CLARKSBURG, W.Va. – Most people would associate the invention of the steamboat to American engineer and inventor Robert Fulton, however there is one town in West Virginia that has its own claim as the birthplace of the steamboat.

Shepherdstown, W.Va., located in Jefferson County, was once the work site of an inventor who some people claim was able to achieve the first steamboat 20 years before Fulton.

James Rumsey was born in Maryland in March 1743, and throughout his life, he worked as a “miller, mill mechanic and designer, canal builder, blacksmith, and rustic architect,” according to wvstatemuseumed.wv.gov.

James Rumsey (artist attributed is George William West)

Rumsey eventually settled in Berkeley Springs, in what is now West Virginia, and ran an inn. During his time there, Rumsey experimented with designs for what would become his own take on the steamboat.

He soon demonstrated his mechanical poleboat invention to George Washington himself, for “whom he designed a house and other buildings.” According to wvstatemuseumed.wv.gov, “Washington wrote in his diary, September 6, 1784, ‘The model & its operation upon the water… not only convinced me of what I before thought… quite impractical, but that it might be turned to the greatest possible utility in inland navigation.'”

With plans to incorporate steam in his invention’s next iteration, and using Washington’s endorsement, Rumsey secured a “somewhat vague patent” for his boat, according to jamesrumsey.org. To fund his endeavors, he worked for the Potomack Company the summer of 1785.

However, Rumsey was stuck in a race of sorts with rival inventor John Fitch. Fitch was able to demonstrate his steamboat design in Philadelphia in August 1787. After delays, and borrowing heavily to fully fund his project, Rumsey held his own successful demonstration of his steamboat on the Potomac River, near Shepherdstown, on December 3, 1787, three months after Fitch.

Some people have argued that Rumsey had a working model before Fitch, but evidence of that has been inconclusive.

Their rivalry ultimately became about patents, and who owned the rights to what, much of which is still unknown, partially due to the great Patent Office fire of 1839.

The boat that Rumsey had built for the Shepherdstown demonstration was later tossed aside, with only pieces of both the engine and the boat being found in later years.

With the help of Benjamin Franklin, Rumsey helped found the first Rumseian Society in Philadelphia in 1788, later moved to Shepherdstown, to advance his work. Rumsey ultimately died in December 1792 from “what his doctors described as ​’overstraining his brain,'” some years after moving overseas to England, according to americanart.si.edu. Thus, the first Rumseian Society was disbanded.

Rumsey Monument in Shepherdstown (Acroterion Photo, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

It was then in 1807, 15 years after Rumsey’s death and 20 years after he successfully demonstrated his steamboat design, that Robert Fulton demonstrated the viability of his own design on the Hudson River and cemented himself in history as the inventor of the steamboat.

So the question remains, was Rumsey, or even Fitch, the true inventor of the steamboat? The answer is yes and no.

While Rumsey’s design did technically succeed, what it and most other steamboat designs at the time had in common was that they were simply not commercially viable. It wasn’t until Fulton that a commercially viable steamboat was created.

According to jamesrumsey.org, “In the three decades after Rumsey’s death, Shepherdstown changed his story from one of simple tragedy (an inventor dying early, before his ideas are brought to fruition) to one of tragedy and injustice (an inventor dying early, his work successful but unnoticed, and his profitable steamboat idea stolen by others).”

While the thought of stolen ideas make for a good story, “Fulton’s steamboat, once built, had really none of Rumsey’s steamboat in it.”

Rumsey’s legend in Shepherdstown resulted in a monument being erected near the Potomac River in 1916 by the second Rumseian Society, formed in 1903 for the purpose of overseeing the monument.

Then in 1983, a third Rumseian Society was created to build a replica of Rumsey’s original 1787 steamboat, called the Rumseian Experiment. The third society was discontinued as a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation in the State of West Virginia in 2022, years after the Rumseian Experiment fell out of use.

Despite his early death, Rumsey made a great impression on the inventing world and is still celebrated for his work to this day.