At the confluence of the great Shenandoah and Potomac rivers there is a place that rests in the arms of history. Nestled quietly in a forest of silver maple and box elder, Harpers Ferry stands as a monument to the ambitions, dreams, and determination of a young nation. Surrounded by rushing water and rolling hills of hardwood, it is lost in a different time. It was a time when Americans were busy carving a trail through a new and uncharted land; a time when our nation’s destiny, though uncertain, held great promise. Standing on a large stone overlooking the area in 1783 Thomas Jefferson noted:
“On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of a mountain a hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left lies the Potomac 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…this scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”
Though his description paints a beautiful picture for the mind’s eye, Thomas Jefferson saw one thing when he looked across the hillsides to the waters below – progress. Locked in the racing water of these two great rivers he saw the power necessary to build and prosper a nation. Soon after in 1785 George Washington, then president of the Patowmac Company, advocated the area’s industrial potential and proposed it as the site for a new federal armory and arsenal. Harpers Ferry, which had started off as little more than a river crossing for travelers, was on its way to greatness.
In 1799 construction of the arsenal began, and Harpers Ferry became one of only two locations in the country to host, what was at the time, such a ‘high-tech’ industry. Soon, with the success of the arsenal, other industries began to flood into the area. Cotton mills, grain mills, pulp mills, stores, supply depots, and construction companies moved in, staking their claims on the firmament of opportunity.
From 1801 to about 1861 Harpers Ferry became nothing less than an industrial boomtown. Its population swelled into the thousands, and it became one of our nation’s most promising industrial cities. As its industry flourished, it also became known as a place of great innovation. It was at Harpers Ferry that Captain John Hall refined the art of rifle manufacturing into a science. Hall painstakingly designed machines and fabrication techniques so precise that, for the first time in history, rifles could be built with interchangeable parts. For years each rifle had been custom built by individual craftsmen, no two being exactly alike. Hall’s innovations in manufacturing revolutionized the industry, and made it possible for the US Army to take spare rifle parts into the battlefield for the first time.
In 1833 mass transportation came to Harpers Ferry. First, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal arrived linking the Harpers Ferry with Washington City. It was a massive engineering effort consisting of miles of waterway, locks, and ports. It was, for all intents and purposes, our nation’s first super highway, and Harpers Ferry was its western most stop. Just a year later the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad came into town. Demand for raw materials and goods were so high, Harpers Ferry was a logical stop along the B&O route. In just a few decades, Harpers Ferry found itself on the forefront of innovation, industry, and transportation. It was nothing less than a shining example of American ingenuity and progressive thinking.
The men and women who lived and worked there came from all corners of the earth. They were Danish, German, Italian, Irish, Polish, and Asian. Searching to create something better for themselves, they built stores, hotels, produce markets, machine shops, bakeries, and flower mills. Many had come with nothing but, through their own sweat, built lives for themselves and their families upon these shores. Like the great rivers that surrounded them, they moved forward seeking a new vent for their lives, undaunted by the obstacles in their path. These early progressives set out to carve a new home from the wilderness, and write a new tale of dignity, opportunity, and freedom for all the world to read.
Then the war came….
Its strategic position in the northern Shenandoah Valley, made Harpers Ferry a key objective for both the Union and the Confederacy. Over the course of the war, it changed hands between 8 and 13 times, the arsenal was burned to the ground, and the population dropped from over 3,000 to fewer than 100. The most devastating battle took place in September 1863 when Stonewall Jackson placed artillery on the hills surrounding the town and systematically began to destroy it from above. For three days the Union garrison there took a hellish bombardment from Confederate artillery. The town was turned into rubble, bridges were cast into the rivers, and once busy factories were turned into morgues. The Confederate artillery fire was so heavy; Colonel William H. Trimble of the 60th Ohio wrote that there was:
“Not a place where you could lay the palm of your hand and say it was safe.”
On the third day of relentless Confederate bombardment, 15 September, 12,000 demoralized Union troops surrendered to General Jackson in the largest mass surrender in US history. Harpers Ferry had been devastated in the process. In a twist of irony, the town that both armies had coveted so, lay in ruins.
