John Ericsson and Skaneateles Lake

I’m not going to tell you that the historic sea battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia took place on Skaneateles Lake. You’d never believe me. But there was an interesting link between the Union’s first ironclad and a boat that graced our waters during the summer of 1859. That year, a wealthy summer resident, Dr. George S. Case of St. Louis, Missouri, commissioned a launch to be built by Charles F. Hall, the go-to boat builder in Skaneateles at that time.

The Julia Allis was to be a launch 35 feet in length, powered by a caloric engine, an engine that used heated air instead of steam to drive its pistons. Thought to be safer that steam engines, caloric engines were the invention of John Ericsson, a Swedish immigrant who was working as an inventor and engineer in New York City. Hall’s finished boat and an Ericsson Caloric Engine got together in July of 1859, and made a trial run to Mandana at six miles per hour. After some tinkering, the Julia Allis settled into a regular schedule, traveling to Glen Haven twice a week.

This seems to have been sort of a busman’s holiday for Case, who in addition to being a physician had established the first street railway in St. Louis. But the career of his Julia Allis was a short one; she was shipped to St. Louis in November, after just a few months on the water.

Less than three years later, John Ericsson was called upon to respond to the building of the first Confederate ironclad, the CSS Virginia. Built over the frame of the captured USS Merrimac, the rebel ship was handily destroying the wooden ships of the Union blockade force and threatening to shift the balance of the war.

Ericsson’s Monitor, with its revolutionary design and rotating turret, fought the Virginia to a standstill and changed the face of naval warfare. But I am sure the Julia Allis provided a more restful ride to Glen Haven.


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