On 6 September 1827 the Morning Chronicle reproduced a story from the Athlone Herald. It gave, alas, no date, but my guess is that the event occurred in August 1827. The Herald (according to the Chronicle) said:
STEAM NAVIGATION.— The inhabitants of this town were last week unexpectedly and agreeably surprised by the appearance of a steam vessel, the Marquess of Wellesley, in this part of the Shannon. This vessel, which is employed in conveying goods and passengers between Killaloe and Shannon Harbour, had left the former place on the preceding day, and proceeded in fine style against wind and stream to visit several of the islets in our beautiful and spacious lake. We augur from this trip a series of results highly beneficial to the commerce of Athlone. We hope that this useful establishment will be the forerunner of that mercantile inland intercourse which this country requires, and will be productive of that spirit of industry and good order which are alone wanting to make our country great and prosperous. It opens a facility of communication between Dublin and Limerick, which, if taken advantage of, must present a field for successful speculations. Limerick is an excellent market for many commodities, and Dublin ever affords a speedy sale for every species of provisions. Let an easy and certain mode of intercourse be once established between Athlone and these places, and trade will be promoted and benefitted through all its branches.
John Grantham’s steamer Marquess of Wellesley [101 tons, 12 hp engine] had first reached Limerick from Dublin in February 1827. The Herald‘s account is the earliest I have so far found of a steamer in Athlone. Grantham’s pioneering exploration of the river north of Shannon Harbour, and of Lough Ree, must have been somewhat nerve-racking.
The Marquess of Wellesley must have come to know Athlone well because, when the Railway Commissioners reported in 1837, she was the regular vessel serving the route from Athlone to Shannon Harbour. The 20-mile journey was said to take her eight hours (2.5 would do it today) and she carried no passengers.
She left Athlone every three days and, in 1835, towed 130 lumber boats carrying 3993 tons (an average of about 31 tons each) from Athlone to Shannon Harbour. From there, the boats could be hauled by horse to Dublin or (less likely) by other steamers downstream to Portumna and Killaloe. Almost four times as much material came upstream from Portumna to Shannon Harbour as came downstream from Athlone.
The Shannon Commissioners
The Shannon Commissioners laboured throughout the 1840s to over-engineer the Shannon Navigation; Athlone Lock and Weir are amongst their achievements, rendering the old Athlone canal redundant. The new works allowed larger steamers, those used on Lough Derg, to work upstream to Athlone and the opening of the improved navigation was attended with much ceremony. But not everybody was convinced, as the following article from the Dublin Evening Mail of 24 October 1849 suggests.
The Shannon Commissioners have been loud in their own praise lately, on account of a great hydrostatic phenomenon achieved by them between the bridges of Banagher and Athlone. It is known to the public how they undertook, long ago, to render the whole extent of that noble river, from Lough Allen to Killaloe, navigable to steamers of a large class; and how, after an enormous waste of treasure, they boggled in the attempt, cutting canals, opening new watercourses, damming up old ones, and raising embankments, which only served to inundate the adjacent fields and meadows, instead of draining them, and which left the bed of the river an uncertain, and often an impervious, channel for traffic. Their large steamers were obliged to blow off at Portumna during the dry season, and passengers and goods were thence transferred to smaller craft for conveyance up the stream.
In rainy seasons, and all through the winter, the course was free for the larger vessels; but so it had been before these improvers struck a spade into the ground, and so it would be, if they had never taken a level or thrown up a mound within a hundred miles of the banks. Their professed object was to deepen the bed of the river so as to make the passage at all times safe and practicable, at the same time that the land on both sides should be effectually protected against the flood. In that design they signally failed. The river was not made more convenient for traffic, and the islands and the low grounds on each side of the river became more than ever subject to the overflowing of the stream.
How often has the triumph of science displayed itself by the sudden stoppage of the Lansdowne [paddle steamer Lady Lansdowne] before she could reach the Victoria Lock, or by the sticking of the [paddle steamer] Lady Burgoyne in the mud. How often has the perfection of draining been illustrated by fleets of tram-cocks [large ricks of hay] bobbing and tossing on the surface, as they were gracefully swept along, to be added to the alluvial riches upon the shores of Lough Derg.
