This Thursday I visited Harpers Ferry, West Virginia for the first time–though I have previously passed through it 4 times. It was a mild mid-November day–much of which was overcast, but with enough sunlight still falling on the maple and oak trees to give them the respective yellow and red luminescence they have at the peak of the changing of the leaves. I remark on this because it can be pretty hard to arrange to go somewhere at a good time to see the leaves at their brightest, whether it be cherry blossoms in the spring or maples and oaks turning in the fall; this time I had a bit of luck, and in spite of the clouds I had the chance to see Harpers Ferry as I hoped to see it.
Part of my reason for dwelling on weather conditions and the color of the leaves is to foreground the fact that cities and towns go through cyclical changes that can feel as significant as those historical phases they will never pass through again. Harpers Ferry, an old transportation gateway to the Ohio Valley perched on a steep hillside at the convergence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah Rivers, is a small village that has seen its fortunes rise and fall due to economic trends, social movements, wars and the disastrous but recurrent flooding of the Rivers. Today Harpers Ferry seems to make a good living primarily through the telling of its own surprising story; it sounds like a great gig for a place that can give an account of itself with apt reserve. As the railroad through Harpers Ferry was a strategic transportation corridor until the car siphoned the through traffic out of the Village, over a century and a half of American history and purpose left its imprint on Harper’s Ferry–after which time it seems to have become a self-representing tourist destination. I say that Harpers Ferry self-represents rather than that “time stands still there,” because the Liberal Ironist doesn’t believe time stands still for anything, regardless of how beautifully it ages.
Every previous time I’ve passed through Harpers Ferry has been by train. Amtrak runs intercity lines west from Washington, DC that snake in and out of western Maryland and West Virginia. Moving westbound the village sneaks up on you; as you pass through a tunnel on the edge of Maryland your train suddenly emerges onto a trestle crossing the Potomac River; when the train comes to a stop you’re in Harpers Ferry–barely. While the village itself sprawls a bit beyond the top of a 530-foot-plus above sea level hill, the “downtown” that visitors would tour is actually smaller than it appears to be from the train, because it’s hard to recognize how defensively it’s huddled against the hill behind it, and the Capitol Limited runs on tracks that skirt the edge of the village the long way.
In any event, Harpers Ferry is one of the most-beautiful places I have ever seen. The atmosphere at the pub where I had lunch seemed one of habituation to tourists, but wasn’t crass or sterile. Again, the Liberal Ironist doesn’t make this distinction to idolize some myth of small town simplicity or reflexive harmony. I got the impression that the people of Harpers Ferry know exactly what it is: It’s a remarkably well-preserved early-industrial village whose variety of quirks in geography, infrastructure and surviving commercial buildings inevitably fascinate those who happen either to stumble upon it or to seek it out. This element of self-representation is certainly partly an outgrowth of the village’s status as a National Historical Park.
As an indication of Harpers Ferry’s wilderness setting, the Appalachian Trail actually passes through the village.
Harpers Ferry sits on a high hill in a low, narrow gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the mid-19th century Harpers Ferry was a focal site of the competition between the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad–the first railroad in America whose current descendant is major continental railroad CSX–and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, both stretching west through Maryland on their way to open up the American interior to regular commerce. As a testament to the way technological change transformed economic expectations–and to the way both in turn transformed the physical landscape–the C & O Canal beat the B & O Railroad to Harpers Ferry due to the latter’s land disputes in Maryland, but the Railroad beat the Canal to the Ohio River. Today the railroad track through Harpers Ferry serves as an important freight and intercity passenger corridor, and even carries MARC commuter trains to and from fairly-distant Washington, DC; the C & O Canal is simply for recreation.
One of the museum shops on Shenandoah Street is one of the first stores in the country to sell mass-manufactured clothing, having opened its doors in 1858. The first mass-produced clothing greatly reduced the cost of relatively high-quality clothing, but it still couldn’t be called well-made because nothing was fitted. There was no standardized system of limb length or waist width; it was simply a matter of luck to buy a mass-produced coat (let-alone a pair of pants!) in which all parts fit even reasonably-well. According to a plaque put up by the US National Park Service just inside the store’s doors, our system of fitted clothing is largely an historical outgrowth of mass conscription during the Civil War, as the United States War Department took the most-extensive (and representative) clothing measurements ever undertaken in men, for the benefit of a large conscription army facing an otherwise-grueling existence.
For some reason, I found the recognition that I was standing in one of the first wholesale clothing stores exhilarating. There were the racks along the walls for hanging shirts and coats…there were the wide tables that pants are folded and stacked on…The Liberal Ironist could see the essential elements of a modern clothing outlet store about. In fact, all around Harpers Ferry there is a physical record, in varying states of repair, of that long process–sometimes slow, sometimes a frenzied rush–of exploration, tenacious settlement, infrastructure-building, production for economies of scale and commerce that really has made this country great.
As a way of assuring the reader that I’m too coy about this treasure of a town, my next post will be about John Brown’s violent raid on Harpers Ferry, and on the importance of humaneness in thought and action when fighting an unjust status quo.