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Chapter Eight
Harpers Ferry


Unless otherwise noted, all images are from the Boyd B. Stutler Collection




“The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature. You stand on a very high point of land. On your right 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. . . . For the mountain being cloven asunder, she presents to your eye, through the cleft, a small catch of smooth blue horizon, at an infinite distance in the plain country, inviting you, as it were, from the riot and tumult roaring around, to pass through the breach and participate of the calm below. . . . This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.” – Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia Harpers Ferry in Jefferson County, Virginia (now West Virginia), was settled in the mid-1700s by Robert Harper. Located at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, the town was still little more than a ferry crossing when Thomas Jefferson visited the place in the early 1780s and described the view from the hillside. Growth came after President George Washington selected Harpers Ferry in 1794 as the site for one of the new federal arsenals authorized by Congress. Construction of a factory along the Potomac River began in 1799 and arms manufacturing began soon thereafter.

Jefferson Rock
Jefferson Rock

Two decades later, the United States expanded its facilities at Harpers Ferry with the addition of a rifle works along the Shenandoah. Under the direction of gunmaker John H. Hall, the rifle factory served as an incubator for the development of interchangeable parts for rifles, which later spread to the government's other armory at Springfield, Massachusetts. A major upgrade was undertaken to the government facilities in the 1840s, after which the armory consisted of nearly ten buildings at the rifle factory and about twenty at the musket factory. Construction of government-owned dwellings also took place, but many of them would be sold to private owners in 1852. Harpers Ferry
Map of Harpers Ferry, 1869, by S. Howell Brown, from Senate Report 556, 43rd Cong., 2nd sess.

Harpers Ferry
Harpers Ferry, 1839
Stone Steps
The historic stone steps, leading to
the Catholic Church
Harpers Ferry
The confluence of the Potomac and
Shenandoah rivers at Harpers Ferry

Connection with the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the Winchester and Potomac Railroad, and area turnpikes in the 1830s enhanced the town’s accessibility and attracted other industries. At mid-century, Harpers Ferry included a cotton mill, an iron foundry, and a flour mill; and the town and the adjoining community of Bolivar, where many armory workers lived, had a combined population of 2,800, of which approximately 300 were free or enslaved African Americans. In 1850, nearly 24,000 slaves lived in the seven-county area comprised of Jefferson County and the surrounding counties of Berkeley, Clarke, Frederick, and Loudoun counties in Virginia, and Frederick and Washington counties in Maryland.

Harpers Ferry Armory
U. S. Armory in Harpers Ferry, by Ed Beyer, 1857, from his Album of Virginia
In the 1857-58 year, the Harpers Ferry armory produced more than 8,500 rifle muskets and 1,700 rifles, both 1855 models; more than 1,400 percussion muskets, 1842 model; and nearly 2,700 other rifles, .54 or .58 calibre. The musket and rifle factories also manufactured various firearms appendages, including several thousand tompions, sword bayonets, and long-range sights. In 1859, roughly 100,000 weapons were stored in the government arsenal at Harpers Ferry. “He [John Brown] often stopped over night with me, when we talked over the feasibility of his plan for destroying the value of slave property, and the motive for holding slaves in the border States. That plan . . . was to take twenty or twenty-five discreet and trustworthy men into the mountains of Virginia and Maryland, and station them in squads of five, . . . He further proposed to have a number of stations from the line of Pennsylvania to the Canada border, where such slaves as he might, through his men, induce to run away, should be supplied with food and shelter and be forwarded from one station to another till they should reach a place of safety . . . .” – Frederick Douglass, Life and Times


Primary Sources:

Letter, John Mackey to Samuel Hodgdon, February 21, 1799
Letter, John Mackey to Samuel Hodgdon, March 1, 1799
Letter, John Mackey to Samuel Hodgdon, December 26, 1799
Peregrine Prolix Description of Harpers Ferry, 1830s
Brantz Mayer Description of Harpers Ferry, 1856
Documents on Harpers Ferry for "On This Day in West Virginia History," September 16

Secondary Sources:

“A Nineteenth-Century Mill Village: Virginius Island, 1800-60,” by Mary Johnson (West Virginia History, Vol. 54)


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