From the banks of the River Hull to the Seine, Hudson, Lake Michigan and the Columbia River: William Harman, a tradesman at the forefront of technological dissemination

It is sometimes claimed that the first experiments with a steamboat took place on the River Hull. What seems clear is that in 1788 Robert Fourness of Gainsborough and a physician, James Ashworth of Elland, were granted two patents for what were basically steamboats. Indeed, they are reputed to have built a steamboat in a yard in Wincolmlee on the banks of the River Hull and ran the vessel from Hull to Beverley. Legend has it that they constructed a second such craft which they sold to the Prince of Wales. If such stories could be properly verified then the River Hull could lay claim to being the cradle of steamship technology but apart from the patents, no real contemporary evidence has ever been found to support such assertions.

William Harman – born in Hull, England, Sep. 29, 1804, died May 16, 1890
Buried at the Odd Fellows Cemetery, The Dalles, Wasco County, Oregon, USA
Source: Find A Grave

What we can say with more certainty, however, is that within a few years the district surrounding the supposed steamboat experiment was at the centre of local developments in steam and iron technology. By the mid 1790s, and possibly much earlier, Joseph Todd was operating a brass and iron foundry close to Cannon Street and in 1799 he joined forces with James Witty to build steam engines. Although they soon went their separate ways both continued to pursue their specialist interests. Witty remained involved in steam engine ventures whilst Todd joined forces with Duncan Campbell and made castings and machinery at his foundry. A strong ironworking and engineering base was developed in Sculcoates, just north of the Old Town and at least one young man who learned his trade there in the 1810s would deploy his skills in several epoch making technological initiatives across the new World. His name was William Harman and his story in many ways epitomises the key role of the craftsmen in the dissemination of nineteenth century technology.

William Harman, or Harmon, as he was also known, was the son of John Harman and Hannah Ramsey who had married in Patrington, East Yorkshire in 1802. They seemed to have soon moved closer to Hull and William was christened on the 9th September 1804 in St Peter’s Church, Drypool, on the eastern bank of the River Hull, not far from the Humber estuary. He certainly grew up in Hull and as an old man in Oregon recalled the wild celebrations of his fellow townsfolk when the news of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo filtered through. It seems more than likely that Harman learned his skills making castings at Todd and Campbell’s foundry, later owned by Rose Downs and Thompson, but sometime between the middle of 1822 and late 1824 he moved across the English Channel to pursue his trade at the Charenton Ironworks near Paris.

Aaron Manby and the Charenton Ironworks

William Harman went to work for a man called Aaron Manby who had recently taken over the running of the Charenton Ironworks. Manby was an ironmaster from the Birmingham area and in 1822 had fabricated an iron steam boat at his Horseley Ironworks. The various parts of the vessel had been sent down to the Thames and assembled by Manby at Rotherhithe before being demonstrated on the river between London and Battersea bridges in June 1822. This pioneering steamship, named the Aaron, was 106 feet in length and fitted with a 30 horsepower engine and what were described as ‘Oldham’s propelling oars.’ A few days later the vessel steamed out of the Thames, en route for Paris, carrying a cargo of clover seed and iron, completing the voyage in around 55 hours.

The Aaron’s voyage was possibly the first overseas trip by an iron vessel anywhere in the world and attracted a great deal of attention at the time. The French were certainly interested as the French iron industry was somewhat less advanced than that of the British, particularly in terms of the production of wrought iron and Manby together with his partner, David Wilson, soon established themselves, first at Charenton then later at Chaillot. The works grew rapidly and by 1827 the Charenton plant was reported to include forges, foundries and rolling mills, much of which was constructed in England. In order to get the best out of their plant and machinery, the partners also required a highly skilled labour force and again looked back to their English roots, luring several hundred English workmen to France with the promise of good wages. His ventures were not always viewed with an unalloyed enthusiasm in England where the exporting of such technology was still considered to be an offence and Manby was apparently prosecuted for the ‘seduction of English artisans abroad’ and reported to have been threatened with a year’s imprisonment and a fine of £1000 for every workman he took to France. According to the report of a British government select committee in 1824 he had to enter into a bond of several hundred pounds and make a promise not to repeat the offence. This law, however, ran counter to the prevailing spirit of free trade and was soon repealed. Such strictures on the mobility of labour don’t seem to have deterred many tradesmen including Harman who was soon earning enough to bring his girlfriend, Phoebe Spencer, across from Hull; the pair were married in Paris at the British Embassy Chapel on the 17th January 1825. Her sister, Mary Spencer, also followed suit and married George Marshall from Staffordshire, almost certainly another ironworker, a month later also in the British Embassy Chapel.

