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Above : Paddle steamers in their specialist role : taking people on excursions. PS Lotschberg leaves the busy tourist resort of Interlaken and heads towards the beautiful Lake Brienz

The first ships powered by mechanical means were Paddle Steamers. Their commercial passenger use can be traced back to 1807 when Robert Livingston and Robert Fulton started a public service on the Hudson River between New York City and Albany with the "North River Steamboat", which later became popularly referred to as "Clermont".  The paddle steamer "Comet" which, in 1812, introduced a service between Glasgow and Helensburgh to bring customers quickly and reliably to Henry Bell's hotel on the Clyde coast is acknowledged as the first successful steamship service in Europe. There had been earlier reasonably successful attempts to operate steamships, notably in the USA, France and Scotland, but not in a passenger context. Scottish engineer William Symington designed the first practical tow boat, a sternwheeler, which trialled on the Forth and Clyde Canal in 1801. Although not successful, an improved version was and Charlotte Dundas took up operations in 1803.

From the time of Robert Fulton onwards, any ships requiring the consistency of mechanical propulsion rather than relying on the vagaries of the winds and tides were paddle steamers.  This held true at least until the 1860s when the screw propellor gained the dominant role first in ocean-going ships and later in increasing numbers of roles. The advent of the steam turbine, which was unsuitable for adaptation to side paddle propulsion, gave the screw steamer a further advantage from 1901 onwards and soon afterwards, diesel combusion engines began their long and quite slow road to dominance. Paddle Steamers were gradually edged out of existence. The 1920s saw the last of the great paddle steamers built for the Great lakes in the USA and for the more modest roles of cross-lake and along-river connections in continental Europe.

In the UK operators persisted with new paddle steamers for their various coastal and estuarine services. There was a flurry of new-builds in the 1930s and, remarkably, three major new steamers in the immediate post-war period. These were built to traditional designs so as to be available quickly to make up for losses as a result of World War II. One more major passenger steamer was also built for a popular lake in 1953. Apart from that, three car ferries for estuary crossings were built but dispensing with steam power although one small steamer was built for a river crossing in Pembrokeshire. The last flourishing of new paddlers for use in the UK was in 1956 with the "Director" class diesel-electric-powered harbour tugs for the Royal Navy.  In the late 1940s one Scottish yard in particular continued to supply river paddle steamers to some of their traditional customers in India, Pakistan and Burma.  
The Soviet Union persisted with paddle steamers with a new standard design for vessels on overnight services on its mighty continental rivers and these, some of which were built and used in Hungary, were delivered in substantial numbers throughout the 1950s. These final examples of paddle steamers illustrate clearly that paddle steamers were most suitable for use in very shallow waters, particularly those with shifting sandbanks, due to their comparatively shallow draughts. This was the prime reason for the Waverley of 1947 and now the world's last sea-going paddle steamer being so built.

It had been assumed that once the remaining paddle steamers in the world had come to the end of their useful and economic lives, they would be replaced by motor ships if, in fact, there was any need for a vessel at all.  With the expansion of road networks and car ownership, the need for coastal and estuarine passenger-only ferries virtually disappeared and for major crossings, in the absence of a bridge, car ferries were required. Restricted almost entirely to being excursion ships, they could survive only if there was suitable demand for such services and in the volumes necessary to sustain ships of their size. This did not eliminate the threat of replacement with vessels of more modern design and lower operating costs. Lake Geneva in Switzerland, one place where large excursion ships still had sufficient business, adopted the innovative solution of replacing worn-out machinery with diesel-electric drives in a number of their ships where the hulls themselves were not life-expired, but this strategy was not widely adopted elsewhere. Although it was too late for most paddle steamers, the 1970s saw an increasing interest in the preservation of interesting items of industrial and social heritage and the establishment of numerous preservation societies. These societies' objectives were to pursuade existing operators to retain and renovate their paddle steamers or, in the worst case scenario, take ownership of reundant vessels and attempt to operate them on their own accounts. The former has been remarkably successful in Switzerland. The latter has led to the survival of major paddle steamers such as Waverley, Schonbrunn, Hohentwiel and Kaiser Wilhelm.   

