Some of you who may have read my previous blogs could be wondering about the motivation behind this trilogy of blogs on Harpers Ferry. My first inclination had been to write only this particular blog that I am about to pen, and this was based on a trip that we had made to the town very recently. But then I realized that I have been experiencing Harpers Ferry and writing about it for some time. Some history in this regard was needed before proceeding. The earlier blogs on the topic of Harpers Ferry, and the background material needed for them, flowed quite naturally from this realization.
If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know by now that Harpers Ferry has been a part of my weekend runs for several years on the C&O Canal, although more frequently in the past than in current times. But one does also occasionally wander into the town itself from across the river, either when one decides to cross over the river to the tip of Harpers Ferry, to the confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah, or when one goes into town for tourism purposes when we have visitors from other parts of the world.
Thus is was that we found ourselves recently visiting the place twice this year, in quick succession, accompanying visitors. You would think that such visits into town would tend to become monotonous, but the amazing thing is that I am finding new things about this place called Harpers Ferry. I am actually beginning to get a better sense for what life must have been for people living here in times past, starting from when Robert Harper moved to the area in the 1760s. I am now also more fascinated by the history of the town in the simplest sense of the word, i.e., in terms of how people lived there rather than in the sense of its place in history, about how the town grew and even prospered before the inevitable impact of the passage of time, and even about simple things like how the layout of the town changed over the years (there were actually even a few canals that flowed through town at one time or the other). Perhaps a day can come when I can even get a sense for how people generally felt about their lives in Harpers Ferry.
So what is it that has roused my enthusiasm about the place you ask! As background for getting a better insight into my frame of mind and my thinking about this subject, I will note that one of the first things worth knowing about current Harpers Ferry is that the National Park Service (NPS) has done a bang-up job bringing the town back to life, both physically and virtually, after its having been destroyed over and over again by floods, something that almost led to abandonment. Today, people only live in the upper parts of town above the flood lines. The lower part of the town is dedicated to the tourists. Besides the mom-and-pop shops and restaurants, there are still many previously abandoned buildings of the old town that remain in this lower part of town. In spite of having been to Harpers Ferry many times, this was the first time I discovered that many of these abandoned buildings have been converted to museums. Each building addresses a different aspect of the town’s history and background. This is a work in progress, but the NPS have already done an excellent job. There is an attempt to cover all aspects of life in a little town over the entire period of its existence in a systematic way. Of course, significant turning points in history, like John Brown’s insurrection, and the important battle that took place in and around the town during the civil war, are prominent subjects for presentation, but one also learns about the life of ordinary people, including the experience of blacks at that time in history, or the commercial story of the town (as noted, it was once a prosperous town), the functioning of the armory that the town came to be identified with, and the impact of the railroad and the floods on the town over the years. You can feel like you are living the experience.
With more and more trips to the town, I might actually begin to remember what I see and read in the museums and be able to relive those times in my mind rather than just remember the experience of being in the town! This year was the first time we walked through the ruins of Virginius, a little island on the west side of town that at one time was Harpers Ferry’s center of commerce. They made good use of the power of the waters of the Shenandoah to fuel the commerce and help the place flourish, by diverting some of the water into tunnels under town in order to use its power. But ultimately the river was not controllable!
For the first time, we found the original site of John Brown’s fort, originally a guard and fire house. The site is on top of an embankment that once used to carry a railroad line into town. (The remains of the railroad track can still be seen under the sand in places.) The embankment runs parallel to Potomac street.
John Brown’s fort has itself been moved around quite a bit over time, even to places outside of Harpers Ferry. It has come to rest in its current location near the confluence of the rivers most recently.
And then we discovered the site of the original buildings of The Armory behind the embankment I mentioned earlier. None of the armory buildings still remain, having been razed to the ground to support a railroad yard more recently in time. But you can walk in the area and get a sense for the place. There are markers that tell you a little more about the place itself.
It turns out that after all these years I am still learning new things about Harpers Ferry. I even have a better appreciation for how the place must have looked in different times. I will be back, and hopefully I will continue to have my curiosity piqued, and I will actually remember some of things I read, and I will also continue to learn. Maybe Harpers Ferry will remain with me forever!