John Brown's Fort
By Clarence S. Gee
A fire engine house, a guardhouse, a watchtower, a fort, a prison, a storage place for junk, a World Fair exhibit, a campus museum, and a post for a Ground Observer Corps. And in four different locations. No wonder the little building, "humble in origin," now on the grounds of Storer College at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, known as "John Brown's Fort," is regarded as one of our most historic buildings.
In this "Fire Engine and Guard House" John Brown took refuge when his raid on Harpers Ferry, in 1859, brought mounting resistance. Here, he and the remnant of his faithful followers were beaten down and captured by U. S. Marines under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, and the hostages whom he had assembled there with him were released. A new name now for the little structure - "John Brown's Fort" - and later, new locations too.
The "Fort" was built in 1847 to serve the U. S. Armory and Arsenal. It is a one-story brick building, 35 1/2 by 24 feet, with walls 114 feet high, gable slate roof, and open belfry. Its original site was just inside the Armory yard, near the present Baltimore and Ohio depot at Harpers Ferry. During the Civil War, when the town was taken first by one and then another of the Union and Confederate armies, the "Fort" was used alternately by both forces as a guardhouse and a prison. After the war it was only a storage place for junk. But there was new fame ahead, and much traveling, including a trip to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in 1892. The writer still feels the sorrow that was his when his closest friend set out for the World's Fair, and he was left behind. But the John Brown Fort went to the Fair.
In the early summer of 1892 a group gathered at Washington, headed by Adoniram J. Holmes, of Boone, Iowa, a Civil War veteran and former Congressman, conceived the idea of removing the Fort to Chicago for display as one of the attractions of the World's Columbian Exposition. A company was organized with Holmes as President, and negotiations for purchase of the building were begun. The owners were reluctant to sell, and were supported in protests by the people of Harpers Ferry and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The sale, however, was finally consummated. Joseph Barry, the local historian, mourned that with its departure "much of the glory of Harper's Ferry is gone forever."
The building was torn down with the utmost care, the pieces numbered and the various parts were boxed separately, and shipped to Chicago. It was re-erected at 1341 Wabash Avenue in Chicago, outside the Exposition grounds, and enclosed in a neat frame building. It was opened to public view in mid-September, 1892. The architect declared that if the slightest difference could be found in the construction of the building now from what it was when it stood at Harpers Ferry, he would return to the company the entire amount of his compensation.
During the Exposition visitors in considerable numbers paid admission to enter the Fort, where they saw relics of John Brown on exhibition, and heard a lecture delivered by Colonel S. K. Donavin, who had been an eye-witness of the raid and subsequent trial and execution as a correspondent for the Baltimore Daily Exchange. The Fort Company had endeavored to get some one of John Brown's family to appear as guide and lecturer, but none was willing to make this public appearance. A daughter, Annie Brown Adams, housekeeper at the Kennedy Farm and last survivor of the company gathered there, wrote from her home at Petrolia, California: "I may be a relic of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, but I do not want to be placed on exhibition with other relics and curios, as such."
The Exposition came to an end in 1893, but it was not the end of the Fort, although it might have seemed so. The venture was not a financial success, and at the end of the Fair, the historic fire engine house passed from the sheriff's hands into those of wreckers, and it was again taken down to make way for the stables of a department store. The bricks and timbers were stacked only as "material." But it will rise again, for John Brown's Fort was not entirely friendless.
Back in Washington, where the movement started to take the Fort to Chicago, a lone woman began a single-handed campaign to save the old building from utter destruction. This woman was Kate Field, noted journalist, actress, lecturer and publisher of Kate Field's Washington, a weekly magazine of criticism and current affairs. She thought of the pile of bricks and timbers and felt it a shame that something was not done to preserve them, and in her own mind worked out a plan of returning the material to Harpers Ferry to be reerected at the center of a park. She had been interested in John Brown for years - twenty-five years earlier she had raised funds to purchase the John Brown farm at North Elba, New York, to save Brown's home and grave from falling into alien hands. When, in 1870, she was told that she would ruin herself as a lecturer if she insisted on eulogizing John Brown, "Then let me be ruined," was her reply.
But Miss Field was in failing health. She discontinued her magazine and closed her affairs in Washington in the early summer of 1895. However, she did not lose sight of her plans for the Fort. After a couple of visits to Harpers Ferry to look for a site, she started to the west. At Chicago she met her old friend H. H. Kohlsaat, publisher of the Chicago Times-Herald, who gave her an assignment to Hawaii to write for his paper and to work for the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands to the United States. Meanwhile, she continued her campaign to restore the John Brown Fort - she secured permission of the owners to take possession of the pile of bricks and timbers without cost to her. Now her big problem was to secure sufficient funds to carry out the plan of restoration.
Colonel Simpson K. Donavin who had lectured on John Brown in the period of the Exposition wished to promote lecture tours, that he might continue to tell the John Brown story. Knowing Miss Field's interest in Brown, he hoped she might be willing to assist him in his plans, and to this end he appealed to his intimate friend, Attorney Robert McCabe, with whom he had been closely associated in Delaware, Ohio, to arrange an interview for him with Miss Field. The interview was arranged at Chicago. Then, Miss Field turned to Mr. McCabe to assist her in her plans to restore the Fort.
