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Virginius Island
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Armory workshops and dwelling houses along the Potomac River, 1824. NPS Photo

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Settlement and Early Industry

The industrial history of this Shenandoah River island begins with Robert Harper, the colonial entrepreneur who owned most of the land on the peninsula created by the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers and who operated the ferry established there. During the 1750s, Harper constructed a small mill complex on the Shenandoah, where he operated a gristmill and a sawmill. The millrace he developed may have been part of a single natural channel created by the passage of the Shenandoah between the shoreline and a river island, now known as Hall's. It is also possible that this channel, once adapted as a race, carried soil and debris to the Virginius Island area. These deposits in turn accelerated the otherwise gradual accumulation of silt that would eventually transform the collection of small islands located below Harper's mills into nineteenth-century Virginius Island.

Between 1817 and 1823 a bridge, mills, mill house, machinery, and water channels were erected among the sycamore, ash, elm, willow and oak trees on these small islands, then owned by John Peacher. There were also a few simple dwellings. Peacher's gristmill, which was probably a custom mill, utilized the water channeled by the river between the three small islands and the main island to grind or chop wheat, corn and rye for the local farming community. Peacher sold his island property in 1823 to James Stubblefield, a prominent Harpers Ferry resident and superintendent of the federal armory that had been established there in 1796.

The early industrial development associated with the armory was a key element in the long-standing vision for the growth of the entire Potomac River region. Indeed, this all-encompassing vision of industry, trade, and a viable transportation system along the Potomac held by such noted individuals as George Washington persisted well into the nineteenth century. Stubblefield held to this vision, as well. In 1824, Stubblefield sold parcels to four different investors. Stubblefield's apportionment of the island into individual parcels at this time had the most immediate and most lasting impact on the landscape of the island.

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