardy decision as he spent significant time appealing to Congress for recognition and reward regarding his foreign diplomatic skills. In addition he requested money for the “effective fighting ship” that he designed. Both were repeatedly denied. After two years of frustration, he returned to England and attempted to pay off debts from a previous banking career that sent him to confinement in the Tower of London. This embarrassment was a far cry from the days when he served as the private secretary for Benjamin Franklin. In 1787, his efforts failed again and he was sentenced to 20 months in a debtors’ prison. Several months after his release, his wife died. Despite his grief, he moved to France within the year, became a tobacco merchant, and married another wealthy English woman by the name of Elizabeth Dorone. As the French government crumbled, Sayre outwardly supported the actions of the revolutionaries. Fearing execution, he was forced to flee Europe forever.

In 1793, he and his family settled on a farm in Bordentown. Known as Point Breeze, the property was purchased in his wife’s name with money from her family. This action was taken as a precautionary measure against hostile creditors. Through it all, his fruitless campaigns to secure a federal government post did not silence him in his old age. By 1816, financial pressure forced him to sell the farm and move to his son’s home in Virginia. Surprisingly the buyer was an American agent for Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s oldest brother. The price tag was $17,500. Sayre died two years later. His wife died the day after him.

Although the innovators mentioned are mostly forgotten to history, their connections to Bordentown are strong. If revolutions consume their originators, then these men left no greater monuments than committing their passion and energy to the early days of the Industrial Revolution.