The writer, when living in Delaware, Ohio, heard the story which follows from Robert McCabe himself, and it is presented here as he told it.
Miss Field and Mr. McCabe undertook to raise the funds necessary for the restoration but were not too successful at the start. Men of means ridiculed their appeal for financial aid for such a "wild scheme." One wealthy man said he would not "give a cent for such a crazy idea," and that "you two ought to be ashamed of yourselves." And then he gave one hundred dollars. Other amounts of ten, fifteen and twenty dollars were secured but the total was far too small. It looked discouraging.
One day when "the two" were wondering if their plan must fail because of lack of funds, Miss Field suddenly cried out: "What is the matter with me? I have not used my wits." She had been watching the smoke that poured out from the chimneys of some of Chicago's largest breweries. "All my life I have stood for personal liberty, and have lectured on it since I was a girl," she said. In her lectures she had often said: "I believe in temperance which does not enforce total abstinence on one's neighbors; I believe in personal liberty."
Acting at once on Miss Field's new idea of approach, they set out together and first visited the McAvoy brewery on 23rd Street and South Park Way. Kate Field sent in her card, and almost before they were aware of it they were ushered into the presence of Mr. McAvoy in his inner office. "What do you want?" asked the brewer, with his usual directness. He laughed when he was told the purpose of their errand. "How much do you want?" he asked. Miss Field told him they needed two thousand dollars to complete the restoration. "Will that be enough?" was his further question. "I think I can get that much for you." He called for some of his associates and in a short time the sum of two thousand dollars was in Miss Field's possession. It was placed in the care of Charles L. Hutchinson, of the Corn Exchange National Bank in Chicago. Mr. Hutchinson was the son of the famous old "Hutch," known so well for his trading in wheat.
The work now began in earnest. Miss Field secured from Melville E. Stone, head of the Associated Press, the free use of the A. P. wire service for the transaction of all business connected with her plan. Also, she was given free transportation by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad of all material from Chicago to Harpers Ferry; and in addition, free passes for all persons in any way connected with the work of restoring the John Brown Fort.
Although the railroad was willing to grant the original site, or one as near to it as changed conditions would permit, Kate Field, for some reason, preferred a new location. Seven acres on the farm of Alexander Murphy on Bolivar Heights were finally secured. A local newspaper described the site: "The place on Murphy's farm selected for the re-erection of the John Brown Fort is the point at Bull's Falls where the Shenandoah makes a sharp curve. The Fort will be seen from the cars as they go over from the Island of Virginia and past the pulp mill. There are in the neighborhood beautiful sites for summer homes."
Now that sufficient funds had been raised and a site chosen, the next thing that must be done was to choose some one to supervise the construction. A man claiming to be a contractor presented himself and gave assurance that he was peculiarly fitted to do the work. Many others offered their services, some of them Negroes; in fact, several applicants seemed to covet this opportunity, especially that of handling the funds. The first applicant, Edward Cummins, had what Mr. McCabe called "an affidavit face." He seemed so sincere that he was finally entrusted with the responsibility of restoration. He spoke at length of the appeal this enterprise made to him, and said he would regard it as the greatest honor of his life to restore the historic old building. He made clear that he would charge nothing apart from his necessary expenses in view of the great privilege that would be his in this most worthy undertaking.
Kate Field left for Hawaii in early September, 1895, but before leaving, she entrusted to her friend and attorney, Robert McCabe, the completion of the work she had begun, and made him sole custodian of the remaining funds.
Mr. McCabe soon faced objections. Rumors began to be circulated that it was the intention to recover, if possible, the remains of the followers of John Brown who lost their lives at the time of the raid whose bodies had been buried along the Shenandoah. The Spirit of Jefferson, Charles Town newspaper, reported: "When Kate Field can get a piece of ground large enough on which to replace the old enginehouse these bodies will be reinterred near the fort and a monument erected above them, bearing their names and the incidents of their death." The article indicated no opposition to a plan "to re-erect the enginehouse where Robert E. Lee captured the old villain," but to memorialize "his crew" was "going just a little too far, and those engaged in it had better think twice before they attempt it." On October 5, 1895, Mr. McCabe wrote a letter to George W. Haines, Esq., of Charlestown, West Virginia, editor of the Spirit of Jefferson, in which he made clear that he was well acquainted with the views of Miss Field before she left for Hawaii, and that she had left matters wholly in his hands. He declared the rumor to be unfounded, that "Miss Field has no desire or intention of offending your people, and that John Brown's Fort would not have been returned had the movement met with opposition." That much was settled, but there was more to come.