It seems likely that Harman gained much in terms of further skills and experience during his period at the Charenton Ironworks. Inevitably perhaps, there was sometimes friction between the British and French workmen, which was reported at the time in the British press as well as being recalled by Harman in later life, but the ironworks overcame such setbacks. Manby had a sound reputation as an iron master and a commentator writing in 1827 drew attention to the ‘extraordinary influence exercised by the Charenton Ironworks’ Manby’s firm was said to have taken many orders for gas undertakings and as early as the mid-1820s a House of Commons Select Committee on Trade and Manufactures reported that he had ‘established steamships on almost every river in France.’

To New York and Early American Locomotive Construction

It seems likely that William and Phoebe Harman stayed on in Paris for several years but had probably returned to Britain by the time of the commercial and political crises that gripped France in 1830. The next we hear of William Harman is in the summer of 1831 when he left Britain once more, this time bound for the USA. He later recollected leaving Liverpool aboard the sailing ship Alleghany which carried the parts of the locomotive, John Bull, manufactured by Robert Stephenson. The Alleghany was bound for New York and the John Bull was destined for Bordenstown where it was assembled for the Camden and Amboy Railroad and Harman later claimed to have helped with this work However, according to a newspaper account of his life written in the 1880s, he found longer term employment at the West Point Foundry in New York State. This was another works at the centre of the genesis of the American railroad.

Acquired in 1884 as the Smithsonian’s first large engine artifact, this 1831 English-made locomotive served on one of the United States’ first railroads, the Camden and Amboy. In 1981, the timy patriarch returned to life on the old Georgetown Branch in Washington, D.C., on the 150th anniversary of its first run in America

The West Point Foundry had been set up in 1817 primarily to remedy the shortage of armaments that had been apparent during the 1812-1814 war with Britain. Although it primarily produced armaments it produced a range of other iron fittings and parts, most notably a number of locomotives and Harman later stated that he was involved in the construction of six of these in the early 1830s which were amongst the earliest produced in the United States. These early locomotives were the first of thousands subsequently produced in engineering works across America and thus occupy key place in the emergence of the United States as an industrial power.

The First Shipsmith in Chicago

But Harman and his family did not stay for more than a few years in the New York area. He was soon reading about opportunities out West and, on saving up sufficient money, he took his young family off to Chicago. He arrived there sometime between 1833 and 1835. What is clear is that when the family arrived in Chicago it was still very much a frontier post, the Blackhawk War having only finished in 1832 and the township consisted mainly of log cabins with just a drawbridge over the river at Dearborn Street and a fixed bridge across Kinzie Street. The place was in a terrible condition in the aftermath of the war with the streets covered in mud. The Indians were still very much in evidence making an annual visit to the settlement each year until 1836 and he recalled later seeing the whole of the river from Wolf’s Point to Fort Dearborn covered with tepees.

William Harman worked mainly on the construction of iron fittings for ships and is considered to have been Chicago’s first shipsmith. His skills were very much in demand and his business took him over much of the West and made him quite comfortable financially. He certainly benefited from the rise of Chicago as a shipbuilding centre in the 1840s but he struggled for many years with alcohol. In 1841 he left for Buffalo in an unsuccessful attempt to break from intoxication and ‘wild association’ as he later described it but returned to Chicago the following year and joined the Washingtonians, an American temperance society founded in 1840. He became a total abstainer and in 1843 he also joined the Baptist church, remaining a prominent member for the rest of his life.

The Oregon Trail and Steamboat Building on the Columbia River

By the early 1850s his wife Phoebe had died but William remarried. His second wife was both a relative and from Hull. She was Phoebe’s sister, Mary, who had accompanied her to Paris in 1825 and had married there shortly afterwards. Mary was by now also widowed and embarked on the long journey to Chicago with her three sons and a daughter. William and Mary were married in Dupage County, Illinois on the 23rd February 1852. By now William’s children from his first marriage were young adults but his wish to journey onwards had not deserted him. Later that year, William and Mary and her four children bade goodbye to family and friends in Chicago and set off west by covered wagon across the plains and on to the Oregon Trail. The journey to The Dalles on the Columbia River was to take them six months and ten days. During the long treck through the hot summer, Indians stole their horses and many of their cattle died from want of water. Onwards, they wearily but relentlessly continued with William and the older children covering the last six hundred miles on foot. By now they had only one yoke of cattle left, so Mary, who was injured, rode in the last remaining wagon with her youngest child. Although they were down to eating the scantiest of provisions by the time they finally reached the town of The Dalles on banks of the Columbia River, the family was more fatigued than unhealthy. After a short break to gather their strength they pushed on to Portland before setting up home in Oregon City.

