Notes on Harper's Ferry

References in C&O Canal Companion: Mile 60.2, 60.6, 60.7

An early (1803) plan for the armory buildings at Harpers Ferry.
In this version, it appears that the skriting canal along the Shenandoah
was to empty directly into the Potomac.
Detail of map in the National Archives.

To be added

Mile 60.2:

The canal company continued to harbor hopes of a dam at this location, suggesting in its 1837 stockholder?s report that the Armory dam would be insufficient to supply its both own works and the canal. In one of its more extreme fits of wishful thinking, the company supposed that the federal government ?aware of the necessity of having the undivided use and control of the upper dam as a feeder, will erect one for the purpose of the company, at the point designated, below the mouth of the Shenandoah.?


The view from "Jefferson's Rock" at Harper's Ferry.
Photo by author, August 2002


Additional Notes

Jefferson's famous description of the scene at Harper's Ferry:

Jefferson's description of Harper's Ferry appeared in his Notes on the State of Virginia, which he first published in Paris in 1785. Jefferson stated that most of the book was compiled in 1781 and 1782 in response to a list of queries from the Secretary of the French Legation in American, Marquis Francais de Barbe-Marbois, a time-frame that predates his first visit to Harpers Ferry. Therefore, the passage on Harper's Ferry was a later interpolation.

In a letter to Horatio Spafford on May 14, 1809, in which he responded to suggestions that he had not actually seen Harper's Ferry when he wrote his Notes, Jefferson stated that his description had been inspired by a visit to Harper's Ferry in October of 1783. While Jefferson's memory in later years was prone to play him false, this is substantiated by payments noted in his memorandum book, which places him at Harper's Ferry on October 25. On that occasion, he was travelling to Philadelphia as a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress, accompanied by his elder daughter Patsy in his two-horse phaeton.

Jefferson's reference to the scene being "worth a journey across the Atlantic" is interesting because he had not yet gone abroad when he viewed Harper's Ferry in 1783, though the prospect of a sea-voyage was certainly on his mind. The Continental Congress had appointed him one of the commissioners to negotiate with the British in the winter of 1782-83, shortly after his wife's death, but his trip to Paris was forestalled by bad weather and the threat of capture by British warships. Jefferson did not begin his first voyage across the Atlantic until July of 1784, arriving (with daughter Patsy) in Paris in early August.

Seen in this context, Jefferson's description of Harper's Ferry, probably penned on the other side of the Atlantic, evinces a certain degree of homesickness.


Adams' visit to Harper's Ferry:

John Quincy Adams and other dignitaries and canal company officials travelled up the newly-opened C&O Canal to Harpers Ferry in May of 1834 and took a tour of the town, including the Armory. Adams, at the time a Senator from Massachusetts, might have been biased against the Harpers Ferry Armory as a rival to the Springfield Armory. However, his assessment of the inferiority of the works at Harpers Ferry was accurate, and he knew from his term as President that the Armory at Harper's Ferry had experienced management problems for most of its existence.

Adams also offered an interesting counterpoint to Jefferson's famous panegyric on the natural beauty of the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers at Harper's Ferry. The former president's deferential references to "Mr. Jefferson" are interesting, as he had long been acquainted with the legendary Virginian, first meeting him when Jefferson was an emissary to France and John Quincy was a precocious youth in Paris accompanying his father. His comments show that he was not overawed by the Sage of Monticello, and his comments on the view perhaps also reflect some residual animosity from a lengthy and bitter feud between Jefferson and his father that sprang from the election campaigns of 1796 and 1800.



