Friday, December 18, 2015
Harpers Ferry loaded with history
When we took a tour of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia, we were fortunate to have an enthusiastic historian as our guide. Stories about the many historical events that happened at Harpers Ferry were just spilling out of him. He took us first to the National Park Service visitor center that sits on the mountain — a hill, really — overlooking the joining of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.
The power of the rivers for running machinery had turned the area into a major manufacturing area. Its potential was seen early by George Washington, who in 1794 proposed that the country’s armory and arsenal be built there. The federal government bought 125 acres, where in 1799 the Harpers Ferry U.S. Armory and Arsenal was constructed. The innovations created in the factories here helped start the Industrial Revolution.
Our guide emphasized that new methods for manufacturing interchangeable firearms parts were developed at Harpers Ferry and that 600,000 small arms, rifles and pistols for the U.S. Army were made at the site. This capacity for weapons production made Harpers Ferry a special target for the Confederate states during the Civil War, as they had no similar factories for making arms.
John Brown's Fort at Harpers Ferry
After viewing the very attractive confluence of the two rivers, we visited John Brown’s Fort, where this abolitionist and his “troops” tried in 1859 to take over the arsenal to start a war to free the slaves. The “fort” looks more like a three-vehicle fire station and has little protection in the way of barriers or walls, so it was no surprise Brown and his 21 men were easily captured by the U.S. Army group led by Robert E. Lee and his aide, J.E.B. Stuart. Brown was convicted of treason and hanged, but he got what he wanted: Many consider that this was the start of the Civil War.
Harpers Ferry became so important to both sides that it changed hands eight times during the Civil War. In one of those battles, the Confederate army captured the armory’s equipment and moved it to Richmond, Va., where the South could manufacture its own arms.
In one of the battles for the area in September 1862, the Union troops surrendered, allowing more than 12,000 soldiers to become prisoners of the Confederate army, the largest number of U.S. military personnel to be captured until the surrender of Bataan during World War II.
Shortly before we arrived, a large fire hit in downtown Harpers Ferry, but it was under control so we could visit this small town that is a living history museum. The city has had frequent problems with flooding; a marker on one building indicated that floodwaters at one time reached the second story. The town appears much as it would have during the Civil War, with a main street lined with old-fashioned shops. The Appalachian Trail passes through the area.
Another claim to fame for the community is that the black leader W.E.B. DuBois had a gathering of the Niagara Movement here in 1905 to demand equal rights for all races — a meeting that led to the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP.
In many ways, Harpers Ferry has become a symbol of freedom — that all citizens are entitled to certain civil rights.
Joining of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers at Harpers Ferry