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Rumsey society gives steamboat replica a last hurrah

September 09, 2007|By JULIE E. GREENE

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - A replica of James Rumsey's first steamboat struck success recently during its last voyage - the boat chugged back and forth at 4 knots along a short stretch of the Hudson River in New York.

And then a stiff wind blew it around a bit, including backward, recalled Nick Blanton, 51, of the Martinsburg area.

But it worked and that is what drove members of the Shepherdstown chapter of the Rumseian Society to start building the replica 22 years ago.

They completed the 24-foot-long wooden boat in 1987, taking it out on the Potomac River near Shepherdstown that September for a test to mark the bicentennial of Rumsey's steamboat test on the Potomac River by Shepherdstown on Dec. 3, 1787.

The boat has been periodically fixed and taken out on water for events but has spent most of its time dry-docked, said Blanton, president of the society.

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The boat, The Rumseian Experiment, has a one-horsepower engine, when many push lawn mowers have a three-horsepower engine, Blanton said. Society members often use poles or get a tow to get to shore.

Rumseian Society members took the replica boat to Clermont, N.Y., for its last hurrah during a bicentennial event the weekend of Aug. 18 in honor of Robert Fulton.

"The boat behaved like the boat usually does, which is to say something went wrong," Blanton said.

Condensation is vital for the boat to run. The boat pulls water in from underneath and pumps it back out. Some of the water is diverted to a condenser to condense steam, which creates a vacuum and air pressure that pushes the engine's pistons back and forth, propelling the boat. Weeds sucked into the system can mess it up, Blanton said.

While some society members used to get irritated by Fulton getting credit for inventing the first steamboat, Blanton said the issue is complicated.

What the society claims is Rumsey was the most ingenious, Blanton said.

A handful of men, including Rumsey, invented different types of steam engines or boats from 1785 to 1807, when Fulton invented his successful commercial steamboat, Blanton said.

The earlier inventions didn't become successful, not because the designs were bad, but for financial reasons, Blanton said.

Not until Fulton's creation in 1807 did a steamboat become a commercial success, Blanton said. Fulton received support from Robert Livingston.

Society members are considering building another Rumsey design - a rotary steam engine, that Rumsey never built, Blanton said. But as the members have gotten older, they've done less with the replica boat.

That's why Blanton expects The Rumseian Experiment will now remain a static exhibit at the Rumsey Boathouse Museum behind The Entler Hotel in downtown Shepherdstown.

The museum has been closed for renovations, Blanton said. For more information about the museum, call The Entler Hotel at 304-876-0910.

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