currents National Park Service
Virginius Island
Historic Overview
Existing Conditions
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The cotton factory complex was the largest industry on the island, ca. 1857 Lithograph by Thomas Sachse, Baltimore. NPS Photo

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The Landscape of Industrial Development

When Virginius sought town status from the state in 1827, its petition stated that the island had been developed with "works of great public utility," an extensive saw mill, merchant mill, oil mill, tannery and "about twelve dwelling houses." By 1830, 89 people made up the island community, including Lewis Wernwag, a German millwright and bridge builder, who worked out of the machine shop and sawmill he had established there. By 1831 three river channels had been adapted into raceways, a second wooden footbridge connected the Wernwag property with Lower Town, and a machine shop, enlarged merchant mill, connecting road, "commodious houses," productive gardens, paths and lanes were all in place. Any further successful development of Virginius would be based on the entrepreneurs' continued ability to harness the available water power, to process and distribute the abundant supply of agricultural products from the Shenandoah Valley, support a regional program of internal improvements, and serve the needs of the nearby federal armory. Efforts to transform Virginius into a model of industrial enterprise notwithstanding, the original spatial organization of mills, residences, waterways and paths remained in place until well past the middle of the century.

One of the internal improvements important to the success of the federal facility and the prosperity of the community at Harpers Ferry directly affected the physical development of Virginius Island. The Winchester and Potomac Railroad (W&P), a rail line designed to connect with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) in Harpers Ferry and with the nearby Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C&O), originated in Winchester, Virginia and coursed down the Shenandoah shore, across the length of Hall's Islands and Virginius Island before passing through Lower Town to its junction with the B&O at the Potomac River (1836). The straight line of the W&P across the length of the island created subtle alterations in the arrangement of the properties. Several structures were removed from the path of the W&P and others were constructed in alignment with the track. Roadways were also reoriented to accommodate the line. The railroad purchased property adjacent to the line and operated a depot here until 1847. The effect on the landscape of the island was an expanded network of circulation based on waterways, the railroad, the two bridges connecting the island to the mainland, the turnpike, the main street (referred to at this time as Wernwag or Wernwag's Street), and the secondary roads or paths that connected the individual industrial structures.

James Brown map of Virginius Island, 1844

Various changes in ownership and in the development of industries took place during the 1840s and 1850s. Abraham and John Herr had purchased the "wel-known [sic] and extensive Merchant Mill on the Island of Virginius" ... "known as the Island Mill." Another group of investors incorporated the Harpers Ferry and Shenandoah Manufacturing Company, which began construction of a new cotton factory on the riverside of the island in 1846. The structure was a large, four story brick building resting on foundations of stone quarried from the cliffs opposite the island. It contained the most technologically advanced spinning and weaving machinery. In 1847, the company purchased adjacent lots to create a factory complex that included a new dam and water impoundment system. Several residential structures, including four large rough-cast, "stone dwelling houses," five two story brick tenements, and five one and one-half story wooden cottages, stood within the complex. A second factory, constructed in 1849, operated as the Valley Cotton Factory. Located just west of the first factory, this structure was four stories high, also built of brick. Workers for the two factories had relocated from textile areas in the north or immigrated from England. The Valley Cotton Factory was destroyed by fire in November of 1852.

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