December 3, 1787: James Rumsey Tests First Steamboat Near Shepherdstown
On December 3, 1787, spectators gathered in Shepherdstown along the banks of the Potomac River to watch history being made. Inventor James Rumsey stepped aboard a crudely built wooden boat and fired up a steam engine. The waters of the Potomac started churning up, and, suddenly, the boat headed upstream, leaving a stunned crowd in amazement.
Rumsey had tinkered with his invention for years, but he’d struggled to find financial backing. Just three years earlier, he’d been an innkeeper at Berkeley Springs. One day, he showed a model of his steam-powered boat with a frequent visitor to the springs. George Washington formally endorsed Rumsey’s plans. As a result, Rumsey was able to raise the necessary funds for his demonstration on the Potomac three years later.
After the Shepherdstown demonstration, Rumsey traveled to Philadelphia and gained support from Benjamin Franklin, who formed a society to raise money for the venture. However, Rumsey died during a trip to England in 1792 at the age of 49. In 1807, Robert Fulton introduced a more practical design of Rumsey’s idea and is now remembered as the “father of the steamboat.”