In 1915, John Pryor Cowan, a journalist with the Pittsburgh Gazette, decided to take a trip to Washington. He would go, not by car or train, but by canal. He and his wife built their own boat from a kit. The boat was not very elegant looking, and friends who saw it remarked “That’s some tub.” The name stuck.
The Cowans shipped the Sometub from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland, and on July 15, 1915, they set off on their 184-mile journey.
Cowan said that the Sometub had the distinction of being the first boat with an outboard gasoline engine — even if it only had a top speed of 5 miles per hour — on the canal. While the boat could go faster than a mule-drawn canal barge, the early outboard motors were not reliable, and the Cowans’ would fail them often.
It took about a week to reach C&O Lock No. 30, the Shepherdstown lock, where the Cowans had planned to visit the Antietam Battlefield. But their motor died and with night falling and thunder in the distance, they decided to leave their boat with the lock-keeper and instead to seek shelter across the river in Shepherdstown.
In his book, Sometub’s Cruise on the C. & O. Canal, written the following year, Cowan tells of his visit to Shepherdstown:
Fleeing across the bridge over the Potomac we breathlessly climbed the hill and along a dark street [Princess St.] to the center of the town whither we had been directed to the hotel. Suddenly we rounded a corner into an electric-lighted thoroughfare and stood before the entrance of the Rumsey House [Today’s Entler Hotel and Historic Shepherdstown Museum]. Our clothes were wrinkled and we were splashed with mud from head to foot. We still carried our lighted lantern and the crowd at the hotel gazed at us with expressions twixt curiosity and amazement. The proprietor was moved to commiseration.
“Come in here, you-all, right away,” he said.
The next morning, a Sunday, the Cowans woke to the sound of church bells.
It was a restful place to spend Sunday and in the evening we joined the villagers in a stroll through the shady streets and out on the bluff overlooking the Potomac. Here on the edge of the cliffs on a natural base of limestone rock is an imposing shaft lately erected to the memory of James Rumsey, Shepherdstown pioneer and inventor of the steamboat.
Cowan was charmed by Shepherdstown:
Geographically Shepherdstown is in West Virginia, but politically, socially and traditionally it leans toward the Old Dominion. It lies in Jefferson county at the foot of the beautiful Shenandoah valley and is essentially southern. Its whole atmosphere and the sympathy of its people belong distinctly to Piedmont Virginia. It is the Alsace-Lorraine of America.
Next to Alexandria, Shepherdstown is perhaps the oldest important settlement in the Potomac valley. It is one of the few old towns in the country that has not been defaced by too much present day progress. Shepherdstown has always been a substantial prosperous place and does not affect the gewgaws of the new rich municipality. In some respects it resembles Concord, Massachusetts. Its streets have many features in common with the thoroughfares of the old-time New England towns. In many of the residences are preserved some of the most striking characteristics of chaste colonial architecture.
Two days later the Sometub’s motor was fixed and the Cowans, after bidding farewell to their “hospitable friends” in Shepherdstown, resumed their journey on the canal to Washington.
Nine years later, in 1924, the canal would close for business.