currents National Park Service
Virginius Island
Historic Overview
Existing Conditions
Assessment & Analysis
Preservation Philosophy
Implementation & Management
Outreach & Education

Flood waters inundate the island, 1889. NPS Photo

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Corporate Consolidations, Civil War and Natural Catastrophes

Abraham Herr also made additional island investments; by 1855 he had become its sole proprietor. Herr constructed four small two-story brick tenement houses in 1850 on the flourmill property for his mill workers or to rent to employees of other island industries. With the completion of the tenements, the residential core of the island was transformed into a single streetscape of urban row houses, an architectural characteristic not possible on the stepped terrain of the other privately developed Harpers Ferry neighborhoods. Collectively, the facades of the small island residences in two east-west rows added another strong linear element to the rigid landscape pattern formed by Wernwag Street and the rail line. Rather than separate clusters of mills, shops and factories, with homes located nearby, the new residential patterns and singular ownership consolidated and unified the physical layout of the island. By 1858 Virginius had reached the height of its physical development. Citizens referred to the island as Herr's and no longer called it Virginius at this time.

Burned out shell of Herr's Mill during the Civil War. NPS Photo

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Confederate troops burned Herr's flourmill. Although, the remaining Herr properties were much abused and damaged by federal occupation during the war, several buildings were re-built and former island industries were in operation soon after the war's conclusion. In 1867, Jonathan Child and John McCreight purchased all of Herr's island properties. Child and McCreight quickly adapted the empty cotton factory into a state-of-the-art flourmill, utilizing the newest milling technology. Workers employed by the firm resided in the twelve brick row houses that lined the main street. In 1869 Child and McCreight negotiated with the B&O (the railroad had completed its takeover of the W&P by 1867) to establish specific rights-of-way on the island and for a special rail siding to be constructed adjacent to the newly refitted mill. The large curved arc of the rail siding made the railroad line the predominant feature on the overall landscape of the island. With their modern flourmill and with the establishment of the siding, the Child and McCreight operation had the capacity to produce 400 barrels, or 18 railroad carloads, of flour per day.

(top) New wagon bridge over canal channel to island, 1886; (bottom) View of flour mill from Loudoun Heights, ca. 1900. NPS Photos


The relative economic stability brought by Child and McCreight was broken by the first of three devastating floods. Although high water, freshets and floods had always threatened mill operations, armory property and the residences along the shoreline, only one major flood (1852) had seriously damaged property on Virginius and in Lower Town. The first post-war flood, in 1870, however, proved disastrous to the island. The iron foundry, the sawmill, the machine shop, granary, blacksmith and wheelwright shop, as well as residences and outbuildings were brought (down) to the ground. The force of the flood ripped away the rail and wagon bridges and most of the vegetation. Several residents lost their lives.

After the flood, Child and McCreight repaired the flourmill and updated residential structures. The B&O increased the level of its embankment to protect the rail route across the island from future floods. The inner basin that supplied water to the flourmill was dredged, and the damaged bridges, including a new wagon bridge from Shenandoah Street, were reconstructed. (Figure 10 New wagon bridge over Shenandoah canal channel to island, May 29, 1886, HF 758) However, the older industries, such as the iron foundry, the sawmill and the machine and blacksmith shops, were not rebuilt or replaced. Instead, the island quickly developed into a single industry community centered on the Child and McCreight facility. Only the prominent stone walls of Herr's former mill, a deteriorating shell after 1870, remained to recall earlier industrial diversity on Virginius. A second and third flood in 1877 and 1889 further hastened the decline of the industrial activity and the residential community on the island. (see top)