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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

Town Profiles: Harper's Ferry

Located at the junction of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, and mere feet from the borders of Virginia and Maryland, the town of Harper's Ferry, WV, sits much like it did 150 years ago. This little town is teeming with history, from the time of Lewis and Clark to John Brown's Raid. Back in the day, Harper's Ferry was a site of industry, trade, and commerce. Today, those characteristics are long since gone, but its antiquated charm still exists and draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Old Town Harper's Ferry

The town had humble beginnings in 1775, when Robert Harper established a small homestead on the hillside overlooking the merging of two major rivers. His home was completed in 1782 and is the oldest-surviving structure in the town today. In 1783, Thomas Jefferson visited the young town and most likely stayed at Harper's residence. At the turn of the 19th century, Harper's Ferry was beginning to establish itself as a federal industry town. Many townsfolk worked in the munitions factories or the armory. One man, by the name of Samuel Annin, was the Armory Paymaster during this time. The paymaster lived in one of the most elegant homes in the town, and it is rumored that Meriwether Lewis stayed in Annin's residence for a time in 1803. However, the home is long since gone, and all that remains is the stone foundation and garden.

One thing you should know about Harper's Ferry is that there a lot of old ruins in and around the town, especially on Virginius Island. Most of the original town was built on the flood plains of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. Over the years, Harper's Ferry has seen some of the most destructive floods on record, and the foundations that remain stand as reminders of those times. Among the ruins are those of a butcher shop, a boarding house, and a few factories.

Ruins of the Cotton Mill

One of the most significant ruins to see are those of the Cotton Mill. Constructed in 1848, the mill reached four stories in height and was one of the most technologically-advanced facilities of its time. However, its purpose would soon shift at the outbreak of the Civil War. The Union army commandeered the building as a hospital in 1862, housing the diseased and sick. After the Civil War, and the devastation of the cotton industry, the plant was transformed into a flour mill. However, like much of the industry in Harper's Ferry post-war, it failed. Today, only the brick foundation and iron drive shafts of the turbines are left standing.

Dispersed along Virginius Island are the reminiscences of the water tunnels that powered the town's early factories and mills. The canals and tunnels would draw water from the Shenandoah River, whose currents allowed the mills to operate. The head gates to this system still stand today near the end of the Island Trail. Additionally, tourists can see the remains of the Shenandoah Canal, which was constructed in 1803 to bypass the rapids of the river. However, the canal was abandoned in the 1830s with the construction of the C&O Canal, the first continuous canal system from the then-frontier lands to Washington DC.

With the construction of the C&O came an influx of Irish immigrant workers. To accommodate these people's customs and religion, St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church was constructed in 1833. The church is still standing to this day and offers weekly masses. Just up the hill from St. Peter's stands the ruins of St. John's Episcopal Church. St. John's was built in 1852 and served as a barracks and hospital during the Civil War. However, the church was left in tatters after the war was over and was completely abandoned when a new church was built in 1895.

John Brown's Fort

Harper's Ferry's claim to fame came with the arrival of John Brown, a radical abolitionist who wanted to incite a massive slave revolt across the South. On October 16, 1859, Brown and eighteen of his followers attacked the Harper's Ferry Armory which housed more than 100,000 rifles and muskets. His plan was to seize the arms and distribute them among the slaves in Virginia, hoping to destabilize the institution of slavery and lead the slave uprising. The armory was easily taken without resistance; however, trouble arose shortly after. First, Brown's men fired upon an approaching B&O passenger train, killing the baggage master (who ironically was a free black man). Second, the townsfolk of Harper's Ferry began firing upon the armory themselves, pinning down the raiders.

On the morning of October 18, United States Marines were sent in to suppress the revolt. In another twist of irony, the marines were under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee and First Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart, both of whom would become famous leaders of the Confederacy during the Civil War. At this point, Brown and his men were cornered in the engine house of the armory. After Brown refused to surrender, Stuart ordered troops to break down the doors of the building. Brown and seven of his men were captured shortly after. In the aftermath, ten of Brown's men (including two of his sons: Oliver and Watson) and four townsfolk were killed. John Brown and two of his followers were executed by hanging on December 2, 1859. To abolitionists, Brown was a martyr to the cause and immortalized through art and hymns, such as 'John Brown's Body.' To the pro-slavery arena, Brown was a scoundrel who escalated tensions between the states which ultimately led to secession.

Harper's Ferry saw quite a bit of action during the Civil War. In anticipation for conflict, Union troops constructed a stone fort with surrounding naval batteries overlooking the town on Maryland Heights between 1861-63. On October 16, 1861, CSA Colonel Turner Ashby attacked US Colonel Geary's troops on Bolivar Heights. The attack only lasted six hours before the Confederate troops were repulsed.

In the late afternoon, Jackson and Hill mobilized their forces and advanced upon the struggling Union troops. They were able to capture the high ground, and during the night, placed numerous cannon in firing range of the Union artillery on Bolivar Heights. While the artillerymen held their positions, Union cavalrymen, around 1500 in numbers, retreated across the pontoon bridges back to Sharpsburg. Come the morning of September 15, Confederate guns opened fire. The concentrated fire of 56 guns on the fatigued Union forces soon forced Col. Miles to surrender. Unfortunately, Miles was mortally wounded shortly after making decision. Despite the firepower and duration of the fighting, losses were minimal, with the Union suffering 9 deaths and 39 wounded, and the Confederates 6 deaths and 69 wounded.

Ruins of St. James Church

After the Civil War, Harper's Ferry was in financial ruin. The armory industry in the town was none but dead. There were attempts at reviving the economy over the years, one of which was the construction of a brewery in 1895. However, West Virginia was a staunch prohibition state, and in 1914, the brewery was converted into a bottling plant. Another attempt was the creation of the Shenandoah Pulp Factory by Thomas Savery in the late 1800s. At its peak, the mill's ten turbines cranked out 15 tons of wood pulp per day. But after some non-profitable years during the Great Depression, the mill closed in 1935, and was subsequently destroyed in the flood of 1936.

Also following the Civil War came the establishment of the Storer College, named after abolitionist John Storer who gave a $10,000 endowment to start the school. The college was the revolutionary in that it was open to both sexes and all races, which really appealed to the African American community of Harper's Ferry, especially Frederick Douglass who was one of the first Trustees of the school. The college graduated its first class of eight students in 1872 and continued to train teachers for over 80 years. However, after desegregation and loss of state funding, the school closed its doors in 1955. An exhibit of the college can be found on High Street in one of the old academic buildings.

There are plenty of exhibits and buildings to visit during your trip to Harper's Ferry. A few examples are a watch-maker's shop, a country store, and a "Black Voices" exhibit, which vividly describes the struggles enslaved and emancipated African Americans faced up through the Civil Rights Movement. My personal favorite is the excavation exhibit located along Shenandoah Street. This point of interest goes into detail about the preservation, rehabilitation, and restoration of old buildings and the historical records associated with it all.

Harper's Ferry is a wonderful little town surrounded by breath-taking nature and entrenched in a rich and diverse history. There is so much to learn, experience, and explore in this area. The small historic downtown is lined with quaint exhibits and storefronts. Outside of the city limits are plenty of hiking/biking trails, tubing spots, and swimming holes. I sincerely hope you take a trip out this way at some point! It's certainly a must-visit!


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