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Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

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Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

West Virginia-Maryland
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Near the West Virginia-Maryland-Virginia boundary, situated in the States of West Virginia and Maryland, visitor center in Harpers Ferry, W. Va.; address: P.O. Box 65 Harpers Ferry, WV 25425.

Most of the remaining and restored buildings at this scenic and historic park, situated at the strategic confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers in the Blue Ridge Mountains, have primary associations with John Brown's Raid and the Civil War. As the site of one of the first Federal armories and an early center of industry and transportation, however, the park is also pertinent to the phases of history treated in this volume. Gateway to a river-carved passage through the mountains, meeting place of two mighty rivers, and convenient source of waterpower, it figured prominently in the industrial evolution and westward expansion of the young Nation. Then, in 1859, John Brown—who conceived himself as an instrument of providence—led a violent raid on the town that helped goad the Nation closer to civil war. When the sectional passions exploded into conflict, the oft-flooded juncture of mountain and valley at Harpers Ferry became an important military objective, changing hands several times. Its capture in 1862 by Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson was a dramatic prelude to the Battle of Antietam, which ended the first Confederate invasion of the North. And when peace finally came again, the town of Harpers Ferry lay prostrate—a burned and battered casualty of war.

Peter Stephens, a trader, was the first settler at the site of Harpers Ferry, in 1733. Fourteen years later a millwright named Robert Harper purchased "Peter's Hole," as the place was called, and began to operate a ferry. Seeing the possibilities of using the readily available waterpower, he also built a mill. Around these enterprises grew a small village that was known as "Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harper's Ferry" until shortly after the War for Independence, when it was shortened to Shenandoah Falls; in 1851 the town incorporated as Harpers Ferry.

U.S. Armory
The U.S. Armory in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in the 1850's. Established by the U.S. Government late in the 18th century, by 1801 it had begun production. From a lithograph by Rau and Son, after a sketch by Edward Beyer. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

In 1795, during the Presidency of George Washington, Congress authorized the establishment of a second Federal armory, at Harpers Ferry—Springfield Armory having been authorized a year earlier. Washington himself chose the site, which he felt was "the most eligible spot on the river." It offered waterpower, supplies of iron, hardwood forests for making charcoal to fuel the forges, and a watercourse on which to ship finished products to the future national Capital in the District of Columbia. In 1801 the armory completed its first arms and by 1810 was producing 10,000 muskets a year. Nine years later the Government awarded John Hall, a Maine gunsmith and inventor, a contract to manufacture 1,000 unique, breech-loading flintlock rifles of his own invention. These were made on so exact a scale that all parts were interchangeable. This was the first completely successful application of the principle that led to modern mass production. Two buildings on Virginius (Virginious) Island were assigned for Hall's use. His rifle proved so successful that the contract was repeatedly renewed, and in the ensuing years Hall's Rifle Works produced thousands of them. In 1843 a new Federal rifle factory replaced the works.

As one of the few water-level gateways through the Blue Ridge Mountains, Harpers Ferry gap early attracted the attention of transportation interests. The first of these was the Patowmack (Potowmack) Co., whose first president was George Washington, and which operated between 1785 and 1828. Though not a financial success, this canal complex was the forerunner of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, on the Maryland side, which carried freight on mule-drawn barges from the 1830's until the 1920's. The Patowmack Co. improved navigation to perfect a canal system in the Potomac and Shenandoah Valleys.

The Potomac River Valley, as a westward route, has figured prominently in the growth of our Nation. Through it have passed the Indian trail, colonial wagon road, canal, railroad, telegraph and telephone, and the modern superhighway. These improving means of communication linked the East and West socially and commercially. Before the War for Independence, internal transportation was largely confined to the East along the tidewater reaches of the rivers and hays. Soon after the settled frontier had extended beyond the Allegheny Mountains, enterprising men made plans to connect the East and West by a navigable waterway.

Harpers Ferry
Harpers Ferry.

As early as 1754 George Washington, then still in his twenties, promoted a system of river and canal navigation along the Potomac Valley. Largely through his efforts the Patowmack Co. organized in 1785 to carry out his plan. As the first president of the company, Washington actively engaged in the project until he became President of the United States in 1789 and resigned. By 1802 the company had substantially completed five short skirting canals with locks around falls and rapids between Georgetown and Harpers Ferry to provide for navigation as far as Cumberland, Md. These canal-locks, in order from Georgetown to Shenandoah Falls (Harpers Ferry), were located at Little Falls, Houses Falls, Great Falls, Seneca, and Shenandoah Falls. Of these, Houses Falls, Great Falls, and Seneca were on the Virginia side of the river.

