The American Revolution was about more than just a political event; it was also about people seeking to improve their lives, and the fortunes of their families, through innovation.
James Rumsey was a great example, since he was an inventor who could not be stopped. His work on using a steam engine to propel a boat upstream was recognized extensively, but little is known about the time he spent in St. Tammany Parish to develop and finetune the watercraft.
"He made history everywhere he went," said Don Sharp, historian. "He played a part in opening up the American West, he invented the first steamboat, and he served as engineering superintendent to George Washington, this association leading to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution."
Early in his life, Rumsey
used his engineering talents to improve grist mills, and other
machines. 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.
James Watt perfected the steam engine with a condenser in the 1770's, but James Rumsey put it to work to solve one of the greatest challenges of the time, moving boats against the current. Through the historical research of Don Sharp, it was shown that not only did Rumsey work on his invention off Bayou Lacombe but he also had a secret workshop on Pearl River Island at the mouth of the Pearl River down near the Rigolets. His workshop was near Sand Bayou on Pearl River Island.
Both locations played an important part in history. We know from his writings that 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. The man who helped him recover was James Rumsey, an engineer and inventor, who was working on a secret project on Pearl River Island
Rumsey's life took plenty of twists and turns. He was born in Bristol, England, and late in life was named George Washington's superintendent of engineering. He was also a friend of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. In fact, Franklin started the Rumserian Society to celebrate Rumsey's accomplishments and further his work.
Many details of Rumsey's life were kept secret, however. He was born in England, his family from Crickhowell, about 50 miles from Bristol., England, but his father moved to Bristol in 1740 and started a grocery. Don Sharp found considerable information about the Rumseys from church records. Rumsey's father was a bell ringer at the church, and his name is one of the bells.
The family also took part in local government, and Rumsey's father went on to become involved in the shipping industry. Don Sharp communicated with several people in Bristol about the Rumsey heritage.
It is no doubt that Rumsey played an important part in the development of steam power for watercraft, and if he had not died in 1792, his name would have been right up there with the other steamboat legends of Roosevelt and Fulton. It is ironic that, in 1813, as steamboats started coming down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, they became a key ingredient in the success and development of the Crescent City, especially since Rumsey had done important work on early steamboat designs while he lived in Lacombe, just 25 miles away.
Rumsey's early family history, as researched by Don Sharp, unveiled the untruths about his birthplace in Maryland. They clouded his actual birthplace, but it was all for a good cause. After his death, associates petitioned Congress for a monetary award to help Rumsey's son, crafting a false story about Rumsey being born in Maryland's Bohemia Manor. They hoped that giving Rumsey an American birthplace would improve the chances of getting a Congressional award. Sharp has communicated with church record keepers in Bristol and other nearby English towns proving Rumsey's actual birthplace, the name of his father and his father's business successes and failures.
In fact, much of Rumsey's work was done in the hope of making money that could be sent back to his father in England to help pay his debts after a business reversal devastated his shipping firm, Sharp discovered.
Rumsey worked in secret on Pearl River Island after moving from property he owned in the Lacombe area. Why all the secrecy? 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.
This was at the time of the beginning of the United States, and the patent office wasn't up and running yet, so inventors were extremely wary of letting anyone know of what they were working on and their ideas.
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. Sharp notes that Rumsey's successes on the Potomac River in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, were possible only by the groundwork that was done in St. Tammany Parish.
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.
Given the new nature of steam engines at that point in history, it may be that this is the place where James Rumsey started his experiments with steam "jet propulsion" to move boats. He was in Lacombe between 1774 and 1775, living on Bayou Rouville, a branch of Bayou Lacombe.
It turned out, however, that the Lacombe location wasn't secluded enough, Sharp said. Rumsey 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.
In 1776, he moved to Pearl River Island with the permission of the daughter of Joseph Des Russeaux. 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.
When the threat of war (the American Revolution) loomed in the area, he made arrangements to move to Baltimore in the hopes of securing better valves.
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.
An online search of Rumey's achievements yielded the following:
An organization was formed in 1788 by Benjamin Franklin to honor Rumsey and his work. According to The Rumseian Society website "The Rumseian Society was first created in Philadelphia, in 1788, to further the
inventive career of James Rumsey, and was disbanded with his death, in
1792. It was re-created in 1903 in Shepherdstown, to build the Rumsey
Monument that still stands overlooking the Potomac, and was re-created
again in 1984 to build the Rumseian Experiment, a replica of James Rumsey’s 1787 steamboat."
In 1915, a monument was dedicated to Rumsey on the banks of the Potomac River in Shepherdstown to celebrate his contributions to steam-powered watercraft. According to the C&O Canal Trust website, "The James Rumsey Monument and Park overlooks the Potomac, the very river on which Rumsey demonstrated the first steamboat.
"Shepherdstonians began discussing a monument in the 1830s – undoubtedly to overshadow Robert Fulton, who often received recognition for being the ‘inventor’ of the steamboat. Completed in 1915, the 75-foot monument sits in the borders of its own park. A plaque mounted on one side of the monument reports how Rumsey “made the first successful application of steam to the practical purposes of navigation.”
The demonstration shocked many local citizens. What is a “canoe powered by a teakettle?” they asked. The C&O Canal Trust website says it was the first steamboat.
"The eccentric inventor James Rumsey shocked Shepherdstown during a December 3, 1787, demonstration when his boat – without traditional sail or oars – actually left the dock here on this stretch of the Potomac River.
“She moves, by God, she moves!” exclaimed one particularly doubtful veteran. The steamboat traveled about half a mile upriver and returned to the landing. During a second test eight days later, the innovative craft reached speeds of 4 miles per hour.
"Though Ramsey’s steamboat was first, many credit the invention to Robert Fulton, the man who mastered the production of the steamboat. But no matter whom the original inventor, the steamboat opened new worlds of navigation for the people of Shepherdstown, making opportunity and commerce easily accessible," concludes the C&O Canal Trust website.
And Donald Sharp was able to pinpoint where Rumsey carried out the early major design work for his steam-powered watercraft, near Bayou Lacombe and at the mouth of the Pearl River in St. Tammany Parish.
As soon as steam-propelled watercraft became available, riverboats became a principal transportation mode for river trading. And although Rumsey was working on backward thrust steam propulsion, the groundwork was laid for stern-wheeler and side wheeler steamboats as well as propeller driven watercraft. When the steamboat was perfected and came into regular use, the city of New Orleans began
It's good to know that St. Tammany played an early part in the invention of the steam-driven watercraft. Today's version of the backward thrust boat propulsion system? Jet-Skis and Wave Runners.