Innovations and Impacts of Industry

New technologies adopted during the industrial revolution molded the town of Harpers Ferry. But with prosperity came unintended consequences. Charcoal and coal were used for manufacturing processes at the Armory. This created pollution that contributed to health problems for the townspeople. This same type of pollution fuels climate change. Harpers Ferry’s history can help us understand some unintended environmental impacts and provide a cautionary tale for today’s environmental challenges.

The Armory’s Innovations and Civil War Connection
George Washington described Harpers Ferry as the perfect spot for a federal Armory. By the mid-19th century Armory workers became innovators with the Minié Rifle bullet, novel machinery, and interchangeable parts production. With the only national armory south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Harpers Ferry became a valuable and strategic target at the start of the Civil War.

 
Caption: "Energy For Industry: A Timeline";  The far left side shows clear cutting of forests. An armory is visible in the background along with a train. The right half depicts a cleaner environment with solar panels and wind turbines.
 

Unintended Consequences of Industry at Harpers Ferry
John H. Hall’s accomplishments helped Harpers Ferry become a powerhouse of ingenuity and industry by the mid-1800s. But, the growing economy and increased Armory production brought about unintended consequences.

 
Painting depicting the 1859 town of Harpers Ferry from Loudoun Heights.
Painting depicting a 1859 Harpers Ferry from Loudoun Heights

Richard Schlecht, NPS

 

As the Armory in Harpers Ferry developed, the air filled with black smoke from increased coal burning. At the height of the Armory’s success, a traveler noted:

 
“...and the smell of coal smoke and the clanking of hammers obtrude themselves on the senses and prevent one's enjoyment from being unmixed.” - Thomas Cather, 1836
quote from Journal of a Voyage to America
 

With multiple smoke stacks rising far above homes, the natural views were obscured and the streets were filled with the deafening sounds produced by the ironworks and railroads. Though the natural world was affected by industry, there were other unintended consequences.

Before the 1940s, the link between coal burning, large-scale industry and human health impacts was not well understood. Today, like Harpers Ferry in the 1800s, people who live near smoke stacks experience a variety of health problems. The same pollution that directly impacts human health is contributing to climate change. Climate change poses human health risks at Harpers Ferry, including an increase in flood severity which can spread disease and take lives.

 
Comparative photo of the town of Harpers Ferry in 2008 taken from Loudoun Heights. Town from St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church to the Point is shown. The town is absent of an Armory.
View of Harpers Ferry from Loudoun Heights - 2008

Stan McGee, NPS, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

 

These days, you can’t tell how healthy the air is by how clear or hazy it looks. Most of the pollutants that are causing poor air quality and contributing to climate to change are invisible. Although there are no longer smokestacks in Harpers Ferry, the park is still impacted by industrial pollution from industries and cities upwind. Prevailing winds carry pollutants to the town. Harpers Ferry’s unique topography traps these pollutants in the air surrounding the town for a prolonged period of time. Topography and natural air currents explain why the park occasionally has high levels of air pollution.

New Innovations and Inspirations
Industry brought prosperity to Harpers Ferry and our nation, but the unintended consequences of burning charcoal and coal contrasts with the advantages of clean energy sources today. Early in the town's development, clear cutting forests for charcoal expected and accepted. Today, we have many options for environmentally responsible and sustainable development.

Armed with knowledge of the past and modern, productive alternatives, we can change our ways and have a robust economy. Many industries are already shifting to green technology and renewable energy. You can be an agent of change when you visit Harpers Ferry. Try out these climate friendly actions to combat climate change at home and at Harpers Ferry.

  1. Install LED bulbs in your home and save energy with the National Park Service!
  2. Tell a friend what you learned to help raise awareness of climate change!
  3. Travel with a smart plan and carpool to reduce greenhouse gas emissions!
 

References

Gilbert, D. (1999). Waterpower: Mills, factories, machines & floods at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, 1762-1991. Harpers Ferry, WV: Harpers Ferry Historical Association.

Luber, G., Knowlton, K., Balbus, J., Frumkin, H., Hayden, M., Hess, J., McGeehin, M., N. Sheats, Backer, L., Beard, C. B., Ebi, K. L., Maibach, E., Ostfeld, R. S., Wiedinmyer, C., Zielinski-Gutiérrez, E., & Ziska, L. (2014). Ch. 9: Human Health. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment, J. M. Melillo, Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and G. W. Yohe, Eds., U.S. Global Change Research Program, 220-256. doi:10.7930/J0PN93H5.

Thomas, J. E., Campbell, J. P., Constanzo, S. D., Dennison, W. C., Lehman, M., Nisbet, D., Nortrup, M., & Parson, M. (2013). Harpers Ferry National Historical Park natural resource condition assessment: National Capital Region. Natural Resource Report NPS/HAFE/NRR--2013/746. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.

Last updated: November 20, 2015

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Mailing Address:

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
PO Box 65

Harpers Ferry, WV 25425

Phone:

(304) 535-6029

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