The largest of the five canals skirted the impassable Great Falls of the Potomac. Some 1,200 yards long, 25 feet wide, and 6 feet deep, it passed boats through a series of lilt locks over an elevation of more than 76 feet. Moss-covered remnants of about half a mile of this canal, retaining pools, and buildings may be observed today in Great Falls Park, an 800-acre park that recently became part of the National Park System and is jointly operated with the Fairfax County Park Authority. Also visible are ruins of Matildaville, envisioned by George Washington and Henry ("Lighthorse Harry") Lee as a large city but which never came to fruition. The four other canals, each shorter than the one at Great Falls, had a total length of slightly more than 3 miles. The one at Shenandoah Falls (Harpers Ferry) had three locks.

Such early canal systems were not long towpath canals like the later Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, but rather a series of wing dams and sluices to improve existing river channels. Occasionally, however, short canals as noted above were constructed to bypass river rapids. Small raftlike boats, poled with the aid of the currents, brought furs, lumber, flour, corn, whisky, pig iron, and farm produce from as far as Cumberland to Alexandria, a distance of 180 miles. These boats were either poled back empty or with light cargoes along the shoreline aided by towpaths along swift stretches. One-way log rafts were dismantled at Harpers Ferry or George Town and sold for lumber or firewood. Some of the timbers, which came downriver beneath a load of flour or whisky, can be identified in Harpers Ferry and Georgetown houses today.

Low water often hampered the flow of traffic, and the total tonnage of freight was limited. Toll collections varied from $2,000 to $22,500 per year. After about three decades of operation the Patowmack Canal was superseded by the far more efficient Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. And almost immediately the latter faced serious competition from the railroads. In the 1830's a spirited race occurred between the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, being built from Washington, D.C., and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which started at Baltimore, Md. Their goal was Cumberland, Md., and after that the Ohio Valley. In November 1833, more than 1 year ahead of its rival, the canal reached Harpers Ferry. But only the railroad pushed on to the Ohio Valley; the canal stopped at Cumberland, which it reached 8 years later than the railroad. In 1836 the Winchester and Potomac Railroad, which crossed Virginius Island and connected with the Baltimore and Ohio, began operations. This line was destroyed and rebuilt during the Civil War. [John Brown's Raid and Union-Confederate military activities at Harpers Ferry will be treated in the volume of this series dealing with the Civil War.]

Harpers Ferry
Harpers Ferry.

The city of Virginius, on Virginius Island, now a part of Harpers Ferry, has an interesting history. It originated later than Harpers Ferry, shortly after the year 1803, when George Washington's Patowmack Co. deepened the channel of the Shenandoah River on one side of the island into a canal in order to bypass the Shenandoah rapids, during the course of which the river drops 12 feet. At harvest time a steady stream of river craft used the canal to avoid the Shenandoah's riffle-strewn lower falls. Even more important for the town's development, the rapids were a valuable source of waterpower. Mills of many kinds and residences soon dotted the island, and it became the incorporated town of Virgnius, later absorbed by Harpers Ferry.

Virginius is an excellent example of a town that—in the days before steam engines, gasoline, and electricity—naturally grew up around river rapids. Power could be conducted only as far as a shaft or a belt could be run from a water wheel or turbine, operated by water usually forced into tunnels. Ruins of various 19th century mills, including cotton, paper, and flour mills, are visible today on Virginius Island, as well as those of a dam. The line of the Winchester and Potomac Railroad, now owned by the Baltimore and Ohio, is the only active survival today of life on the island. One after the other the industries of Virginius succumbed to the blight of the Civil War and floods.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, authorized in 1944 by Congress as a National Monument and redesignated in 1963 as a national historical park, consists of a total of 1,500 acres, about 1,251 of which are in Federal ownership. The National Park Service recently acquired a large tract of park land in Maryland, which is not yet developed for park purposes. The visitor center shows an orientation film and features various exhibits. Visitors may take a marked walking tour of downtown Harpers Ferry or journey by auto to nearby Bolivar Heights and "John Brown's Farm." Many of the buildings in Harpers Ferry contain historical exhibits, and archeological remnants of the armory are visible. The National Park Service has inaugurated a major restoration program. A park trail leads from Jefferson's Rock to Loudoun Heights, where it meets the Appalachian Trail. The 1-1/2-mile self-guiding trail that encircles Virginius Island is not only of historical interest but also leads to a veritable nature wonderland.

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Last Updated: 29-Aug-2005