National Geographic : 1957 Mar
History Awakens at Harpers Ferry 399 Where West Virginia Meets the Blue Ridge, a Town That Remembers John Brown's Raid Becomes a New National Monument BY VOLKMAR WENTZEL National Geographic Magazine Staff With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author THE deep, wailing whistle echoed and reverberated from cliffs and mountain sides as a train burst from the smoke blackened tunnel at Harpers Ferry. From where I stood, high on the towering rocks of Maryland Heights, it looked like a boy's model railroad brashly intruding upon a land scape shaped by giants. Within minutes it was across the river and fading away northwestward. Peace returned to the Y-shaped gorge below me, where the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers meet to humble the Blue Ridge.* Twin Rivers Split a Mountain Range Almost two centuries before, Thomas Jeffer son had looked downstream upon this same confluence of rivers. "On your right," he wrote, "comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain an hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac, in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder, and pass off to the sea.... This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic...." Yet, standing there, I was thinking not only of scenic grandeur but also of the history that had unfolded in this cleft of hills. In Harpers Ferry John Brown, an angry, tragic man, barricaded himself with his desperate band in the fire-engine house of the Federal armory. Later, Civil War flags flew from these rocky heights, and cannon roared at the town below. Here stood one of the important towns of Virginia a century ago, a flourishing, pros perous community, the meeting point of roads, railroads, and a canal. Now the canal is a tree-grown ditch and the town a fraction of its former size; even the land it stands on changed its name in 1863 to West Virginia. Harpers Ferry today is a United States National Monument, authorized by act of Congress in 1944. Though a long-term res toration program is barely under way, visitors already are flocking to it in steadily increas ing numbers: 61,000 in 1955, and almost twice as many in 1956. The town nestles between the rivers on a rocky wedge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Three States meet at this cliff-hung gate: Maryland's hills dropping from the north, Virginia's marching beside the Shenandoah from the south, and a tongue of West Vir ginia sloping down the angle between (map, page 404). When I first drove to Harpers Ferry and turned onto Shenandoah Street, I felt as if I had come upon a ghost town. Buildings stood deserted, deteriorating. Gray walls of heavy fieldstone gaped with empty window openings. Through them I glimpsed fallen rafters, creeping vegetation, and tattered bits of open sky. It seemed ages, not just years, since peo ple could have lived and worked here. Yet a twisted elevator cage and dangling electric fixtures spoke of not-so -old conveniences. Time and Floods Leave Their Marks As I strolled through the old town with National Monument Superintendent Edwin M. Dale, a car stopped beside us and a woman got out. "What happened here?" she wanted to know. "What left Harpers Ferry like this?" "Time," Mr. Dale answered. That and floods, he explained. Where High Street meets Shenandoah Street, near the town's tip, stands a red brick building. On its front, white markers record the high water points of floods that have swept through the town. The highest, almost at the level of a second-story balcony, reads 1936. Two rivers running wild and wide of their banks added grievous hurts to what the Civil War and economic stagnation did to Harpers Ferry. It recovered to become a fashionable resort, an amusement place for holidayers who * See "Potomac, River of Destiny," by Albert W. Atwood, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, July, 1945.