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Peregrine Prolix (Phillip Holbrook Nicklin) Visit to Harpers Ferry, 1830s

LETTER XI.

Road to Harper’s Ferry—Mr. Jefferson’s description—Dirauea—Tomboro—Potomac—Shenandoah—Town—Fitzsimmons’s—Factory of Arms—Chapel—Strait Gun Stocks—Turning Machine—Mr. Jefferson’s Rock, a rocking Stone.

At 7 1/2 A. M. on the 30th September, we left Winchester for Harper’s Ferry, a distance of about thirty miles. The greatest part of the road is tolerably bad, but the country is interesting, and becomes more so as you draw nigher to Harper’s Ferry, which every neophyte traveller must approach with a sufficient preparation of astonishment and admiration; at least such must be his condition if he has ever read Mr. Jefferson’s description of this celebrated spot, which is in the following words: “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 come up* the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain a 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.” Notes on Virginia, N. Y. 1801, p. 27. What will the neoterick geologists say to the notion of two quiet rivers joining and in a moment rending asunder the solid mountain! When the first two lines of this eloquent passage were penned, the writer probably had not seen the ocean cataract of Niagara; nor the Val del Bove on Mount AEtna, an enormous chasm running down the mountain for twelve miles, bounded by almost perpendicular cliffs, in some places three thousand feet in depth, and containing within its ample bosom volcanic craters communicating with the fiery gulph below.

The scientific world had not then heard of Kirauea a mountain in Hawaii, on whose side an immense opening many miles in circumference, exhibits to the light of day some of the greatest operations performed in the laboratory of nature; within whose tall and blackened cliffs may be seen hundreds of volcanic cones perpetually burning, mountains of sulphur, and still more strange and awful, an earthly Phlegrethon, or lake of melted lava, several miles in extent, and continually raging like ocean waves.

Nor then had Tomboro, in the island of Sumbawa, blown off his towering head, covering five hundred miles of ocean with the fragments, almost ground to powder; and astounding by its deep-toned bellowing, the savage nations for a thousand miles.

The rending off the top of such a mountain by a sudden explosion, must leave a scene much more stupendous than that in question.

The scene at Harper’s Ferry is indeed beautiful and romantic, and may approach to the sublime in the spring, when the rivers are well filled with water. But when I saw it the streams were scarcely commensurate with their rugged beds, and the waters rippled sluggishly over the pebbles, and flowed quietly between the rocks.

The Potomac just below the point at which the Shenandoah joins it, passes the Blue Ridge through a wide gap, which had to my eye no appearance of having been burst or cut through the mountain by the force of water; but seems rather to have existed on the ridge at its first upheaving above the surface of the ocean. The sides of the gap slope up from the river with a steepness not greater than the natural angle of repose.

We arrive at the ferry at 2 1/2 P. M. and stopped at Fitzsimmons’s Hotel; whose interior and good cheer are much better than its outside promise. The approach to the town, as you descend a long hill and come in sight of the Shenandoah is very imposing. The principal part of the town is close on the Shenandoah immediately under the high hill which divided the rivers. The Federal Manufactories of Arms, extend up the right bank of the Potomac. There are several houses and a beautiful Catholic chapel perched upon sites cut from the solid rock at elevations of from fifty to one hundred feet, which are approached by flights of steps also cut from the rock, which have a beautiful and romantic appearance, and command a fine view of the whole scene. There is a substantial covered bridge across the Potomac.

After dinner we made the tour of the arsenals and the manufactories. The arsenals seem to be in very good order and the arms well kept; but upon handling one of the muskets I found the stock so strait, that when I brought it to my shoulder, it was impossible for the eye to range along the barrel. This is a fatal defect, and troops using these in action, would inevitably fire above the heads of their antagonists.

We saw in the manufactories that ingenious yankee lathe which turns gun stocks and shoe lasts; but if it cannot make better stocks than those I saw, it would have been better had it turned its last, before it came to Harper’s Ferry.

We ascended two high hills, from which we had splendid views in several directions; and we visited Jefferson’s rock, so called because tradition says the Philosopher sat thereon, when he wrote his account of Harper’s Ferry.

This singular rock is on a high hill which overhangs the town; its top is flat, almost horizontal, nearly square, and about twelve feet wide; its base does not exceed four or five feet in width, and rests upon the top of a larger mass of rock jutting from the hill; its height is about four or five feet.

My companions got on the top to enjoy the extensive prospect which lay beneath. From its narrow base and nicely balanced attitude, it struck me that it might be caused to vibrate on its base; and taking hold of its edge and applying my utmost strength, I made it shake so sensibly, that those upon it exclaimed that it was like and earthquake. At our Inn they told us, that they did not know that Mr. Jefferson’s rock could be moved.

The table and accommodations at Fitzsimmons’s Globe Inn are very good, but at certain seasons are liable to be over-crowded at night; so that it is expedient for travellers who care for comfort, to contrive to arrive before dinner, that they may engage their rooms before the evening flood comes in.

*An exception to the general rule: most rivers flow down.

Source: Peregrine Prolix, Letters Descriptive of The Virginia Springs. Philadalphia: H. S. Tanner, 1837.


Chapter Eight: Harpers Ferry

His Soul Goes Marching On

West Virginia Archives and History