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[photo] In 1803, the Harpers Ferry Armory was comprised of just three workshops: a Smith Shop, Factory, and Mill for heavy forging. By 1824, when this scene was painted, the physical plant comprised 21 workshops and employed 255 workmen. The Armory and Arsenal buildings were destroyed during the Civil War, and the establishment was not rebuilt.
From the Harpers Ferry NHP Historic Photo Collection (HF-628)

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is located at the scenic confluence of the Sheanandoah and Potomac rivers in the Blue Ridge Mountains. George Washington visited Harpers Ferry in August 1785 and was impressed by the water power potential of the site. Ten years later, as President, he personally selected this site for a proposed Federal musket producing factory or armory. Construction of a dam, musket factory and power canal along the Potomac began in 1798. Today, the preserved 19th-century commercial and residential buildings of Harpers Ferry reflect its importance as a manufacturing and commercial center from 1800 to the Civil War. It was here that John Hall pioneered the successful development of interchangeable parts in manufacturing. In 1859 the town was the scene of the John Brown's raid, an event of major importance in bringing the nation closer to the Civil War. Strategically important, Harpers Ferry changed hands from Union to Confederate forces several times during the War. Its capture, together with 12,693 Union soldiers defending the town, by "Stonewall" Jackson in 1862 was a dramatic prelude to the great battle at Antietam Creek that ended the first southern invasion of the North. The buildings of former Storer College are also part of Harpers Ferry, and illustrate the efforts by the Freedman's Bureau and private philanthropy to aid and educate African Americans after the Civil War.

Aerial view of Harper's Ferry National Historical Park
National Park Service photo

It was at Harpers Ferry that the Lewis and Clark Expedition was outfitted with weapons for their western journey. Meriwether Lewis relied on the U.S. Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry for guns and hardware that would meet the unique requirements of his transcontinental expedition. On March 16, 1803, Lewis arrived in Harpers Ferry with a letter from Secretary of War Henry Dearborn addressed to Armory superintendent Joseph Perkins:

Sir: You will be pleased to make such arms & Iron work, as requested by the Bearer Captain Meriwether Lewis and to have them completed with the least possible delay.

In addition to procuring rifles, powder horns, bullet molds, ball screws, extra rifle and musket locks, gunsmith's repair tools, several dozen tomahawks and large knives, Lewis also attended to the construction of a collapsible iron boat frame of his own design. The strange craft was comprised of an iron frame, which came apart in sections, over which was stretched a covering of hide. This special boat could be used high in the mountains if they were unable to make dugout canoes. The Armory mechanics assigned to the project, however, had considerable difficulty assembling the iron frame, and Lewis was forced to prolong his Harpers Ferry stay from the week he had planned to more than a month. On April 20, 1803, Lewis wrote President Jefferson:

My detention at Harper's Ferry was unavoidable for one month, a period much greater than could reasonably have been calculated on; my greatest difficulty was the frame of the canoe, which could not be completed without my personal attention to such portions of it as would enable the workmen to understand the design perfectly. -My Rifles, Tomahawks & knives are already in a state of forwardness that leaves me little doubt of their being in readiness in due time. (Jackson 1962, 38-39)

[photo] Reproduction of a section of "The Experiment," the collapsible iron boat frame which Meriwether Lewis had fabricated at the Harpers Ferry Armory
Photo by David T. Gilbert, from the Harpers Ferry NHP Historic Photo Collection, September 2002

Lewis and the Armory mechanics finally finished the iron frame, and Lewis conducted a "full experiment" on the unusual canoe. To his satisfaction, he found the craft could carry a load of 1,770 pounds. Better yet, since the collapsible frame weighed just 99 pounds, he could transport the disassembled boat with relative ease. On April 18, 1803, Lewis finally departed Harpers Ferry to attend to other pressing matters in Lancaster and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Eleven weeks later, on July 7, Lewis returned to Harpers Ferry. The following day he wrote President Jefferson: "Yesterday, I shot my guns and examined the several articles which had been manufactured for me at this place; they appear to be well executed." Securing a driver, team and wagon to haul his large supply of weapons and articles to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Lewis departed Harpers Ferry for the last time on July 8, 1803. Although there would only be one skirmish at Two Medicine Fight Site in which weapons were used against American Indians, the arms procured at Harpers Ferry kept Lewis and his men fed for 28 months. The following is the list of inventory acquired by Lewis at Harpers Ferry: 15 Rifles, 24 Pipe tomahawks, 36 Pipe tomahawks for "Indian Presents," 24 Large knives, 15 Powderhorns and pouches, 15 Pairs of bullet molds, 15 Wipers or gun worms, 15 Ball screws, 15 Gun slings, extra parts of locks and tools for repairing arms, 40 Fish giggs, a collapsible iron boat frame and 1 small grindstone.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, administered by the National Park Service, stands at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers in the states of West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland, 65 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., and 20 miles southwest of Frederick, Maryland, via U.S. Rte. 340. The Visitor Center is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Hours of operation are from 8:00a.m. to 5:00p.m. There is a fee. Please call 304-535-6298 or visit the park's website for further information.

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