But a great exploit has been recently performed. The Commissioners, in person, accompanied by sundry Railway Directors, and a band of music, have actually steamed up to Athlone in the Lady Burgoyne, without once sticking in the mud, while the trumpets and kettle drums played — “See the Conquering Heroes come” and the great guns so famed in song and story, were actually struck dumb upon the ramparts by the unexpected nature of the invasion.
This great fact is claimed as a realisation of the great hydrostatic problem committed to these gentlemen to work out, and as a vindication of all the expenditure that has taken place, as well as of the heavy taxes imposed upon the circumjacent counties, in consideration of the wonderful benefits they derive therefrom. Colonel Jones has steamed up to Athlone; therefore, let Ireland rejoice. The glorification could not well be more vociferous, if Lieutenant Waghorn had entered the fabulous underground canal near the Gulph of Darien, and come out on the shores of the Bay of Panama.
The achievement has been performed; no doubt of it. But how? By a contrivance such as the Wizard of the North might exult in. A coffer-dam had been for many months laid across the Shannon, above the bridge of Athlone, to protect the operations of masons employed upon quays and other works, which it was necessary to construct under the ordinary level of the stream. The current of the river, in the meantime, passed through a canal on the western side, through which it was discharged at some distance below the bridge. But the works having been at length completed, it ceased to be necessary for the water to be shut out from its usual channel; and as a great accumulation had taken place above the dam, the opportunity was considered favourable for making a dash with the Lady Burgoyne.
Many of our readers have, doubtless, witnessed with admiration the address of the director of the Powerscourt Waterfall, when, during a scanty supply of his essential element, he is desirous, for some special cause, to show off his cascade to advantage. He dams the stream above, until the time for a demonstration arrives; and then every man and boy at his command fall to work with spade and shovel, so as to let the impatient prisoner escape in a moment; and down it comes, thundering in foaming sheets of mud, to the delight and amazement of the gazers below.
In like manner were all hands piped forward to demolish the coffer-dam at Athlone; and the materials of which it was composed, being swept suddenly away,
away went the great body of waters, long pent up, and as they descended, the Lady Burgoyne proudly mounted the stream, breasting its force, paddling triumphantly through the boiling surge, and accomplishing the voyage without a single stoppage. But for the supply thus stored and seasonably taken out of bond, for her special accommodation, her Ladyship might as well have attempted to sail up the Dodder, and convey a party of commingled Directors and Commissioners to a pic-nic with the Lord Chief Justice at Rathfarnham Castle. Nevertheless the feat is celebrated as a triumph of science, and a complete refutation of all the illnatured things which were said of the failure of the Shannon Commissioners to improve the channel of that noble river for practical purposes, and for the general advantage of the public.
This tour d’artifice might be considered almost harmless, because no person of common understanding could be deceived by it, if it had not been accomplished with a reckless indifference to the rights of private property. But on that account it is deserving of grave reprobation. The sudden release of so vast a body of waters flooded the country for many miles below Athlone; and as it would not suit the Commissioners to effect that purpose gradually, nor had they, in their high and mighty puissance, condescended to give one moment’s notice of their intention of discharging the river all at once, great quantities of hay and crops were inevitably destroyed. We have not heard that any lives were lost; but small thanks are due to the authors of this coup d’eclat for that. The inundation came upon the people like the effect of a water spout on a summer day. They were not forewarned by a gradual rising of the water, or by any of the outward and visible tokens by which they are commonly admonished of such visitations. But all at once the large waves rushed in upon them, baffling all precautions, and obliging them, in many instances, to seek personal safety by a hasty flight.
A notion of the suddenness of the irruption may be conceived, from the circumstance related by a gentleman who witnessed the devastation it committed. Walking towards Banagher on that morning, he passed a man who was mowing grass in a dry field. Having transacted his business in the town, he returned in about two hours, and found several men and women, up to their knees in water, on the same spot, endeavouring to collect the sward which had been severed, and carry it to the dunghill.
It appears most disgraceful that such a waste of property should be committed by persons in high official station, for the sake of a piece of legerdemain, which could only deceive the public as long as the device by which it had been made to succeed for once, and which it is impossible ever to repeat, should remain unexposed. Is there no legal redress to be had for such wanton and unnecessary destruction?