In Episode 236, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger explore the legends of Lake Morey in Fairlee, Vermont. Locals will tell you the steamship was invented here by a local man even if Robert Fulton got all the credit. Today, the prototype boat and its creator’s ghost both haunt the lake.
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JEFF: We’ll make a left here on Lake Morey Road…
JEFF: And Lake Morey is right up there.
RAY: Okay, let’s pull into the Fairlee Town Beach parking lot right over there.
JEFF: Sounds good.
RAY: Okay, so this isn’t that large of a lake here in eastern Vermont.
JEFF: No, in fact, it was originally named Fairlee Pond after the town. But it was renamed Lake Morey after a local man who invented the steamboat.
RAY: Wait, wait, wait… I may not have memorized every historical fact fed to me as a kid, but I do recall a school project where I learned Robert Fulton invented the steamboat in 1807.
JEFF: Yeah, Fulton does get the credit, but there’s some locals here who would argue that’s just not right. Which is why maybe Lake Morey is haunted by a ghostly boat and the man who invented it.
JEFF: Hey, I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, and welcome to Episode 236 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
JEFF: We’re glad you’re with us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. We’re a community of legend seekers who love sharing odd history, mysteries, and general weirdness with each other.
RAY: So please do subscribe to our podcast wherever you get your podcasts, because it’s free. And tell a friend or two about us, and post a review for us. We’re not on some big podcast network, we count on you to help spread the word.
JEFF: That we do. Also, thanks for the great feedback on the new segment we’ve added to the end of the podcast: The post-legend riff. Be sure to keep listening after the credits to check it out. Now, before we go searching for the ghost of a man and the ghost of a boat here on Lake Morey, Vermont, we want to take a minute to thank our Patreon patrons!
RAY: For years now our patreon patrons have been an exclusive group of insiders who have supported our show and community. Between our podcast, Web site, Facebook group, and the New England Legends app, we have a lot to take care of, so we really appreciate those of you who can show your support with your wallets.
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RAY: Okay, Jeff. Lake Morey in Vermont is haunted by a man AND a boat?
JEFF: That’s what they say. Locals speak of a strange-looking ghostly boat seen out near the middle of the lake…
RAY: (INTERRUPTING) Again, it’s not that big of a lake, you can practically see the whole thing from where we’re standing.
JEFF: Right, then there’s the angry and frustrated ghost of Samuel Morey who’s been spotted on the shore. To find out why, let’s head back to 1793, the earliest days of the town of Fairlee, and meet Samuel Morey.
RAY: It’s the spring of 1793, and inventor Samuel Morey is tinkering in his workshop.
[HAMMERING ON METAL]
RAY: Morey is busy building a steam-powered engine. For years, he’d been heating his house with a device that was powered by turpentine combined with water and air. He called it “water-gas.”
JEFF: (INTURRUPTING) Turpentine is pretty flammable!
RAY: You don’t have to tell Morey that. One day, his mixture got too hot.
RAY: And exploded.
JEFF: Was everyone okay?
RAY: Yeah, not much damage was done, but that explosion gave Morey an idea. If that explosion could be controlled and contained in something like a cylinder, that explosion could fire a piston. And Boom…
[REPEAT MINOR BOOM]
RAY: You have an internal combustion engine. Morey files for a patent, and gets it. Check out the signatures on his patent, Jeff.
JEFF: Okay… Wow! It’s signed by President George Washington and by Thomas Jefferson. Not bad, Mr. Morey!
RAY: So Samuel Morey has this idea of attaching his internal combustion steam engine to drive a boat. If he can pull this off, he can revolutionize travel and commerce.
JEFF: The idea of using steam power dates back centuries, but the first commercial, continuous power piston steam engine was invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712. The idea is pretty simple: you burn a fire, the fire heats water, which creates steam, the steam pushes up a cylinder that drives a piston. That piston can then power whatever you need, be it factory machines, or what have you. Other inventors have made improvements on that engine over the past 80 years, but one of the biggest problems is… well… size. These engines are huge, which is no problem for a factory, but a big problem for a boat.
RAY: But with Morey’s smaller, internal combustion steam engine, he thinks he can make it small enough to fit on a boat, but powerful enough to drive a paddle wheel. There’s a lot of math going on right now.
JEFF: So Morey is building a paddle wheel onto the sides of a boat called the Aunt Sally. He describes the boat as nineteen feet long and five and a half feet wide. But the paddle wheel is causing him a lot of problems.
RAY: Why’s that?
