Shepherdstown man going full steam ahead for inventor

February 19, 2006|By CANDICE BOSELY
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"By that time, it wasn't really an experiment," Hurley said.

He said the paths of Rumsey and Fulton crossed years earlier in England, when Rumsey had his portrait painted by Benjamin West. West's apprentice at the time was Robert Fulton.

Fulton's boat was fast enough to beat the rival method of transportation - the stagecoach - and he successfully started a passenger service.

"He steamed off into history and made a great deal of money," Hurley said.

Of course, others along with Rumsey sometimes are credited - especially by the hometowns and home states of such men - with inventing the steamboat.


Some say it was John Fitch of Kentucky who first came up with the idea, but Hurley disputes that.

Local legend has it that Fitch came to Shepherdstown to spy on his rival Rumsey, but that he was run out of town after being tarred and feathered. Hurley believes the story is partially true.

He said Fitch quickly left town before he made the acquaintance of pails of tar and piles of feathers.

Lost to history

Hurley, 64, proprietor of O'Hurley's General Store in Shepherdstown, was born above the store and sleeps in that same bedroom today.

In high school, one of his history teachers was a "real proponent" of Rumsey and, in ninth grade, Hurley's class raised money to buy a bronze plaque for Rumsey's grave.

He had been buried as a pauper.

When Shepherdstown decided to hold a bicentennial celebration of Rumsey's demonstration in 1987, Hurley joined in.

The people in charge of planning the event met once a month. Every month, others would talk about having a parade and a dinner, while Hurley kept mentioning building a replica.

Finally, he was named the director of the boat project, for which the keel was laid in 1985.

The parade and dinner were held and a crowd, the likes of which Hurley said he has not seen since, followed the replica down to the boat ramp to watch its demonstration.

A few kinks

Finished five days earlier, the steamboat had some kinks that had not been worked out.

"Rumsey replica suffers setback," a Herald-Mail headline read the next day.

It moved only a few feet.

Were he able to sit down and chat with Rumsey, Hurley knows exactly what he would ask.

"I would immediately get into his technical mind," Hurley said.

Although Rumsey left behind a sketch of his engine, no details were included.

On the back shelves in the Smithsonian, Hurley found a chain said to be from Rumsey's steamboat. It was just one small piece members of the Rumseian Society had from which to work.

Exactly what happened to Rumsey's steam engine isn't known.

The boat itself - which Hurley said is of no real significance - probably was sold locally. Rumsey tried to send his far more important engine to his friend and fellow inventor Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia.

Records track the engine to Baltimore, but no farther.

"Lost to history," Hurley said.

Locally, Rumsey's name, if not his legacy, lives on. He is the namesake for the bridge that spans the Potomac River in Shepherdstown, as well as a technical school in Hedgesville, W.Va.

A stone monument in a small park in Shepherdstown is dedicated to him. It overlooks the river, the spot where, more than 218 years ago, Rumsey brought within reach the seemingly impossible: He made a boat move against the current without a sail or oar.

"This was on par with a space launch today. This was on par with someone going to the moon. It was the cutting edge of technology," Hurley said. "The fact that it was done here, in the backwaters of (what was then) Virginia, is really interesting."

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