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Harpers Ferry

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Harpers Ferry, at the easternmost point of West Virginia, is the state's most famous town, thanks to a short-lived but seminal event, John Brown's October 1859 raid to capture the United States Armory. Although Brown's attempt failed, the armory was destroyed early in the Civil War. As a result of that loss, Harpers Ferry became a virtual ghost town after the war with seemingly as many buildings as people. That situation still seems to be the case, as the 2000 population was but 307. The community is permanently preserved as the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

The hilly peninsular site above the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers was important from the first days of exploration and settlement. Robert Harper settled here in 1747 and obtained a patent from Lord Fairfax for 125 acres in 1751. In March 1761, the Virginia General Assembly granted Harper the right to establish a ferry from his land in “the county of Frederick [Virginia], over Potowmack River, to his land on the opposite side, in the province of Maryland.”

George Washington, who knew the site well from his surveys for Fairfax, realized that rapids on both rivers offered limitless waterpower for manufacturing. In 1796, at President Washington's instigation, Congress purchased 118 acres from Harper's heirs to establish the United States Armory and Arsenal there. Shops soon followed, and for years this and similar works at Springfield, Massachusetts, produced all the nation's arms. Elbridge Gerry, Jr., described the works in detail in his diary in 1813.

There are 10 buildings in which the gun manufactory is performed. They are all of brick, and excepting one are two stories high, and 80 or 100 feet long. Two are occupied as arsenals, and are situated in the centre of the town. The others are by the water side, and are ranged in two rows, four in each forming a street.

Gerry, who noticed that “arms taken at the surrender of Cornwallises army” were stored in one of the arsenals, was informed that 200 workmen at the factory produced 10,000 guns annually.

By 1821 additional buildings had been constructed and the population of the town had increased to over one thousand inhabitants. In 1824 a two-lane, 750-foot covered bridge replaced Harper's ferry across the Potomac. Harper's heirs, the Wager family, financed its construction and collected its tolls. In addition to the government manufactory, John Hall operated a rifle factory upstream on Virginius Island in the Shenandoah River. Here he put into practice Eli Whitney's principles of interchangeable parts and mass production, an early instance of assembly line production.

The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal arrived in the first half of the 1830s, and the Baltimore & Ohio early in 1837. The railroad crossed the Potomac on a combination rail and wagon bridge that took traffic from the Wager family's 1820s span, which was soon dismantled. In turn, the B&O bridge was dismantled in 1851 and replaced by a structure 320 feet long, designed by John H. B. Latrobe as chief engineer and built by Albert Fink, inventor of the Fink truss system.

By then, John Symington was superintendent of the armory. Trained at West Point, he planned and supervised construction of eleven new buildings during his tenure, which lasted from 1844 to 1854. Eight main workshops, virtually identical, were characterized by crenellated brick parapet walls projecting above the gables of the end wings. The workshops have disappeared, but Symington used similar parapeted walls in the extant engine house (John Brown's Fort) ( JE45). Whether the features directly influenced area architecture or not, Jefferson County seems to have an inordinate number of houses with similar treatments, among them Beall Air ( JE40). The motif was also often used in houses in nearby Clarke and Frederick counties in Virginia.

Harpers Ferry was incorporated as a town in 1851, and a year later, at Symington's instigation, the U.S. government sold fifty-two houses it owned. For the most part, armory workers purchased them. Symington also had a plan prepared for the Upper Town, where he had already built houses for himself and his immediate subordinates. He realized that future growth would have to occur on the heights, as the constricted site near the rivers was fully built upon. Henry W. Clowe, Symington's successor as superintendent, also tried his hand at architectural design, mostly following precedents established by his predecessor. His Armory Dwelling No. 1 ( JE44) incorporates stepped gables on its end walls. Thomas U. Walter designed a particularly impressive building in 1859, but neither it nor any subsequent structures were built after this pivotal year.

During the summer of 1859, eighteen men led by an elderly fellow calling himself Isaac Smith reconnoitered in the area under the pretext of prospecting for minerals. On the night of Sunday, October 16, they launched a raid on the facility. Their immediate goal was to seize the manufactory and its arms; their ultimate aim was to distribute the booty to continue the crusade that their leader had already launched: to free slaves throughout the south. Isaac Smith proved to be John Brown, known for his ardent antislavery stance in Kansas. Brown and his men withstood capture until Tuesday, October 18, when U.S. marines commanded by Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee stormed the engine house and forced their surrender. Harpers Ferry was never the same again. The town, remembered afterward as the scene of John Brown's raid, had now entered the pages of history.

Harpers Ferry before 1893, showing John Brown's Fort in its original location and the first St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church

Harpers Ferry, like most of Jefferson County, changed hands innumerable times during the Civil War. Federal troops burned the arsenal buildings on April 18, 1861, to prevent them from falling into Confederate hands. Confederate troops entered the town the next day and burned the armory on June 15, 1861, before they, in turn, retreated. Both armies also destroyed the bridges, and early in 1862, private buildings at the point were torched. At war's end, the government decided not to rebuild and within several years advertised its arsenal and armory property for sale: “lock, stock, and barrel.” Journalist George Alfred Townsend, who came through in November 1869, succinctly described the situation: “[Harpers Ferry] has been next to dead ever since John Brown invaded it, and … is now a village of paupers, who hang upon the approaching sale by the United States of the armory and arsenal grounds as their last and vital chance for existence.”

Harpers Ferry, Lower Town, Shenandoah Street

Later that month, a capitalist who obtained most of the government property for slightly less than $300,000 announced his intention to utilize the site for manufacturing purposes. This never happened, and after he defaulted, the property reverted to the government. In 1876 the government sold its property again.

The founding of Storer College was one of the few positive happenings at Harpers Ferry after the war. The government had exempted several of its buildings from sale, in 1869, donating them instead to a newly established institution whose aim was to educate freed blacks but whose charter directed it to accept students “without distinction of race or color.”

In the 1890s, the B&O purchased much of the former armory property from a private owner to improve its trackage. As part of the work, which included yet another bridge across the Potomac and a new depot, the railroad covered the armory site with a 20-foot embankment. All remnants of the ruined armory buildings have now virtually disappeared from view. Fortunately, the engine house, known as John Brown's Fort, was moved before the embankment was built.

During the early twentieth century, Harpers Ferry and the adjoining hilltop community of Bolivar became modest summer resorts, and the still extant Hilltop House Hotel remains the most visible vestige of this period. By 1941, in addition to a summer resort, the community had become a tourist destination. The WPA guide, noting that “nearly every citizen considers himself a volunteer guide,” described Harpers Ferry as “war-battered and flooddamaged, but a relic of the thriving village that before the War between the States … seemed destined to become an important industrial town.”

Change was in the air, and on June 30, 1944, Congress created the Harpers Ferry National Monument. The legislation authorized the purchase of 1,500 acres to commemorate “historical events at or near” the town, but it was not until the 1950s that the first land purchases were made and restorations were begun. In 1963 the federal government redesignated the monument Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and acquired additional acreage, including property in Virginia and Maryland, to protect the town's viewshed. Because of heavy visitation at the congested townsite, the Park Service has established a parking lot and visitor center outside the historic core. Signs on U.S. 340 provide directions, and shuttles ply frequently between the lot and the town. Entries begin with buildings closest to the shuttle's drop-off point.

Writing Credits

S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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