Sunday, July 9, 2017

Rolling On the Scioto River: Steamers and Joseph Barnes

 Barnes House

On Wakefield Mound Road, there are several early nineteenth century houses, notably the Joseph Barnes House (3 miles south of the Route 32 intersection, on the left), where Abraham Lincoln stayed while visiting the impressive earthworks which stood directly across the road (now only traces). Barnes built this house between 1803 (the year Ohio became a state) and 1805.

The history of the Barnes House extends to the first occupants of Ohio. This square is the only one known to have aligned with the cardinal points on a cross-axis of a complex arrangement of geometric mounds with its gateways opening due north, south, east, and west – cited by historians to be the point where the Hopewell aligned either the vernal and autumnal equinoxes or, perhaps, where they referenced astronomical phenomena such as the the rising and setting of the sun and the moon.


In order to construct all the connections to the Barnes House and steamboats in Scioto County, we must trace the history of the steamer and Barne's migration to Ohio. These wonderful veins of history often produce incredible ties. This is no exception. Let's get on board for a ride back into history..

First stop almost heaven, W. Va. Sir John’s Run Road is at the top of Warm Springs Ridge, which tracks the stream of the same name to the Potomac River where the stream empties. The stream is an 11.9-mile-long (19.2 km) non-navigable tributary stream of the Potomac Ricer in Morgan County of West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle.

Famed inventor, James Rumsey, and his brother-in-law, Joseph Barnes owned a mill on Sir John’s.

Thomas Jefferson is quoted and saying American inventor James Rumsey (1743-1792) was the “most original and the greatest mechanical genius I have ever seen.”

And, the greatest promoter of using the Potomac for nation development was none other than General (later President) General George Washington. After canoeing downriver from Fort Cumberland in 1754, Washington saw the Potomac as a viable inland water route to transport military supplies to the western frontier. The French and Indian War, however, delayed Washington from pursuing a Potomac strategy until after 1763.

Washington was interested in Rumsey for his construction management capability. But, even more, he was extremely interested in Rumsey's invention of a mechanical boat as a possible alternative to building expensive locks on the Potomac navigation.

The Potomac navigation plan piqued James Rumsey’s curiosity as well. Rumsey’s first self-propelled riverboat design (the pole boat) utilized a moving car-riage mounted in the hull and parallel with the keel. The cart was fitted with a bank of poles (“Shovers” as Rumsey described them)on each side of the hull that dragged the river bottom. The shovers with their iron-tipped ends dug in as the carriage traveled backwards, thus “poling” the boat forward. Using the reciprocating action of the carriage, Rumsey tried to emulate the movement of men walking back and forth on deck and poling the boat forward.

The mechanism failed when the poles on one side would dig into the river-bed, but the poles on the opposite side would either slip or be too short to hit the bottom. This caused the boat to startle to the left or right.The pole boat did not utilize steam power when Rumsey first proposed it to Washington in September 1784.

In July 1785, George Washington recommended the hiring of Rumsey to supervise operations of the Potomac Company, an enterprise that General Washington and several investors had formed to make the Potomac River navigable from Georgetown to Cumberland.

Incorporating steam power came during the winter of 1785 as Rumsey made progress in improving his steam engine. Rumsey later patented the steam-powered pole boat in England in 1790.

Rumsey’s primary sponsor, Benjamin Franklin, Franklin presented a paper describing Daniel Bernoulli’s thesis of using a water jet as a method to propel a boat. Franklin had dismissed the paddlewheel as a suitable propeller because it was similar in operation to an undershot waterwheel
and thus, very inefficient in transferring power. Ben Franklin’s speech may have been the catalyst that led Rumsey to design a waterjet-propelled boat.

It is James Rumsey who claimed that he invented the first steamboat. His steam engine had one cylinder; the engine’s piston rod operated a piston water pump in like fashion. An intake valve allowed the pump to suction river water. Then that valve closed, and the pump forced the water though a discharge pipe at the stern. The result was jet propulsion.

On December 3, 1787, the boat finally made a very successful public demonstration on the Potomac at Shepherdstown – 20 years before Robert Fulton, who is commonly and mistakenly described as the inventor of the steamboat. Directly coupling the engine piston rod to the water pump piston was true genius, though Rumsey did not patent the direct-coupling idea. It would be 1840 before anyone did.

However ...

