Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Secret of Pearl River Island

Pearl River Island at the mouth of the Pearl River down near the Rigolets played an important part in history. For one thing, naturalist William Bartram was nursed back to health from a devastating illness he came down with while traveling along the Gulf Coast on the lookout for natural specimens, and secondly, the man who helped him recover was James Rumsey, an engineer and inventor who knew George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

James Rumsey
Famous American Inventor

Rumsey was working in secret on Pearl River Island after moving from property he owned in the Lacombe area. His work involved developing steam propulsion for driving a watercraft upstream. At that time, numerous people were working on the concept of using steam power to  turn paddlewheels or propellers to move a boat against the current, but Rumsey was using steam to jet the boat forward, sort of a "for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction" effort. 

For more than 40 years, Donald Jr. Sharp has been pulling together information about James Rumsey and his times. There are many elements to explore, key documents to pin down, and, most of all, a story of political intrigue among the acquaintances of this innovative genius who was obsessed with making better use of steam. It includes tales of opening the American West to settlement as well as protecting secrets of the Industrial Revolution. 

This map shows where James Rumsey was working on his steamboat in Lacombe between 1774 to 1777. It was originally called Bayou Rouville, a branch of Bayou Lacombe. Its name was changed to Big Branch, even though there was already a bayou named "Big Branch" close to Mandeville.

Click on the map to make it larger. To see it full size,

Although he had been thinking about and designing steam-propulsion systems, this is the place where James Rumsey started his experiments with steam "jet propulsion" to move  boats. He was here in 1774 and 1775. In 1776, he bought Pearl River Island from the daughter of Joseph Des Russeaux, deceased. Des Russeaux had bought it from the Biloxi Indians in 1750. This is where Scientist William Bartram spent three weeks recuperating from an illness living with Rumsey on the island. Bartram figured out that Rumsey was working on some secret project, but didn't know what it was. 

James Rumsey was living on Bayou Rouville, a branch of Bayou Lacombe, and working on his secret project, but it turned out that Lacombe wasn't secluded enough. He moved to Pearl River Island for more isolation. His plan was to heat water in large kettles, and then, using a crude valve system, release the steam out the back to move the boat forward. He was sending iron kettles to the De Verges Iron Works in New Orleans to make the valves. 

When the threat of war loomed in the area, he made arrangements to move to Baltimore in the hopes of securing better valves. 

There's much more to the James Rumsey story: even though some historians believe he was born on American soil, Don Sharp determined he was actually born in Bristol, England. There his successful merchant father who fell on hard times, and how this family poverty became a driving force in Rumsey's efforts to use his engineering talents to improve grist mills, and other machines, and finally to develop a way to move boats using steam. For a time he was a trading company agent in Illinois, setting up fur trade with the Indians there. Then he went to Natchez, Mississippi, and finally to Lacombe.

He was friends with important people in five different countries, all of whom recognized his inventive genius and engineering skills. His story is an American tale of ingenious innovation, politics, family connections, and even scandal, all in an effort to regain the family fortune and help his father back in England. More on the Rumsey saga is coming in future articles.