Meanwhile Cummins had gone from Chicago to Harpers Ferry to begin his "altruistic mission." Rumblings from Harpers Ferry reached the ears of Miss Field in Hawaii. It was reported that the Fort must never go up again, and if it did it would be torn down. She sent an urgent message to Mr. McCabe to go at once to Harpers Ferry to see what it was all about. Upon his arrival there, Mr. McCabe immediately consulted the station agent, Mr. E. B. Chambers, and from him soon learned what the trouble was. It was not the fact that the Fort was to be restored; it was trouble being caused by the contractor who had come from Chicago to do the work. Mr. Chambers had been of great assistance to Miss Field and Mr. McCabe on their visits when they chose a site, and he proved of greater help after Mr. McCabe's conference with him. "I'll tell you what," said Mr. Chambers, "we won't allow this. This man Cummins has outraged the community, he has called our people rebels. He is abusive, he is lazy and good for nothing. He has not paid his men, and they are unable to pay for their board or room rent. All he does is fish. He is an intolerant fellow. We won't allow the thing to stand. This man must be gotten out of here." Mr. Cummins' wife and children had to come with him to Harpers Ferry, but all they had to do, according to Mr. Chambers, was "sit around while he fished."
Mr. McCabe went to see Cummins. He proved to be determined, and doggedly insisted that he would go through with the work he had begun. He declared that he would do just as he pleased; that he had a contract, and would secure a mechanic's lien if more money was not immediately forthcoming. Mr. McCabe, as the representative of Miss Field, even though he had the authority and was himself an attorney, was not disposed to enter upon court proceedings.
In another quiet conference with the station agent, a new idea developed. "Suppose," said Mr. Chambers, "we throw Cummins into the river. There are plenty of boys in town who would be glad of the chance, after all he has said and done. We won't hurt him, but I think he will be through here when we are through with him." A plan was agreed upon.
Later, about midnight, Mr. McCabe was awakened at his hotel and was told that a woman insisted on seeing him immediately. The landlord said the woman evidently was in great distress and "was scared to death." It was Mrs. Cummins, and she had come to report that her husband had been thrown into the river, but that he had finally saved himself and had escaped to their rooms where he was now in hiding. She begged Mr. McCabe to come with her at once to see what could be done for their safety. McCabe, perhaps with a slight twinkle in his eye, seemed to hesitate, then said: "I guess I better not go, for they may kill me too. This looks like a very dangerous situation." In a moment, however, he agreed to go if the landlord would go with him, and the landlord, without a moment's hesitation, said he would go.
The two men went with the distressed woman to the Cummins' lodgings. When Cummins came out from hiding, he cried out, "What can I do?" He said he was convinced the only thing for him to do was to get away as quickly as possible, and he made it clear that was what he most wanted to do. He said he did not have enough money for railroad fare, but if he had he would go back to Chicago on the morning train. Mr. McCabe gave him fifty dollars, took a receipt, and was given the original contract which Cummins cancelled. The "altruistic" contractor and his family left Harpers Ferry on the four o'clock train that very morning.
Mr. McCabe returned to his friend, the station agent, to make a report. Now, a new contractor must be found. Mr. Chambers was proficient in many lines and was held in high regard by all of the local citizens. He accepted the responsibility of supervising the restoration of the John Brown Fort on the site chosen by Kate Field. There was no contract, but Mr. Chambers' work was done in honor. "We do things that way here," he said. There was no further public opposition, and no further delay in the work. The press supported Mr. Chambers and the plan of Miss Field. The Harpers Ferry station agent saved the day. And so once again the much-traveled little building was "back from the Fair" and at home in Harpers Ferry. But it still has one more move to make.
After the restoration of the Fort, an avenue was surveyed from the Valley Pike to its new site, and building lots were staked off in hopes of a building boom. Miss Field failed to find health in Hawaii and her death occurred at Honolulu on May 19, 1896, soon after the work of restoration had been completed. With her passing the project languished - none of the houses was built, the plan for a park collapsed, leaving the old fire- engine house to stand alone in its lonely isolation. And there it stood until 1909, the fiftieth anniversary of John Brown's raid, when the structure was taken over and removed to the campus of Storer College in Harpers Ferry, a co-educational institution for Negro students. Again it was restored, to be used as a museum to house mementos of Harpers Ferry and John Brown. There it stands today, though the college was suspended at the end of the 1955 term. The outer courses of bricks were not carefully separated in this restoration, hence it has a somewhat mottled appearance. In all things essential, however, it is the original "Fort."
Since 1954 this building, "one of the nation's most colorful buildings historically," has been a Ground Observer Corps post, and from its belfry volunteers scan the skies for enemy aircraft.
A fire engine house, a guardhouse, a watchtower, a fort, a prison, a storage place for junk, a World Fair exhibit, a campus museum, and a post for a Ground Observer Corps. Visit the John Brown Fort and you will read this message on a white marble tablet set in its wall:
That this nation might have a new birth of freedom, That slavery should be removed forever from American soil, John Brown and his 21 men gave their lives. To commemorate their heroism, this tablet is placed on this building which since has been known as John Brown's Fort by the alumni of Storer College, 1918.
West Virginia History Journal
West Virginia History Center