Shepherdstown man going full steam ahead for inventor

February 19, 2006|By CANDICE BOSELY


A yellowing brochure describes steamboat inventor James Rumsey as "engineer, builder, inventor, dreamer."

Most of those adjectives also could be used to describe Jay Hurley, who has spent several years building an airplane, is debating building an electric car and helped to build a half-scale replica of Rumsey's circa-1787 steamboat.

At first, building a steamboat might not sound like too impressive of a feat.

Spend a couple of hours with Hurley, though, and he will convince anyone of what an achievement it was. History books, though, don't all agree on who first accomplished the feat.

Ask any child "Who invented the steamboat?" and, unless he or she grew up in Shepherdstown, it's not Rumsey's name one is likely to hear in response.


Robert Fulton, most would say, invented the steamboat.

Historians in the know generally agree that it was Rumsey, who was born in Cecil County, Md., in 1743 and who died of a brain aneurysm in England in 1792, who first applied the idea of using steam to power a boat in the United States.

"(Fulton) actually was the Henry Ford of steamboating," Hurley said. "He brought the steamboat within reach of the common man."

Next year, during a celebration in Clermont, N.Y., set to honor Fulton, Hurley hopes to attend, take and demonstrate his replica steamboat and bring some attention to Rumsey.

Maybe, Hurley said, the national press will pick up on the story and give Rumsey his long-overdue credit.

If not, he won't be mad.

"It's all fun," Hurley said, smiling. "If you learned James Rumsey (invented the steamboat), I wouldn't have a mission."

"She moves, by God."

Rumsey's first steamboat consisted of a pot of water on a firebox, for which he used soft solder. Local townspeople referred to him and the contraption as "Crazy Rumsey and his teakettle."

He demonstrated that steamboat in 1786, but it was not considered to be a success.

Rumsey persevered.

By the following year, he had improved the invention with hard solder and a water tube boiler. It consisted of one tube of water crisscrossing through the firebox, meaning a much smaller amount of water was heated more quickly.

Steam expelled river water from a valve at the rear of the boat at a rate of eight gallons every two seconds, which Hurley said resembles water shooting from a fire hose.

Prior steamboats had been known to explode, but Rumsey's water tube boiler became the safe standard for marine usage.

Confident he would conquer the river, Rumsey placed advertisements for his 1787 experiment, which was to take place at "high noon" on Dec. 3.

A crowd of about 1,000 gathered on the banks of the river to watch, including dignitary Gen. Horatio Gates, who made a name for himself in the American Revolution.

Along with his crew, Rumsey took aboard eight ladies in their finest and one woman's 5-year-old daughter, named Annie.

On the Potomac River near what now is the Princess Street boat ramp, Rumsey chugged up and down the river in his 48-foot boat.

"Gen. Horatio Gates threw his hat in the air and said, 'She moves, by God. She moves,'" according to legend, Hurley said.

A man standing near Gates reportedly responded, "Yes, and with her moves the destiny of the world," but Hurley admits that might have been a poetic afterthought.

On and on ... and on

Rumsey kept his boat on the water for two hours, moving back and forth, but never beyond the crowd's eyesight.

After he got the replica going, Hurley found out why Rumsey stayed on the water for so long.

"Once it gets going, you can't get it to stop," he said.

Stopping the boat requires removing pieces of wood from the fire and putting them in water. On his replica, Hurley takes into account the tide and wind, starts to "pull the fire" and drifts to the dock.

"That's about 20 percent of the time," Hurley said.

More often than not, the boat stops dead in the water and has to be rowed in, or it rams the dock.

Hurley estimated he has taken the steamboat out dozens of times. He led the Three Rivers Regatta parade in Pittsburgh, and has taken it to Philadelphia and Mount Vernon.

The steamboat replica's top speed of 4 knots - less than 5 mph - means that someone walking at a fast clip on the towpath can outpace it. Changes to make it faster could be done without violating the principles of being a replica, but Hurley said he needs some new crew members.

The number of current crewmen capable of dedicating time to the project is dwindling.

Hurley would like to find mechanically inclined people willing to work toward attending the Fulton bicentennial next year in New York. It takes about 100 hours of maintenance on the boat to do one hour of demonstration, Hurley said.

He said that anyone who contributes 100 hours of time can ride on the steamboat during the Fulton festival next year, set for Aug. 17-19.

Fulton (and Fitch)

Twenty years after Horatio Gates threw his hat in the air in Shepherdstown, Fulton demonstrated his steamboat on the Hudson River in New York in August 1807.

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