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John Brown’s Fort – the Armory’s fire house and one of the few surviving buildings of the Civil War

Why a child in rural Perthshire should know the song “John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in the grave” is a mystery, but this civil war song was quite known to me, although at the time I had no idea who John Brown was. I thought of this when I went to Harpers Ferry last weekend and saw the remains of the US armory that the famed abolitionist raided in 1859 with the intent of arming the slaves in the south and sparking rebellion. It failed and he was arrested by none other than Robert E. Lee, and executed six weeks later. But the brouhaha that surrounded his actions and his trial brought the question of slavery into the open, which sowed deep suspicion in the south and possibly hastened Virginia’s secession and the onset of the Civil War.

Harper House, the oldest structure in Harpers Ferry

The town is named for Robert Harper who passed by in 1747 on his way to Winchester to build a meeting hall for the Quakers. Amazed at the strategic location and the untapped power of the rushing waters, he bought a chunk of land, opened a mill and ran a ferry service across the Potomac. In 1796 George Washington proposed building the second US armory at Harpers Ferry and the government bought some land. The initial small scale armory began operation in 1799 and from then on industrialization increased, until by the mid 1800s this rural pristine spot dominated by high cliffs and forested hillsides had become a factory town of belching cotton, grist, and iron mills. In addition to the now much enlarged US armory, Hall’s Rifle Works, a private armory, set up shop on Halls Island alongside the Shenandoah river. But while the rapids powered the machines, charcoal was required to fuel them, which led to much of the surrounding forest being chopped down.

Remains of the piers of the B&O bridge over the Potomac which was destroyed by flooding in 1936. The rail bridge to the left replaced Bollman’s classic iron truss bridge which was also destroyed.

On July 4th, 1828 John Quincy Adams laid the corner stone for the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal at Georgetown. The intent being to open up the west for trade, the canal would allow barges to navigate from Georgetown to the Ohio River. That same day, Charles Carrol, one of the original signers of the Declaration of independence, laid the cornerstone for the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad in Baltimore. In 1833, the canal reached Harpers Ferry and four years later the railroad arrived. Yet before construction of the canal ended in 1850, it was already obsolete – the barges overtaken by the faster railroad. The remains of Lock 33 are still there just above the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, though not much remains because most of the granite was filched for rebuilding after the great flood of 1889 destroyed parts of the town. (The ruined white cottage by the side of the road is not the lock master’s house, but was the home of one James Elgin.)

Period exhibit of the 1862 Battle of Harpers Ferry in historic building

The Civil War ended Harpers Ferry’s commercial prominence. By 1861, Harpers Ferry Armory had produced more than 600,000 musket, pistols and rifles, but when Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, Union soldiers torched it to prevent it falling into the hands of the Virginians. But local workers, trying to save their livelihood, managed to salvage the machinery which was eventually removed and went on to form the backbone of the Confederate Armory in Richmond and Fayetteville. It was to no avail because the Confederates left Harpers Ferry shortly thereafter and burned what was left of the armory to the ground, as well as blowing up the original B&O bridge, the rifle works and a bridge over the Shenandoah.

View of historic Harpers Ferry towards the east from just below St. Peter’s.

The B&O bridge would probably have collapsed anyway. Shoddily built in 1836 in a shady deal that saw Wever – the construction superintendent – award the job to the highest bidder with the caveat that he use stone from Wever’s quarry, the piers began to crack shortly after completion and had to be repaired at great expense. Meanwhile, the factors that made Harpers Ferry an excellent location for trade and industry were seriously disadvantageous when it came to defending the town. Surrounded by water at the foot of high cliffs on three sides, Harpers Ferry was a sitting duck; whoever dominated the hilltops, controlled ingress and egress.

Rail bridge built in 1930. In 1894 a tunnel was blasted through the rock at the foot of Maryland Heights which meant trains no longer had to make a steep curve round the cliff.

