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

View of the gap, 2000. NPS Photo

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After the Civil War, tourists, summer residents, and day-trippers on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) all came to the area to see the site of the infamous 1859 John Brown Raid, to view the crumbling foundations of the former United States armory installation, and to admire the majesty of the mountain scenery. By 1900, the once war- torn landscape had softened with the passage of time and included romanticized ruins and commemorative sites. A visit recounted in the travel diary of Grace Jennings Taft, "A Trip to Harpers Ferry" (1898) describes a tour of Harpers Ferry, including a walk from Lower Town to see the "Rifle Factory ruins" along the Shenandoah. Remarkably, in this account, the tourists mistake the ruins of Herr's old flourmill on Virginius Island for those of a former government rifle factory. Indeed when Benjamin Latrobe wrote in 1806 that the American landscape lacked essential picturesque qualities including "Artificial objects of interest, such as Castles, Abbeys, and Ruins of great beauty and extent," he could not have anticipated the creation of the American historical landscape, such as that found in the Civil War ruins at Harpers Ferry or on Virginius Island.

(top) Ruins of the Herr's Mill, ca. 1889; (bottom) Pulp Mill ruins, 1994. NPS photos

Almost one-hundred years later these same ruins were the subject of a project conducted by an interdisciplinary team of landscape architects, architects, historians, and archeologists to document the historic resources, prescribe treatment for the remaining features, and improve interpretation of the island's history. The project generated a comprehensive social history, multiple archeological investigations, and a cultural landscape report. In 1994, the National Park Service completed the first phase of the treatment plan recommended a year earlier in the Cultural Landscape Report, Virginius Island. Since the completion of the first phase of work, however, two major floods, which occurred in the winter and fall of 1996, have wrecked havoc on the island. To prevent further deterioration of the landscape, park managers have recently begun to reassess the measures recommended in the 1993 report.

Since the 1996 floods, funding constraints and a shift in priorities have affected the schedule of treatment for other areas on Virginius Island. Several archeological sites remain untouched, lying below several feet of river silt and old flood debris. The remainder of the recommended treatment plan has yet to be fully implemented. To accomplish this additional work, another series of archeological investigations will need to be funded and initiated. Using the methodology established in 1992-1994 with its focus on integrating documentation, analysis and evaluation with archeology, a landscape plan and an interpretative program can also be more fully developed. From "reading" the landscape on the ground and listening to the island's stories, the park visitor will gain a more complete understanding of the complexities of its history and significance.

When the last residents left the island in the 1936, nature reclaimed the abandoned landscape, leaving behind only remnants of the past. Even though time has weathered the stone and brick, through research, preservation and interpretation, the National Park Service has uncovered a rich history of an island forgotten.

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