Harpers Ferry National Historic Park

Lower Town, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

Most of us probably learned about John Brown’s raid on the United States Armory in a history class. After visiting Harpers Ferry we are confident that what we read in our history text books only scratched the surface in regard to John Brown’s personal history and also to the significance of the town itself.

Shenandoah Street
Confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers

Harpers Ferry was an important town long before John Brown’s raid. Robert Harper purchased the land from Lord Fairfax. He knew that the property would be valuable for transportation purposes because of the confluence of the two rivers and the natural passage that the Potomac cut through the Blue Ridge. Additionally, the two rivers would provide considerable hydropower for manufacturing.

CSX Freight Train

Today, almost 200 years after the first trains traveled through the “hole”, the CSX Railroad is operating the freight line with 40-50 trains per day carrying coal and other commodities from West Virginia to market. Additionally, Amtrak utilizes this line for the thrice weekly Cardinal train which makes a leisurely and scenic 28 hour journey from New York City to Chicago.

George Washington was familiar with the Harpers Ferry area and chose this location as the site for the United States Armory (circa 1799) which would later become the target of Brown’s raid. By the time of Brown’s raid in 1859, Harpers Ferry was a thriving industrial center utilizing the river’s power to manufacture rifles, muskets and pistols for the United States Army. Harpers Ferry was one of only two such facilities in the country – the other being located in Springfield, Massachusetts.

John Brown’s Fort

John Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut in 1800. His family moved soon afterwards and he spent most of his childhood in Ohio where his father had established a tannery.

Brown’s father, Owen, was an extremely strict Calvinist and was very overt in his oppostion to slavery – slavery being a “sin against God”. Owen Brown provided a safe house for Underground Railroad fugitives at their home in Hudson, Ohio. Not surprisingly, Brown was imbued deeply with his father’s belief that slavery was a sin against God.

John Brown was married twice and fathered 21 children. Brown owned several different businesses including a tannery but the financial crisis of 1839 precipitated a string of unsuccessful efforts to get out of debt. As a result, he and his family moved frequently in pursuit of business opportunities – none of which were particularly successful.

While always vehemently opposed to slavery, the murder of Presbyterian minister E.P. Lovejoy by a pro-slavery mob became the catlyst that moved him from abolitionist to guerilla fighter.

Brown and five of his sons left their home and traveled to Kansas to join the fight against slavery. “Free Soilers” and “Slavers” were engaged in a violent conflict over whether Kansas would be admitted to the Union as a free or slave state. This “civil war “ raged on from 1854 to 1860 as was known as Bleeding Kansas. https://ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Bleeding_Kansas

Brown was a well-known and feared figure in this war after he and a group of abolitionists (including two of his sons) murdered five pro-slavery settlers by hacking them to death with swords. This event became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre.

By 1859, John Brown was convinced that the only way slavery would be abolished was through a large scale rebellion. Brown hoped the raid of the armoury at Harpers Ferry would convince escaped slaves to join his small force and that they would become the Army of Emancipation.

Unfortunately for Brown and his group it did not play out in that manner. Brown and his band of 21 men fought fiercely for nearly two days against the local militia until they were overpowered by Colonel Robert E. Lee and a force of Marines. About half of Brown’s men (including two of his sons) were killed. Brown was wounded.

Virginia moved quickly to to try Brown – he was convicted of murder, treason and inciting slave insurrection – and hanged immediately thereafter.

Today, Harpers Ferry is part town (Pop. 281) and part National Historic Park. We found the history of the town quite fascinating. In addition to John Brown’s raid, the town was a major chess piece for the Union and Cofederate forces during the ensuing Civil War. The town changed hands 14 times between 1861 and 1865. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/10-facts-harpers-ferry

Saint Peter’s Catholic Church

We definitely recommend Harpers Ferry for anyone interested in American history. Additionally, there are a significant number of hiking trails in and around Harpers Ferry which provide wonderful views of the town and the confluence of the rivers. Lastly, there are several cozy inns and restaurants in town.

Be seeing you!

P.S. Don’t forget you can travel to Harpers Ferry via the Amtrak Cardinal train.

Books:

John Brown: A Biography by W.E.B Du Bois

Harpers Ferry: Images of America, West Virginia, West Virginia by Dolly Nasby

Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz

New River Gorge National River (NRGNR)

New River Gorge Bridge photographed from Long Point Trail
New River Gorge Bridge photographed from Fayetteville Station Road
New River Gorge Bridge photographed from Fayetteville Station Bridge

The New River Bridge is quite a sight to see and truely an engineering marvel. It is the fourth longest single arch bridge in the United States and sits at a jaw dropping 876 feet above the floor of the gorge.