In 1862, more than 12,000 Union soldiers trapped in the town were forced to surrender to Stonewall Jackson, when Confederate soldiers surrounded them from Schoolhouse Ridge above Bolivar Heights in (now West) Virginia and Loudoun heights in Virginia. The Confederate soldiers then overran the town, scooped up the output of the arsenal and at Lee’s request dashed off with it to nearby Sharpsburg. Although it is considered a Union Victory, the famously vacillating McClellan (see previous posts on Richmond), convinced as always that he was outnumbered, did not succeed in routing or even pursuing Lee’s army, despite having more than twice the number of men under his command than the Confederates. In 1864 Sheridan’s federal troops re-took control of Harpers Ferry and by the time the war ended in 1865, the town had changed hands eight times. The war destroyed industry, homes and livelihoods and the town never really recovered.

Trestle bridge still used by the Winchester and Potomac Railroad

In 1936 another massive flood destroyed the B&O bridge over the Potomac as well as a Bollman iron truss bridge built in 1870. Two bridges over the Potomac at Harpers Ferry still exist; one built in 1894 carries the Winchester and Potomac Railroad and  also has a pedestrian footpath and another built in 1930 carries the CSX (B&O) Railroad. In the short time we were there, a passenger train went by, as well as three freight trains, two of which were carrying coal which seems retrograde in and of itself. The carriages were all defaced with graffiti and gang tags, and lumbered along like articulated metal centipedes. One wonders if the US will ever have a high speed rail system because even progressive California can’t get it done. It’s a far cry from the sleek Chinese trains that sweep across the Eurasian steppe carrying computers and computer chips from Eastern China’s factories to Germany’s inland port at Duisburg in 15 days. You can’t help thinking that in some respects, the baton has already been passed.  

Kayakers and inner tube floaters on the Potomac

View of the old High Street from Public Way

Still, none of these concerns were in evidence on the river where Labor Day holiday makers floated along in colorful inflatable rings. Some had a smaller floating device attached which handily carried the drinks cooler. It looked especially inviting after we made an attempt to get to Overlook Cliff on the Maryland side. The walk was longer than we thought and because I thought we were going antique hunting, I was wearing flat shoes for sidewalks not steep forest paths knotted with tree roots and sprinkled with rocks. And it was about 90 degrees. Even the dogs had all had quite enough and they lay spreadeagled on the ground, panting heavily, resolutely ignoring all coaxing by their owners.

Ruins of the old St. John’s Episcopal Church, Harpers Ferry

The lower part of Harpers Ferry, as well as the former campus of Storer College on Camp Hill – a historically black college which played a role in the fledgling civil rights movement at the end of the 19th and early 20th century – is now run by the National Park Service.  However the town still has a small population and the residences and businesses on High Street and Potomac Street are privately owned and managed. They include restaurants and cafes and after a cool ale and a snack we toddled off to see the rest of the town.

St. Peters Roman Catholic Church and historic building now a National Park bookstore

On a bluff above town is St. Peter’s Church, which was built in 1833 to serve the Irish Catholic workforce, a location that saved it from the floods that periodically inundated the town. A wedding party appeared on the lawn of a building next to it and although church services are now restricted to a Sunday mass, you can get married in the church with special permission and a few conditions attached, namely; one of the party must be a registered and active local church member AND neither party has been married before. Also reasonably fit, because it is a jolly steep hill.

St. Peter’s was the only church not damaged during the Civil War. Alas, the same could not be said of the stone ruins a little higher up towards Jefferson Rock, which was once St. John’s Episcopal Church and is now a hollowed out, roofless shell. St. John’s served as a hospital and barracks during the war and although it was rebuilt in 1899, it was abandoned when a newer church was built on Washington St. Harpers Ferry has the reputation of being the most haunted town in the state – everything from a phantom army and a dying soldier in St. Peter’s to the ghost of John Brown who walks the streets. If you’re into ghost stories, a guided tour leaves from St Peter’s.