The First Steamboat?

On August 8, 2008 · 1 Comments

Robert Fulton invented the steamboat in 1807. The Clermont right? That’s what they taught us in school anyway. Actually, he built the first successful steamboat used commercially, but he was not responsible for the first steamboat. If you listen to the folks in West Virginia, that honor should more properly go to James Rumsey.


James Rumsey Steamboat Monument

Twelve Mile Circle finds itself today in Shepherdstown, WV, a small locale on the eastern panhandle, set atop a bluff overlooking the Potomac River. A tall column rises upon a hillside in a peaceful park at the backside of town. I walked closer to get a better look at the marker bolted to its base:

In Honor of James Rumsey, inventor of the steamboat, who in October, A. D. 1783, on the Potomac River near the mouth of Sir John’s Run, made the first successful application of steam to the practical purpose of navigation, and on December 3rd, 1787 made a further successful demonstration on the Potomac River at Shepherdstown Virginia, about three hundred yards above this site. Erected by the State of West Virginia under the auspices of the Rumsey Society, A. D. 1915

So an operational steamboat existed at least 20 years before Robert Fulton grabbed the glory.


Potomac River at Shepherdstown, West Virginia

The steamboat would have made its demonstration run right along this stretch of the Potomac River, just upstream from the monument. The bridge in the distance carries traffic between West Virginia on the left bank and Maryland on the right. This bridge is from the modern era, but other earlier bridges crossed here as evidenced by the crumbling pilings midstream.


Invention of the Steamboat

The monument’s reverse contains an interpretative depiction of "James Rumsey’s Boat." He designed a kind of jet propulsion mechanism that drew water from the river through the bottom of the boat and pushed it out through a pipe out the stern. It was rather clever. Unfortunately Rumsey died before his ideas and refinements caught the public’s attention, leaving others to forge ahead and develop more practical applications. He has been largely forgotten by history.

James Rumsey built his machine in West Virginia (albeit still a part Virginia at the time) and the state takes justifiable pride in his accomplishments. However it’s a bit ironic that the demonstration actually took place in Maryland, which owns this stretch of the Potomac River. West Virginia memorializes his success but the final act took place across the state line.

On August 8, 2008 · 1 Comments

One Response to “The First Steamboat?”

  1. […] crossed the Potomac River on my way back from Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and drove into Sharpsburg, Maryland a few miles later, the site of the Battle of Antietam. I […]

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