But for our money, the real attractions of the NRGNR are the history and artifacts of a way of life that existed down in the gorge for more than eighty years. The gorge was scarcely inhabited until surveyors discovered coal, and not just any coal. The coal in the gorge was high quality “smoke less” coal – highly prized for its high carbon content with minimal waste.

Within the gorge the remains of the Nuttallburg Mine provide insight into the workings of a coal mine and the life of the miners and their families. It is considered one of the best preserved mining complexes in West Virginia.

Visiting the site is a commitment in and of itself. The mining complex sits deep in the gorge at river level and requires driving down a windy, narrow and sometimes steep one lane road.

Keeney’s Creek Road (CR 85/2)
Drive to Nuttallburg Mine Site

The Nuttallburg Mine began operations in 1873 after the completion of the Chesapeake & Ohio railine through the gorge was completed. The rail line enabled the shipping of large quantities of coal as the river was not navigable and getting coal up out of the gorge by road was not feasible.

Because mining in the early days was very labor intensive and the local population was small, the mine operators needed to import workers. Workers came from all over Europe and Canada to work at the mine in a variety of capacities. As a result, the mining workforce and their families were a very diverse population.

The mine also employed African American workers who worked side by side with the other employees. However, outside of work the black employees and their families lived in a segregated town on the opposite end of the mining complex with their own church and school.

The mining town here appears to be typical of mining towns in this era as it was self-contained with its own schools, doctors, blacksmiths, social clubs, athletic teams and company store.

Coal Conveyor, Nuttallburg Mine, NRGNR

The coal conveyor pictured above is 1385 feet in length and brought coal down from the mine 600 feet above the gorge floor. This conveyor was built in 1926 and could move 125 tons of coal per hour.

Coal Tipple, Nuttallburg Mine, NRGNR

The company store was a necessity because the employees had no means to travel from the mine complex. Therefore, the company paid the employees in a company issued scrip and most likely significantly overcharged their employees.

Henry Ford leased this mine and others during the early 1920s in order to control the coal supply that Ford needed for automobile production in the Dearborn, Michigan plant. Ford made substantial investments in the mine including the state of the art coal conveyor.

Ford ultimately sold his lease back to the Nuttall family when he found that he could not control the the railroad companies and often could not get his coal to Michigan when he needed it.

The mine continued operations under three different owners until the mid 1950s when it became abundantly clear that the mine was “played out”.

Today the National Park Service manages the mine complex and is doing a good job protecting the area and providing research and education relating to the history of the mine and the town of Nuttallburg.

Thurmond, West Virginia

After our exploration of the remains at the Nuttallburg Mine site we ventured south and then east along the Dunloup Creek on County Road 25 to the town of Thurmond. The only way to get to Thurmond was by rail until 1921 when CR 25 was built. Crossing the New River today to Thurmond entails driving across a single lane bridge shared with the railroad.

Car and Train Bridge, Thurmond Road, Thurmond, West Virginia

At one time Thurmond was a rail center where short coal trains were assembled into longer trains that hauled coal out of the gorge. It was also the only place in the gorge where steam engines could load coal and water.

While the town “thrived” (population 462 in 1930) during the early portion of the 20th century the advent of the diesel locomotive rapidly diminished the need for the fueling and servicing of steam powered locomotives. From 1930 on the population diminished steadily although passenger trains continued to bring visitors who stayed at the two hotels that had been built during the prosperous days. Unfortunately, both of the hotels burned to the ground and those events put the finishing touches on the demise of the town.

While the town essentially vanished by the 1950s, the rail lines continue to be operated by the CSX Railway- still hauling coal out of the gorge from the many active mines that remain operational today (more on that topic in a future post about coal country).

Today the population of Thurmond is four and most of the property in the town is owned and managed by the National Park Service. The former depot pictured below is now a visitor center during the summer months.

Thurmond, West Virginia,

Additionally, the Amtrak Cardinal train which runs three times a week from New York City to Chicago still stops at the Thurmond Depot. Not surprisingly, there is only one other stop in Amtrak’s entire system where fewer passengers board the train.

Main Street, Thurmond, West Virginia

An interesting feature of the town is that it never had a main street. All of the commercial buildings in town sat directly along the railroad tracks because there was no room for a street in addition to the rail line in the narrow river gorge.

The Coaling Station pictured below was built in 1922 and could hold more than 500 tons of coal for re-fueling steam locomotives.

Coaling Station, Thurmond, West Virginia
Thurmond Depot, Thurmond, West Virginia

We enjoyed exploring the New River Gorge National River and highly recommend this area for its beauty and history.

We will spend the next several days touring “coal country” in the southern part of the state before turning east and heading for Lewisburg, West Virginia for several days of bicycling the Greenbrier River Rail Trail.

Be seeing you!