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Virginius Island
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Newly formed Lake Quigley and constructed pulp mill, ca. 1889. NPS Photo

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Mill Village

Thomas Savery's Shenandoah Pulp Company purchased Virginius Island in 1893. Savery had also purchased nearby Hall's Island from the federal government only a decade earlier, in 1884. Here he had constructed a wood pulp mill on the site of old canal locks. Although absentee, Savery's ownership of Virginius Island had long-term impact. Rather than convert or modernize former industrial structures, Savery made the existing residences available for his employees working at the pulp mill operation on Hall's Island or to others. Initially, the overall appearance of the residential core remained the same, with two rows of tenant dwellings along the main street, referred to at this time as Island Avenue, and the rail corridor. On the street side, a wide brick walkway lay between the row of houses and the rail line. In the rear, there was space for each tenant to have a yard, a garden, and outbuildings. There were 15 dwellings on the island: ten residences among the row houses and five others in separate locations. Access to Shenandoah Street and Lower Town continued to be via a timber bridge (a new one constructed after the 1889 flood) on the north side of the island.

With the Savery ownership and transformation of the lower Shenandoah islands, Virginius Island ceased to be a collection of industrial workshops, factories and waterways and became instead, with Hall's Island, one large island, owned and operated by the Shenandoah Pulp Company as a small residential community. Under Savery, routine maintenance of structures on the island became secondary to maintaining production at the pulp mill. Waterways were abandoned and allowed to fill with the excavations from the construction of the pulp mill impoundment pond and with the debris, silt and sand brought by each freshet. The old rail line no longer passed over waterways, but over island depressions and seasonally dry gullies. Weeds choked the curve of the infrequently used rail siding. In the past, the long line of rails across the island had been the predominant structural feature, symbolizing the viability of private industry and commerce on Virginius. However, by 1890 the visual impact of the empty mills had preempted the railroad's symbolic role.

 
Weeping willows growing along the shores of the inner basin, May 29, 1886. NPS Photo

 

The lack of repairs to the structures that remained standing after the floods perpetuated the slow physical decline of the island. The stone walls of the old Herr mill continued to stand as a crumbling testament to the ante-bellum prosperity, while the vacant four story brick cotton/flour mill dominated the Shenandoah shoreline as a physical remnant of the post-war bust. With time, however, the remains of both these structures were dismantled, or scavenged and taken away for salvage.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, while nature began to slowly reclaim the island, the overwhelming use of the automobile began to change Harpers Ferry and life along the Shenandoah. Fewer excursion trains stopped in Lower Town. Local automobile traffic traveling through Harpers Ferry bypassed the west end of Shenandoah Street and Virginius Island. With economic base of the community shaken by these and the corporate changes in the pulp and paper companies, many residents moved away. With the complete abandonment of the industrial facilities along the river, scrub and trees began to grow over the old properties. A full canopy of trees developed along the shoreline and the old raceways. Interviews with former residents and old photographs indicate that a large grove of "graceful weeping willows," established decades earlier, edged the old inner basin. The basin gradually filled with debris, earth and low vegetation. In time, remains of this old feature were no longer evident. Only the undulations of the land sloping without interruption from the yards of the rowhouses all the way to the river marked its former location. This park-like landscape, with "the most gorgeous flower gardens," actually made the island "something of a showplace, very pretty."

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