Thursday, July 4, 2013

History at the Junction of Two Rivers

With Nicky having taken some time off this week, we availed ourselves of the opportunity to take a long-planned day trip to Harpers Ferry, WV.  It seemed a good time to do so, as the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg was taking place right up the road, and that would surely draw away a good many of the tourists that would normally be visiting Harpers Ferry at this time of year.  Sure enough, a number of the other people we saw on Monday morning and afternoon were wearing Gettysburg gear, suggesting that they were indulging in a kind of "swing around the Civil War circle."  As an historical site, however, Harpers Ferry is rather more diverse than you might expect.  There's plenty of "Blue-and-Gray" stuff on hand, of course, but also some interesting exhibits relating to industrial and social life in a town that has been repeatedly buffeted by war, insurrection, and the vagaries of nature but has bounced back to life again and again.

Harpers Ferry's Lower Town, situated at the point where the Shenandoah River meets the Potomac, is quite small but packs both historical and aesthetic punches.  "The Point" affords a beautiful view that has remained relatively unchanged for centuries.  It's considered to be the "psychological midpoint" of the Appalachian Trail, which wends its white-blazed way right through the center of town.  Back in the 19th century, some enterprising but environmentally obtuse manufacturer emblazoned an advertisement for "powder" (of the blasting variety, I suppose) on the cliff side, and you can still see it.  By now, however, it's sufficiently weathered that it almost looks like a natural part of the cliff, so you could say that nature won the ultimate battle with commercialism. 

The famed fire-engine house in which John Brown, America's first-ever beneficiary of "Radical Chic," and his band of insurrectionists holed up before being overrun by Robert E. Lee's Marine detachment still stands, in a manner of speaking.  Actually, the building has enjoyed a surprisingly mobile career, including stays at the 1893 Chicago Exposition (Kim, Ron, and Doctor Who, take note!) and on the campus of the defunct Storer College, a normal school founded after the Civil War to educate freed blacks.  It's now located about 150 feet from its original site, which is marked by an obelisk. Pieces of the original door that was smashed in by the Marines are on display in a nearby museum devoted to Brown and his career.  There's also a John Brown wax museum in the Upper Town, located (no surprise) up a hill from the Lower Town, but let's just say that it is a "non-sanctioned" memorial and let it go at that.

Well before Brown burst upon the scene, other noteworthy historical figures braved Harpers Ferry's hilly streets and marveled at the natural surroundings.  Thomas Jefferson visited in 1783, and the rock on which he stood to get the proverbial "better view" is located northwest of the Lower Town off the Appalachian Trail.  (You can't climb on the rock these days, because it's rather unstable, but that didn't prevent one guy from trying to do so before Nicky and I pointed out the warning sign to him.)  Twenty years after Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis got supplies in Harpers Ferry prior to meeting up with William Clark and organizing the Corps of Discovery.  Nicky's and my trudge up the winding, rocky path to Jefferson Rock marked our most daunting physical challenge of the day.

Harpers Ferry is a very small town now, but, in the antebellum and post-Civil War years, it enjoyed long and prosperous stretches as an industrial center.  The National Armory that was the object of John Brown's raid was the most significant industry, but the Lower Town also has displays of machine shops and the like, and the railroad still runs through town, with Amtrak and MARC trains passing through every once in a while.  The trains come from Washington, so the car trip from Baltimore (which takes about an hour) remains the most efficient option for getting to Harpers Ferry, but, if relatives or friends come to visit and we want to take them there, we might be willing to splurge a little and enjoy the scenery on the train.

The only negative thing about the Lower Town is the fact that historical guides and "reenactors," of the kind you'd see at Mount Vernon or Colonial Williamsburg, are rather thin on the ground.  We saw a couple, but they were busily engaged in giving directions and information to several large swarms of kids, who were presumably on day trips from nearby camps.  The kids traveled in groups behind streamer-bedecked bedsheet banners that would probably not cause the Junior Woodchucks to lose any sleep over the potential competition.  We were left to guide ourselves through exhibits in reconstructed watch repair shops, bakeries, confectioneries, and dry-goods stores.  We felt the lack of expert assistance at the dry-goods shop, where the shelves held large bins of, among other things, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, fennel, cloves, cornstarch, gunpowder (!), and... "twankey"??  What the heck?  With the lack of local cell reception preventing us from engaging in immediate Googlage, we had quite a time speculating on the ID of that mysterious substance.  Was it the past tense of Twinkie (which would have been appropriate until the survival of the venerable snack cake was assured not long ago)?  A leftover word from a Dr. Seuss song chorus ("twink, twank, twunk")?  A cheesy 50s sci-fi movie starring Hans Conreid?  Actually, "twankey" turned out to be a cheap green tea from China with an interesting connection to the 19th century stage version of Aladdin.  Is it really surprising that a beverage with a name like that would be positioned on the lower end of the quality scale?

Somewhat surprisingly, when it came time for us to have some lunch, we found it rather difficult to locate a first-rate sit-down place.  The Upper Town has many eateries, but they're mostly of the "sandwich, soup 'n salad" variety -- that is, when they're not appendages to bars.  We finally settled upon the Town's Inn, a lodging house with a small restaurant attached.  Nicky had bratwurst and kraut, while I enjoyed some fairly decent macaroni and cheese and some "chunky" cole slaw (I was unaware that cabbage cut in flat squares qualified as "chunky").  We washed it down with water and an obscure brand of zero-calorie drink that I can most accurately describe as "cola-themed" and fortified ourselves against the increasing temperature with some frozen custard.

Relying as we did on the shuttle bus from the National Park visitor's center to the town -- there is very limited parking in the town itself, as you might imagine -- we were only able to take one semi-side trip, to Bolivar Heights, the site of a number of Civil War engagements.  The most famous of these occurred in 1862, when almost 13,000 Union troops surrendered in the largest such capitulation endured by the U.S. Army until Bataan in World War II.  Some of the views we obtained from the Heights were almost as good as those we got at The Point.  Unfortunately, with the views came rather large swarms of gnats, so we didn't stay very long.

Along with the historical sites, Harpers Ferry is a popular jumping-off point for "wilderness adventures" of varying degrees of rigor: rafting, tubing, hiking, zip-lining, and so forth.  These enterprises have helped keep the local economy afloat despite the town's relative isolation and the effects of periodic flooding.  If you're visiting in the D.C. area, you might want to consider "helping out" by making a visit.  It's doable in a day and literally has something for everyone.

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