Paddle Steamers can be operated successfully - but only if they find a niche role
W Argyle and Bute 2013 Skel KW.jpg
Paddle Steamer Waverley cruises up and down the Firth of Clyde. Here she is seen heading homewards off Skelmorlie in 2013 in a photo kindly supplied by Kenny Whyte.  She now fulfils a purely excursion cruise role. Ferry services were the main staple of her and similar paddle steamers, but the link between Wemyss Bay on the mainland and Rothesay on the Isle of Bute is now maintained by car ferries on a shuttle service. The current holders of that roster are motor vessels Argyle and Bute, seen above crossing the Firth with the Cowal coastline behind and the higher hills of Argyll in the distance. The paddle steamer can only survive where there is sufficient remaining custom either a strong local market or very high tourist numbers - or both. The high operating and maintenance costs have meant that support from volunteers and financial donors has also become essential. 
Old paddlers are being renovated to "as new" but incorporating all modern safety standards and passenger conveniences

Unterwalden 2011 nadia.jpg
109 years old in 2011 and as good as new. With the help of enthusiasts and under the control of a sympathetic shipping company, PS Unterwalden (above), one of a fleet of five paddle steamers on Lake Lucerne, returned to service in May 2011 after a major refit. She was restored to closer to her original profile, but with a glass-enclosed upper deck to meet modern expectations. Clever design, however, means she looks much more like she once did, with the heavy construction of the 1961 refit removed. This photo of Unterwalden, back in service for the first time since 2009 was kindly supplied by Nadia Joehr
The world's Paddle Steamer fleet is growing
2013 saw the return to working order of two paddle steamers which had been out of service for many years and only recently had any hope of such a renaissance. The provincial government at Como, Italy, sponsored the restoration of PS Patria and a local enthusiasts' group in Switzerland, with local government support, arranged the renovation of PS Neuchatel (above). The Swiss paddler had been used as a restaurant ship for many years and needed complete renovation plus the installation of an engine and boiler. Photo by kind courtesy of Sebastien Jacobi (via Olivier Bachmann)

There are still chances for it to grow further 
Maid othe Loch 2011.jpg
Maid of the Loch (above) looks like she is ready to cast off from Balloch Pier on Loch Lomond. Unfortunately she has been out of service since 1981, but much work in recent years has meant she has been open to the public for static use. Hopes that a major grant from the UK's Heritage Lottery Fund would allow her to be returned to service in 2019 were dashed when it was announced that the project had failed to get the required funding at the September 2018 round of allocations. It is anticipated that a bid for the funding will be re-submitted for future assessment. In the meantime, her enthusiast owners continue to raise funds and work on her restoration and renovation. Work has been progressing well, supported by a major grant from the Scottish Governement and donations from several trust funds. The engines are now able to turn with steam generated by a boiler on the pier.

Having a "paddle steamer" is good for your marketing
MPV Herrsching on the Ammersee lake in Bavaria, southern Germany (seen above) is one of a new generation of ships with a genuine set of paddle wheels. It was a surprise that the ship was built as a paddler. It would have been even more of a surprise if she had been a paddle steamer - an option which did receive genuine consideration, but was ultimately ruled out on cost grounds. Nevertheless, the operating company saw advantages in having a modern yet "traditional" vessel on its timetabled services and later rebuilt its traditional (but motorised) paddler Diessen in similar style. Modern vessels with mock paddle wheels (especially "Mississippi-style" stern wheels) but powered by diesels and primarily driven by screws have proved popular for tourist trips, especially in the USA.

COST REDUCTION AND CLEAN ENERGY : An innovative solution for the retention and reactivation of vessels at risk

Paddle Steamers are very expensive to run and this is probably the main reason why they are now so rare. Making steam also involves burning fossil fuels and despite improving boiler performance and lighter fuels, emissions cannot be completely eliminated.
There is a way to reduce operating costs by around 40 % and reduce their carbon footprint
Click here for more details

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Gordon Stewart 2001-2022