Harpers Ferry, A Place Stained with Blood

Sixty-one miles upstream from Washington, D. C., the Shenandoah River breaks through the mountains to empty its waters into the Potomac. This is where I spent my first night as a cyclist on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath. Although I had ridden only the twenty-six miles from White’s Ferry, a thunderstorn and steady rain for half the distance had generated a mud slurry on top of the path and cyclists arrived covered with mud.

Because of the profusion of hills and hollows, along with the river vistas, the Shenandoah-Potomac setting is marked by natural beauty. Practical men, including George Washington, however, seemed oblivious to the value of beauty; instead, utility is what fascinated them. The falling water could provide power for industries important to the nation, and the location near the nation’s new capitol and on the emotional border land between North and South, suggested that an armory and factory to manufacture arms should be established there.

Here, two visions of American society came into close contact. In The Grand Idea, Joel Achenbach notes that Harpers Ferry, the community that came into being at this site, sat in Virginia, a slave state, “but the industrial economy made the town something of an island of the north.” The population in 1859, when John Brown raided the armory in the hope that he could launch a revolution to free all of the slaves of the South, “included 1,212 whites, 1,251 free blacks, only 88 slaves” (270). Brown’s rebellion failed, and he was hanged on December 2, 1859. A few minutes before his execution, Achenbach reports, he wrote a final statement: “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away but with Blood” (272).

The bloody crimes of America have a second feature that is sublimated beneath the more obvious burden of slavery: the harsh labor that industry forced upon legions of ordinary people, white and black. Achenbach summarizes the situation well when he says that “for millions of Americans, industrialization meant only the intensification of pain.” He quotes Fanny Trollope’s description of conditions she saw while traveling the Cumberland Road, the first highway of consequence in early America. Free laborers and black slaves all suffered. She noted that the slaves would be cared for when sick “as a valuable horse is watched and physicked; not so the Irishman; he is literally thrown on one side, and a new comer takes his place” (259). On some future date, I will write again about the terrible cost in human life the canals and railroads have demanded of ordinary people.

Much of the lower part of the town is now managed by the National Park Bureau and the buildings are set up for self-guided tours of the military, industrial, and civil rights history that has centered in this town. On this quick trip through town, however, all I had time to do was make a few notes and gather a short bibliography. More about these some other time.

Note: The photo at the top of the column is taken from the website of the Harpers Ferry National Park.

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