Historical Marker #944 in Bardstown (Nelson County) commemorates steamboat innovator John Fitch, whose pioneering work helped set the stage for a transportation revolution.
Fitch was born on January 21, 1743, in Windsor, Connecticut. He first traveled to Kentucky after service in the Revolutionary War. He surveyed and claimed several tracts of land in present-day Nelson County. Fitch returned to the East and conceived the idea of a steam-powered boat in 1785. He built and experimented with several scale models before constructing and demonstrating a full-size model in 1787 at Philadelphia named the "Perseverance." Although Fitch experimented with various forms of propulsion such as paddle wheels and screw propellers, the "Perseverance" operated on a series of vertical paddles. In the following years he obtained exclusive steamboat navigation rights from several states, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and Delaware.
In 1791, Fitch obtained a patent, but the inventor was unable to secure financial support for extensive construction and was unable to persuade others of the boat's benefits. Dejected, Fitch returned to Kentucky, hoping that he could find funding of his invention due to the potential impact the craft could have on the numerous western rivers. When Fitch arrived in Kentucky he found his land claims in dispute. He also quickly discovered that few individuals on the frontier had surplus money to put into such a venture.
Fitch continued to tinker with steamboat models in Kentucky, but grew further discouraged due to the inability to gather funding. Growing depressed and relying on drinking, Fitch died in 1798 in Bardstown. His death was believed to be caused by an overdose of morphine and alcohol. Fitch's life of disappointment was summed up in an entry to his journal shortly before his death: "I know of nothing so perplexing and vexatious to a man of feelings as a turbulent wife and steamboat building. I experienced the former and quit in season and had I been in my right sense I should undoubtedly have treated the latter in the same manner, but for one man to be teased by both, he must be looked upon as the most unfortunate man in the world."
Fitch's name as the earliest steamboat innovator was largely lost to history in favor of the more successful Robert Fulton and his steamboat the "Clermont," which steamed up the Hudson River almost a decade after Fitch's death. Today, John Fitch's innovative spirit is commemorated with a memorial on the grounds of the Nelson County courthouse square, where the inventor's remains also rest.