With a functioning steam engine, another problem arose. The single-cylinder pump would draw several gallons of water from beneath the boat and send it down a copper pipe to the stern. Because gallons of water were being drawn into the pump at the same time as water was still flowing from it to the stern, the pump was working against itself; several strong strokes and it bound up. This was resolved by replacing the copper pipe with a square wooden trunk with flapper valves in the bottom to allow water in from the river, to relieve the negative pressure at the pump.

Connections To Ohio

Joseph Barnes, James Rumsey's brother-in-law and coworker, was, thus, a co-inventor of the steamboat and there was an enormous patent dispute, one of the first big patent cases in U.S. law. Rumsey and Barnes lost the case in the Virginia legislature. So, fed up with Virginia, Barnes came to Ohio as “a land of opportunity.” He viewed it as a much more egalitarian society than had existed back in Virginia.

In the early 1800s, steamboats were being built in Portsmouth. The first steamboat built in Scioto County was called the Herald, later changed to the Ohio.

Scioto River Navigation

According to historical archives, steamboat navigation of the Scioto River was a pet scheme with steamboat men for many years. The steamboats built by Kendall & Head, about 1818, came down the Scioto from about the mouth of Brush Creek, but probably they received their boilers, etc., at Portsmouth.

The record of early years gives no account of any traffic on the river until the winter of 1847-1848. The first steamboat, America, went up the river as far as Waverly. It made a prosperous trip and was in the trade during the high water. Some three round trips were made.

In December, 1848, a small steamer, the Relief, had been built to run up the Scioto, and the experimental trip was made December 12, 1848. She left her moorings and was watched until she was out of sight, by quite a large number of people. The steamer went up as far as the Feeder Dam, and Salt Creek, and grounded once, but “slightly.” It is said “she plowed her way gracefully and successfully against the current, and Piketon gave her an ovation” upon her arrival.

Then, “the handsome little steamboat,” the John B. Gordon, became the regular Scioto River packet to make regular trips, commencing February 1, 1849, and continued until June. She was owned by the Scioto Valley Steamboat Co., and cost $3,500.

Not much more in the steamboat business can be found of record. Railroads and railroad bridges soon put a stop to much further effort, and, although the Scioto was a free highway, neither was “her placid bosom disturbed nor her waters used for navigation purposes.”

The last steamer that attempted to do a paying business on the river was “a very pretty little craft” called the Piketon Belle. She was launched October 26, 1860, and drew only twenty-two inches; was in the trade in 1861, and was built and owned at Piketon. She continued her trips until May 10, 1861.

As a last note, there is a reference in Texas history about a steamer named the Scioto Belle believed to have been built on the Scioto River in Ohio. It arrived at Galveston from New Orleans on May 7, 1844. The vessel was described in the Telegraph and Texas Register as a substantial, well-built boat, nearly new, well adapted for carrying freight, and with excellent accommodations for passengers.

The steamer operated between Galveston and Houston and landings on the Trinity River but, probably because of the poor condition of the channel in the 1840s, was not able to go much farther up the river than Liberty Landing.

During 1844 the Scioto Belle was docked at Lynchburg during a yellow fever epidemic and was converted by Dr. John Henry Bowers into a hospital where he treated fifteen cases of the fever. Bowers had once attended and befriended captive Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and also had attended General Sam Houston and become his close friend.

James Rumsey; Joseph Barnes; the Potomac, the Ohio, and the Scioto rivers – these references complete the full circle of our Lucasville area's brush with the steamboat age. It seems a shame that the boats and all of the romanticism associated with them was but a eye wink of the past. As our populace suffered their loss, the vanishing steamer became a part of the decline of river transportation in a place once so dependent upon its beautiful waters.



Affidavit No. 12, published in “A Short Treatise on the Application of Steam.”

“The Ancient Ohio Trail” CERHAS. University of Cincinnati. 2013.

David G. Allen. “James Rumsey, American Inventor.” PDF.

John M. Farrior, President Rumseian Society. “Don't Forget James Rumsey's Steamboat.” The New York Times. October 16, 1987.

Jefferson to Joseph Willard, March 29, 1789, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson.

Robert J. Kapsch. The Potomac Canal: George Washington and the Waterway West. WVU Press. 2007.

Kay L. Mason. History of Lower Scioto Valley Ohio.

Pat Ireland Nixon. The Medical Story of Early Texas, 1528–1853.” Telegraph and Texas Register, May 15, 1844.

Geoffrey Sea. “Washington Heritage Trail.” Washington Heritage Trail, Inc. Funded in part by the Federal Highway Administration. 2010.

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