Rumsey Monument

I believe that it is my sacred duty as a dad to embarrass my kids as much as possible. But if I can’t make them cringe, blush or act like they don’t know me, dragging them somewhere truly “boring” is a good second option.

I bring this up because I surprised my kids the other day with a spur of the moment visit to the Rumsey Monument over in Shepherdstown. I figured it would be a good history lesson for them and give me a chance to explain our family connection to the monument’s construction. Besides, it seemed like a good opportunity to see how fast I could get their eyes to glaze over.

For the uninitiated, 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.

Unfortunately for Rumsey, he never received much credit and the issue of who actually invented the steamboat remains a murky one. There were others working on the idea around the same time as Rumsey, and these days, when steamboats come up in casual conversation (assuming they come up at all anymore), Robert Fulton comes to mind more readily. School books generally give him the credit for inventing the steamboat when he demonstrated the Clermont in 1807. But don’t mention anyone else but Rumsey around certain members of my family. A tour guide in England found that out the hard way.

My late Uncle Jack was on a trip there back in the late 1990s when the unsuspecting guide casually mentioned that it was an Englishman who invented the steamboat. I’ve never met the man, but I suspect he’s now a little uneasy when he tells that to other tourists. I like to picture him looking around to make sure Jack isn’t there before claiming the steamboat for the British Empire.

You have to have known Jack to truly appreciate what the poor guide must have endured. He was a very colorful man who loved a good argument and was loud in his opinions (he was a lawyer, after all). After lecturing the guide, Jack even followed up with a letter documenting Rumsey’s exploits on the Potomac. I know this because he sent me a copy. I sometimes wonder if the guide even cared. But Jack clearly did and he played to win.

When it came to James Rumsey and his steamboat, Jack came by his convictions honestly. My great-grandfather, Harry Lambright Snyder, the long-time editor of the now defunct Shepherdstown Register newspaper, was a member of the Rumseian Society in the early 1900s. According to Jack, he helped lead the construction of the monument and tried to get for Rumsey more widespread recognition as the steamboat’s inventor. At the very least, my great-grandfather succeeded in convincing family members about Rumsey’s rightful place in history. Unfortunately, I’m having trouble with the next generation.

My kids and I found ourselves in Shepherdstown with some time to kill when I noticed a street sign pointing the way to the monument. It made me feel a little guilty. In the six years we’ve lived in the Eastern Panhandle, we’d yet to make the pilgrimage.

Now’s the time,” I thought. “I’ll make it a family affair.”

Of course, my kid’s reaction as we came around the bend with the expanse of the park opening up before us was much different than mine. While I was snapping pictures of the towering monument to James Rumsey’s ingenuity and connecting with once lost family dogma, my kids were wandering aimlessly around the park so they could avoid listening to me hold forth on the wonders of Rumsey’s grand experiment on the Potomac.

How about we get a burger for dinner, Dad?” my daughter eventually asked. My son, who just seconds before had something of a vacant look in his eyes, snapped to attention at that. He’s never come across a burger he wouldn’t eagerly gobble down.

I sighed, piled the kids back in the car and left.

James Rumsey will have to wait a while longer to get his due from my kids. I guess it’s not like he isn’t used to it.

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