Harpers Ferry was no stranger to irony however. When John Brown and his raiders came into town in 1859 to capture the armory and start a slave revolt, the very first person they killed was a gentleman named Heywood Shepherd – a free black man. When Brown’s team of raiders laid siege to a small armory, President James Buchanan sent none other than Col Robert E. Lee with a detachment of US Marines to put an end to the insurrection. Brown would then be hung for treason against the United States in Virginia, a state that would soon commit the ultimate treason. Perhaps the most profound irony however, was that Harpers Ferry was ultimately destroyed by the very people who had once labored so hard to make it great. The very people, who had once manned its factories, had also manned the artillery that laid it to waste. The very country that Harpers Ferry had helped to forge, first turned their guns on it, and then later their backs.
After the war, Harpers Ferry was only a shell of what it once was. Though many tried to come back and rebuild their lives, a series of tragic floods destroyed everything again. Additionally, the expansion of the railroad had brought once distant cities closer together, and had created new industrial centers that were far less susceptible to catastrophe. Soon, most of the remaining factories in Harpers Ferry closed their doors, packed up their equipment, and moved their dreams to higher ground.
On a recent trip to Harpers Ferry National Park, I walked along the banks of the Shenandoah River past the overgrown remains of its once great factories. As I walked, I could not help but become overwhelmed with the history that laid in ruin around me. This place, Harpers Ferry, was much more than a river mill town. It was nothing less than the story of a nation and the people who had built it. In less than 100 years it had grown from a lonely ferry crossing in the northern Shenandoah Valley, to a prominent center of industry and innovation. It had been envisioned by Jefferson and Washington, but built a stone at a time by real American ‘progressives.’ They were people who yearned for a better way of life, and were willing to sacrifice everything to fulfill their dream. They asked for nothing, wanted no guarantees, and needed no social justice. They did not expect their government to provide them anything other than the freedom that they needed to live, work, and prosper. They were progressives in the truest sense of the word. They built a nation from nothing, and changed the lives of every American for the better. Most importantly, they did not expect to consume the fruit of progress, until they had first labored to create it.
As I pondered these ‘true progressives’ it hit me. Harpers Ferry may have died, but the rivers around it were still flowing, seeking a vent. When the town could no longer sustain the aspirations of its people, the river of progress simply diverted itself elsewhere – but it never stopped flowing. The American progressive spirit that built Harpers Ferry was alive and well, moving out in all directions and building new cities upon the very same dreams. This was able to happen because America, by its very nature, is progress. Our founding fathers were the ultimate progressives. They had a vision of a new type of government; one that valued opportunity, freedom, and dignity over repression and subjugation. The very rivers that flowed through Harpers Ferry had flowed through them first, and they still seek their vent today in the hearts and minds of every American.
The 21st century finds our nation embroiled in yet another great battle. Not with bullets and artillery, but rather with ideas and expectations. Never, since the great Civil War, has our nation been more divided on how we should progress. In the same ironic way Harpers Ferry was destroyed by those who built it, the modern day self-appointed ‘progressive’ is now threatening to destroy America. From health care to energy and banking, they are working to undermine the very might of our nation. In 2010, tried and true institutions created by true progressives such as free enterprise, individual freedom, self determination, and opportunity are under assault by notions of social justice, fairness, and entitlement. The foundations that not only built Harpers Ferry, but also built our nation are rapidly being eroded by a new river overflowing with antipathy. Those who currently, call themselves ‘progressives’ are nothing of the sort. They have no idea what it means to build a nation, but rather choose to focus their efforts on tearing down our greatness. In truth, it would be far more accurate to describe them as ‘regressives.’ Instead of moving our nation’s ideals forward and continuing to build on America’s firm banks, they dam the river of progress and then curse the flood. They can no more understand the currents that pushed Captain John Hall, anymore than he would be able to comprehend their twisted view of America.
I believe that our nation is at a crossroads in history, and that the decisions we make in the next two years will define who we are for generations to come. The forces that drive our country forward will always live in the human spirit, and will flourish wherever they are given purchase. If we do not allow them to flow, they will most assuredly seek another place to vent. And just like Harpers Ferry, we will find ourselves quietly nestled between the silver maple and box elder – a nation that was once great.