In 1792, Nicholas and his brother James bought 499,135 acres from New York State – a tract 40 miles wide and 60 miles long, two thirds of Oswego County and one third of Oneida County – and less than six months later (just before the second and final payment was due) sold it to George Scriba.
In September of 1798, Roosevelt wrote to Robert Livingston and described a vertical wheel for steamboats. Livingston replied to Roosevelt the following month saying, “vertical wheels are out of the question.” But in 1802, Livingston shared Roosevelt’s idea with Robert Fulton, and in January 1803, they launched a boat that was propelled by vertical wheels, “inventing” the steamboat.
In 1808, Nicholas married Lydia Latrobe, the daughter of his best friend and business partner, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, with whom Nicholas had designed and built the Philadelphia waterworks. Lydia was 13 years old when she and Nicholas were engaged; they married when she was 17 and he was 41. The Latrobe family was not happy, but Lydia was a strong-willed young woman. Together, Nicholas and Lydia had nine children, two of whom died in infancy.
In spite of Robert Fulton’s success, Nicholas had no quarrel with him, and in 1809, he joined with Fulton to introduce steamboats in the west. He first traveled down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in a flatboat, with Lydia, mapping and gathering information on the river and its people as they went. This was the frontier, and the route was mostly wilderness. South of Natchez, they had to cope with an alligator that sought to spend the night on the boat, five nights running. After arriving in New Orleans, they booked passage on a ship sailing to Virginia; the captain, crew and Nicholas came down with yellow fever. However, they did return to New York in time for Lydia to deliver their first child, Rosetta Mark.
In 1811, Nicholas built the steamboat New Orleans in Pittsburgh, and headed south on the Ohio River. At Louisville, Kentucky, while waiting for the river to reach its height so the boat could pass over the rocky rapids, Lydia gave birth to Henry Latrobe Roosevelt.
Soon after, the New Orleans skimmed over the rapids. The boat had a seven-foot draft; the height of the water above the rocks was seven feet, six inches. The first challenge had been met, but as the boat traveled downriver, the crew was troubled by strange rumblings. When they went ashore for wood, the earth seemed to move under their feet. The Roosevelt’s Newfoundland dog, Tiger, placed his head in Lydia’s lap and moaned. Lydia later wrote “that she lived in a constant fright, unable to sleep or sew, or read.” *
On December 16th, the New Madrid earthquake, centered in Missouri, rang church bells as far away as Boston, reversed the flow of the Mississippi for several hours and changed the course of the river which was suddenly a roaring chaos filled with uprooted trees.
Wood engraving by Frederick Juengling (1846-1889)
The water seemed to boil and the air turned black and sulphurous. Explosions thundered on either shore. Landmarks were gone, channels had disappeared, the river flowed through what had been forests, the pilot was lost and could only follow the strongest current. As night fell, unable to tie up to the shore because the river banks were collapsing, the crew secured the New Orleans to a tree on an island. In the morning, they awoke to find the island was gone. They cut the rope, freeing the boat, and once underway were attacked by Chickasaw tribesmen in canoes, who thought the steamboat had caused the earthquake. The New Orleans outpaced the canoes and without further misadventure reached New Orleans safely on January 10, 1812.
In January 1815, Roosevelt thought to sue Robert Livingston but upon considering the expense, he abandoned the effort. One account says the matter was settled out of court, and the settlement enabled Nicholas to retire.
By 1826, Nicholas, Lydia and family were making their home in Central Square, N.Y. Nicholas served as a warden of Trinity Church in Constantia and in 1839 represented Trinity at the consecration of Bishop De Lancey in Auburn, N.Y. William Beauchamp notes that this visit led the family to move to Skaneateles that spring.
They bought a house from Spencer Parsons “at the foot of Kellogg’s hill,” today on the northwest corner of Leitch Avenue and Genesee Street. Nicholas served as one of the wardens of St. James’, Lydia played the organ, and their daughters sang in the choir, said to be much improved by their presence.
In the words of William Beauchamp in his Notes of Other Days in Skaneateles, Nicholas “was a perfect type of gentleman of the old school. Would that there were more of them.” Beauchamp noted that while he personally did not smoke tobacco, he did enjoy seeing Nicholas Roosevelt smoking his long Dutch pipe.
And there were no limits to his courtesy. In a letter from William White, quoted in “Notes from My Scrapbook” by F.J. Humphryes (Skaneateles Press, April 16, 1937), this story about Roosevelt is told:
“He was a gentleman of the old school, courtly and dignified. One day he met William Van Schoik, a negro, who lived in a little old house at the west end of the bridge, who saluted him with a cheery ‘Good morning, Mr. Roosevelt,’ at the same time lifting his battered old hat. ‘Good morning, William,’ said Mr. Roosevelt, tipping his hat. A young sprig of the law noticed the movement and said, ‘Good gracious! Mr. Roosevelt, do you take off your hat to a nigger?’
“ ‘Sir,’ replied the old gentleman, ‘do you presume to think that I am to be outdone in politeness by a negro?’ and walked on.”
William Beauchamp’s sister, Mary Elizabeth, wrote, “In the month of July 1854, another of the old and earnest workers of the vestry, Mr. Nicholas J. Roosevelt, was taken home to rest. He was a kind and courteous friend, upright and faithful in all relations of life… and he died… in favor with God and in perfect charity with the world.’”
After his death, Lydia and her daughters moved into the home of Henry Latrobe Roosevelt, just up the street. In 1873, when the present St. James’ was built, a stained-glass window was donated by Henry Latrobe Roosevelt in his father’s memory.
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* On the Western Waters (1871) by J. H. B. Latrobe