JEFF: The wheel causes a lot of torque on the boat.
JEFF: But after a lot of headaches, Morey believes he’s got the ratios and positioning just right. He attaches his internal combustion steam engine, and he’s ready for a test.
RAY: It’s a Sunday morning when Morey launches the Aunt Sally for a test onto the Connecticut River, just a short distance away from Fairlee Pond. The thought is: everyone is at church right now, so if this test is a failure, there won’t be too many witnesses.
RAY: The engine starts, and pretty soon the Aunt Sally is chugging along the Connecticut River. The first steamship… is moving! Morey takes his boat up and down the river and he’s getting a lot of attention along the way.
JEFF: It would seem that the world is about to change!
RAY: It’s 1797 when financier Robert R. Livingston invites Samuel Morey to New Jersey. Livingston is ready to financially back a new type of boat with a paddle wheel on the side driven by a steam engine. A prototype is built, and Morey believes a new steamship company, fame, and fortune will soon follow!
JEFF: Of course he believes that. Morey’s engine can power these large boats up and down rivers. Even against the current! Imagine shipping cargo this way along rivers? And think of how much more mobile people can become now! This is the dawn of a new age.
[CRICKETS NIGHT SOUNDS FOR A FEW SECONDS]
RAY: Sooooo… where’s the new steamship company?
JEFF: Yeah, where IS it?
RAY: Robert Livingston passes the idea and design for the side-paddle wheel steam ship on to his business partner. I mean, no patents have been filed, so I guess this thing is up for grabs. It’s Livingston’s business partner who eventually builds a steam-powered boat called the Clermont. The boat is a huge commercial success. It’s the Clermont that launches a steamship company, patents are filed, and fame and fortune now seems inevitable for Livingston and his business partner, come 1807.
JEFF: Meanwhile, back in Fairlee, Vermont, Samuel Morey is despondent. He’s watching his design and ideas make other people rich and famous. In fit of anger, he launches the Aunt Sally out to the center of Fairlee Pond…
JEFF: And sinks the boat to the bottom, scuttling the ship. He swims to shore on a plank of wood, and walks away dejected.
RAY: Man oh man! That’s awful! I can’t imagine having my work stolen like that.
JEFF: It happens all the time. Anyway… the name of Robert Livingston’s business partner? None other than Robert Fulton. The man credited with inventing the steamship. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: Of all the low-down dirty deeds…
JEFF: I know, right?
RAY: I had no idea someone else invented the steamship first.
JEFF: They say on certain days, maybe with a little fog drifting across Morey Lake, you can see the outline of a peculiar-looking boat with paddle wheels on the side… the boat makes no sound, and causes no ripples in the water, and then it soon disappears.
RAY: I guess that would be the Aunt Sally.
JEFF: Right. And at the same time, pacing the shores, the specter of a man has been spotted around the lake.
RAY: Which would be Samuel Morey standing by the water that bears his name, where his greatest triumph sits at the bottom.
JEFF: This story haunts anyone who has ever made any kind of living with their ideas. To have your work stolen is horrible and hurtful. Then to watch that same person get rich off of your idea, is more than some people can take. Samuel Morey died here in Fairlee, Vermont, back in 1843 at the age of 80. He lived long enough to watch steamships become huge, and change the way the world travels. And he watched Robert Fulton get all the credit. He had to swallow that bitter pill every time he watched a steamship motor by on the nearby Connecticut River.
RAY: That would have made me nuts too! Back in the fall of 1991, some divers exploring the bottom of Lake Morey, discovered the remains of a large boat. They believed they may have found the Aunt Sally. The salvage diver planned to try and raise the remains of the boat and sell it, but the state of Vermont informed him that as soon as the boat was raised, since it’s an historical artifact, it would become the property of the state. When the salvage diver offered to raise the ship for the state for a fee, Vermont declined.
JEFF: So we can’t be certain that the remains found are the Aunt Sally.
RAY: No we can’t. It’s roughly the right size and shape, and judging from the amount of rot, it dates to about the right time, but we don’t know.
JEFF: There’s also some debate if Morey truly scuttled his boat on purpose or if it was some kind of accident. The thought being: what kind of Yankee would destroy something that works?
RAY: And now we’re left with the story and the ghosts of Morey Lake.
JEFF: Maybe Vermonters keep the ghost of Samuel Morey and his boat around because it’s a point of pride that one of the biggest innovations in transportation started right here.
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RAY: We’d like to thank our patreon patrons, and our theme music is by John Judd.
[POST LEGEND RIFF]
Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.