You’d think I would have already done it, but I finally had a chance to go see the Rumsey Monument over in Shepherdstown today. I should have checked it out sooner considering the connection my family has to the organization that raised the money and oversaw its construction. But in the six years I’ve lived in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, I just never did until now.
The monument is located in a lovely park high above the Potomac River near the spot where, on December 3rd, 1787, James Rumsey successfully demonstrated the first steamboat.
Yes, yes, I understand that Robert Fulton and the Clermont come more immediately to mind. Most school books give him the credit for doing it in 1807. And, there are other contenders for “Inventor of the Steamboat” title but don’t say that around certain members of my family. A tour guide in Britain found that out the hard way.
My late Uncle Jack was on a trip there back in the late 1990s when the hapless guide casually mentioned that it was an Englishman who invented the steamboat. Now, you have to have known Jack to truly appreciate this. He was a very colorful man who loved a good argument (he was a lawyer, after all) and was loud in his opinions. The look on the guide’s face must have been priceless (think the receiving end of a shock and awe campaign) when he found himself challenged by an American tourist who then felt the need to follow up with a letter documenting Rumsey’s exploits on the Potomac.
Jack played to win and when it came to James Rumsey and the steamboat, he came by his convictions honestly. My great-grandfather, Harry Lambright Snyder, the editor of the now defunct Shepherdstown Register newspaper, was a member of the Rumseian Society in the early 1900s and, according to Jack, led the construction of the monument and tried to get for Rumsey more widespread recognition as the steamboat’s inventor. He, at the very least, succeeded in convincing family members about Rumsey’s rightful place in history. Now, that I’ve visited the monument, count me among them.