Harpers Ferry

Located at the junction of the Potomoc and Shenandoah rivers in West Virginia, Harpers Ferry is a virtual treasure trove of American history. Most American historical sites focus on a single person or event; at Harpers Ferry, it's the opposite. The list of significant historical occurrences is as broad and diverse and famous as the people who walked down its cobbled streets.

Established in 1794 by President George Washington, Harpers Ferry was created for one purpose: to make guns. His thinking was this: our newly-formed country can not have enough guns. For good reason, too. The British were still pissed about that little Revolutionary War incident, the French were being sneaky in the north, and to the southwest, Mexico was less than excited about having to share the big sandbox. Oh, yeah- one more reason we need lots of guns: the big plan includes overtaking the land from the folks here before us.

While the armory was busy making guns (over the course of sixty-five years, 600,000 rifles and pistols were made at Harpers Ferry), several notable people came by for a visit. Meriwether Lewis showed up in March of 1803, grabbed a bunch of rifles and tested out his new boat to make sure it floated (it didn't and had to be rebuilt), before heading out on his little trip west. John Brown and some friends came to the arsenal in 1859 and raided the place hoping to leave with 100,000 rifles (so he could arm slaves and start a rebellion). The raid failed and General Robert E. Lee commanded his troops to capture Brown and kill his associates. Brown was hanged for treason a month later and his raid at Harpers Ferry is credited by historians as being one of the sparks that set-off the Civil War. The raid is controversial to this day and illustrates how perception is often the only thing that distinguishes "freedom-fighting" from terrorism.

The town was captured by the Rebs/recaptured by the Feds eight times during the war, and ultimately was reclaimed by the Union after the Battle of Antietam (read the next post down to see how that went) sent the Confederates limping back to Virginny for good. Abraham Lincoln made several visits during the war to meet with generals and inspect the troops. One of the commanding officers present was George Custer, who married his wife at Harpers Ferry (when he wasn't out kicking Johnny Reb in the ass. To this day, Custer is most hated in the South, no doubt because he foiled General Lee's plan at Gettysburg. He isn't much liked out west either. In fact, Michigan is the only place where you'll find any monuments to him).

In addition to the historical figures who passed through Harpers Ferry, it's also recognized for implementing industrial advances that forever changed manufacturing. Military inventors designed early methods of automation, such as the water-powered shaft, belt, and clutch system (pictured here) used to run machines that made rifles. As a result of this breakthrough in technology, the time needed to bore a grooved rifle barrel dropped from 150 hours (in the hands of a craftsman) to 30 minutes (in the clamps of a lathe drill). One Army inventor named John Hall came up with the idea of "interchangeable parts" at Harpers Ferry, a concept that was unheard of at the time but ultimately transformed production methods in every form of industry. The military always comes up with cool shit: GPS, nightvision goggles, Jeeps, Hummers, freeze dried food... the list goes on and on.

Mixed in with the major historical events and the advancements in technology is a glimpse into how some people view history. This monument, erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans, is dedicated to Heyward Shepherd, a black man who worked for the railroad and was killed during John Brown's raid. It reads as follows:

"...as a memorial to Heyward Shepherd, exemplifying the character and faithfulness of thousands of negroes who, under many temptations throughout subsequent years of war, so conducted themselves that no stain was left upon a record which is the peculiar heritage of the American people, and an everlasting tribute to the best in both races."

Some people look back on history through blurred lenses.

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