William Harman soon put his iron working skills to good use. This was a period of great expansion in Oregon and steamboats were in great demand. He produced the ironwork for some of the best known nineteenth century steamboats on the Columbia River and its tributaries including the Williamette, Washington, Hoozier and Gazelle. The Gazelle’s boiler unfortunately blew up in 1854 killing several people on board. In 1859 the Harman family moved to The Cascades and here William produced the ironwork for the Idaho, Spray and O Kanagan. The steamboat Idaho is perhaps the most famous of these vessels and one legend has it that the state was named after the steamship.

The Harman family eventually moved further upstream residing at Celido and then The Dalles. By this time he was working for the Oregon Steam Navigation Company or OSNC as it was usually known. This highly successful company was formed in 1860 and reaped a fortune during the inland gold rush which struck the state. By 1865 the OSNC was operating a fleet of nearly thirty passenger and freight steamboats as well as a number of barges and schooners further downstream. Amongst the most successful vessels on the thirty eight mile run between the Cascades and The Dalles was the Idaho. For much of this period William Harman ran the OSNC blacksmith’s shop and, apart from a short sojourn to Chicago when in his seventies, to see his family there, he was based in The Dalles for much of the rest of his life, occupying the post of Mayor in 1870.

In old age William retained much of the vigour of youth, returning to work as a blacksmith with the OSNC at the age of seventy three. He was a very revered member of the Community being known as Father Harman and remained a staunch supporter of the Temperance movement as well as a prominent member of the local Baptist Church. Mary Harman died in October 1889 at the age of eighty and William followed her a few months later.

By the time William Harman died his native town of Hull was known as the third port at a time when Britain was the world’s leading maritime nation. The little log frontier post of Chicago had grown into the second city of the United States and its steel girder skyscrapers were already stretching skywards, railroads covered almost every part the United States whilst the old John Bull locomotive was already preserved in the Smithsonian Institute, having been purchased in 1884 as the museum’s first major industrial exhibit.

The Old Foundry, Hull, which has seen better times
(Photograph by Robb Robinson)

Today back in Hull, some reminders of his time still exist: the church where he was christened was destroyed during The Blitz but the quiet churchyard still remains, not far from the banks of the River Hull. The Old Foundry can still be seen down Cannon Street and is highly likely that the young William Harman learned his invaluable skills on the site of this impressive monument to industrial revolution ironworking before he moved on to contribute his experience and expertise to a range of key engineering projects at pivotal points in the industrialisation of France and the USA. Local reminders of the starting point for one tradesman whose career forms a unique tale of pioneering technological endeavour.

Thanks also to Maggie Pando of The Dalles, Wasco County Library, The Dalles, Oregon for a range of invaluable newspaper extracts and associated materials

Select Bibliography

Basil Clark, Steamboat Evolution (UK: Lulu com., 2007)

Chris Evans and Goran Ryden, The Industrial Revolution in Iron: The Impact of British Coal Technology in Nineteenth Century Europe (UK: Ashgate, 2005)

Howard, B. Furer, Chicago: A chronological and documentary history, 178 – 1970 (USA: Oceana Publications, 1974)

W.O. Henderson, The Industrial Revolution on the Continent: Germany, France, Russia 1800 – 1914 (UK: Taylor & Francis, 2006)

Kevin Hillstrom, The Industrial Revolution in America (USA@ ABC CLIO)

Gordon Jackson, Hull in the Eighteenth Century (UK: University of Hull, 1972)

Frank P. Morse, Cavalcade of Rails (USA: Dutton & Company, 1940)

Bessie Louise Pierce, A History of Chicago, Vol 1 (USA: Knopf, 1937)

Miles F. Potter, Oregon’s Golden Years (USA: Caxton Press, 1976)

William G. Robbins, Landscapes of Promise: The Oregon Story, 1800-1940 (USA: University of Washington Press, 1999)

Carlos A. Schwantes, The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History (USA: University of Nebraska Press, 1996)

A.W. Skempton, A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland: 1500 to 1830 (UK: Thomas Telford, 2002)

John H. White, A History of the American Locomotive: Its Development, 1830 – 1880 (USA: Courier Dover Publications, 1979)

Oscar O Winther, The Old Oregon Country (USA: University of Nebraska Press, 1969)

On-line References
Andreas’ History of Chicago From 1857 to the Great Fire of 1871 original.htm
The John Bull Steam Locomotive