National Geographic : 1945 Jul
Potomac, River of Destiny But that was not all. A conference at Alexandria and Mount Vernon to consider disputes between Virginia and Maryland over control of commerce on the river led to a meeting at Annapolis the next year. This took on a broader purpose, and out of it grew the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia the following year. It is hoped that the Great Falls works of the Potomac Company may eventually be restored in intelligent, careful, and reverent fashion and included in a permanent memorial or park. Nearly 40 miles from Washington, the steep rocky mass of Catoctin Mountain, an outpost of the Blue Ridge, rises abruptly from the river's edge. The only possible location for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal for a con siderable distance was along the very base of this bluff. But on the same day that President Adams turned the first sod of the canal, the venerable Charles Carroll, of Carrollton, sole surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence and then more than 90 years old, assisted in laying the cornerstone, only 40 miles away, of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Baltimore could not build a canal to the west as did New York and Washington, or a complicated series of lifts and canals, as did Philadelphia. So it adopted a new device, the railway, and started building it across cen tral Maryland to the Potomac at the Point of Rocks. For several years the two enterprises clashed in the courts, holding up each other's con struction. Finally they reached an agreement and went along close together much of the way, the railroad being completed first. Harpers Ferry, Gateway to the Appalachians At Harpers Ferry, 11 miles beyond Point of Rocks, we definitely leave the Piedmont, pass through a gap in the Blue Ridge, and en ter the great Appalachian Mountain area. This barrier proved a tremendous handicap to early migration and settlement beyond the Atlantic seaboard, for the Hudson-Mohawk Valley is the only considerable break in 1,500 miles of mountain wall. The series of high, long, narrow, parallel Appalachian ranges enclose great valleys which are crossed at nearly right angles by the Potomac. The Potomac and other streams cut through the ridges by gorges, or water gaps, one of the most famous being at Harpers Ferry, where Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland come together (Plate II).* For nearly a mile the Potomac and Shenan doah Rivers, almost parallel and separated only by the narrow tongue of land on which Harpers Ferry stands, flow noisily over rapids, until "in the moment of their junction," as Thomas Jefferson said, "they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder, and pass off to the sea." Mr. Jefferson added that "this scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic," and he spoke of "these monuments of a war between rivers and mountains which must have shaken the earth itself to its centre" (Plate VI). Harpers Ferry is a strange mixture of scenic grandeur, unusual historic interest, sheer pic turesqueness, and decadence. Although surrounded by noble heights and itself a steep, rocky, and declivitous tongue of land, Harpers Ferry is the lowest point in the State of West Virginia. Thus it has suffered so grievously from a succession of floods that the lower part of town looks like an Italian hill village after the Nazis left, almost bereft of residents and trade alike. After the Revolution, the arsenal system was founded under George Washington, the first national arsenal and armory being at Springfield, Massachusetts, the second at Har pers Ferry, a few feet from where the rail road station is today. The Springfield arsenal is still one of the great units of our system of defense, and Har pers Ferry was long of comparable importance, with its 80,000 to 100,000 stands of arms at all times. But it was destroyed at the very beginning of the Civil War and never rebuilt. The four fine mansions erected by the Gov ernment for the superintendents and their help were given by Congressional act in 1868 to Storer College, one of the first established for the Negro race, and they still form the nucleus of that institution. The little town is one of steep, narrow paths, rough, winding stone steps, and tall, narrow, gabled houses, almost stately in their old-time simplicity of line, even though half in ruins on their hillside perches. Sitting on the steps in the evening, I watched a woman feed several hundred pigeons that fluttered down upon the porches of an ap parently deserted and partly ruined but still massively dignified dwelling. She told me she sold no pigeons but raised them only for pleasure (Plate VIII). Alas for romance! Several months later I read that the town council had banned the * See "Pirate Rivers and Their Prizes," by John Oliver La Gorce, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGA ZINE, July, 1926.