John Quincy Adams' account of his visit to Harper's Ferry by canal-boat,
and impressions of the view from Jefferson's Rock:

May 23 -- I was up this morning before five o'clock, and my son John went with me over to Georgetown, to the landing-place of the Cheseapeake and Ohio Canal. There we found two canal-boats, one of them of cast-iron. They were filled with a company chiefly of members of Congress, and a few of them had their families with them; all invited by the President and Directors of the Cheseapeake and Ohio Canal Company to make an excursion to Harper's Ferry. My son left me at the landing-place and returned home. I entered the largest of the two boats, which was full of company, among whom a small number of ladies. The band of music of the Marine Corps were also there, distributed in the two boats. Mr. Charles F. Mercer, late President of the Corporation, and the real founder of the whole undertaking, was of the company. John P. Van Ness, Mayor of Washington, Mr. Coxe, of Georgetown, and Colonel Abert, a Director on the part of the Government, did the honors of the party.

The passage on the canal was very slow, and continually obstructed by the stoppage of the locks. Of these there are thirty-four between Georgetown and Harper's Ferry. There was a light collation and dinner, and, after it, some drinking of strong wine, which made some of the company loquacious and some drowsy. The band gave occasional reports of animating instrumental music. The canal almost the whole way follows close upon the course of the Potomac River; the country along the margin of which is generally beautiful, sometimes wild, and in other parts variously cultivated, but seemingly little inhabited. There is not a luxuriously comfortable country-seat on the whole way, nor one that bespeaks affluence and taste.

Harper's Ferry, May 24 -- At one o'clock we all dined together at the inn, and after dinner first visited the armory, where the rifles are made, but the works are not comparable to those at Springfield. We then ascended the hill which overlooks the college, and rested at the residence of Captain John P. Hall. There we saw the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, described somewhat enthusiastically by Mr. Jefferson. I went to the hanging rock, that bears his name, and observed the double range of precipitous rocky hills between which the river flows. It has some resemblance, on a smaller scale, to the course of the Elbe between Dresden and the borders of Bohemia. There is not much of the sublime in the scene, and those who first see it after reading Mr. Jefferson's description are usually disappointed.

Porte Crayon's description of the scenery at Harper's Ferry,
from his 1858 railroad excursion:

Harper's Ferry is situated on a point of land at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, and opposite the gap in the Blue Ridge through which the united streams pass onward to the sea. The fact that it is the seat of a national armory, and has been described in glowing language by Jefferson, may have given it a wider notoriety than the comparative merits of its scenery would justify; and the tourist who only gives it a passing glance may experience a feeling of disappointment. But if, instead of four hours, he should be fortunate enough to have four days at his disposal, or even four weeks, to pass in exploring the town and its environs, he can be no true lover of the sublime, romantic, and beautiful, if he fails to acknowledge that his time has been well spent, and that Harper's Ferry has justified her ancient renown.


  • Diary text from The Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Comprising Portions of His Diary from 1795 to 1848, as transcribed by Charles Francis Adams (Volume 8), also included in a single-volume selection edited by Allan Nevins.
  • Porte Crayon (David Hunter Strother) wrote about Harper's Ferry as a part of his article An Artist's Excursion on the the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, commissioned by Harper's New Monthly Magazine, and published in June, 1859--viewable on-line as a part of Cornell University's Making of America collection.
  • Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, published in 1787 in New York.
  • Diary of My Travels in America, Louis Philippe, King of France, 1830-1848, Translated by Stephen Becker, published by Delacorte Press, New York, NY, 1977. [Translated from Journal de Mon Voyage d'Amerique, published by Librairie Ernest Flammarion in 1976--includes a brief impression of the scenery at Harper's Ferry as it was in 1797.]
  • A Tour Through Part of Virginia in the Summer of 1808, by John Edwards Caldwell, originally published in Belfast, Ireland, 1810, edited by William M. E. Rachel and republished by the Dietz Press, Inc., Richmond, Virginia, 1951. [The letter dated June 11, 1808, from Harper's Ferry, includes a rare description of the batteau trade on the Potomac.]
  • Jefferson's Memorandum Books, Accounts with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767-1826, Volume 1, edited by James A. Bear, Jr. and Lucia C. Stanton, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. [See page 537]
  • Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology: The Challenge of Change, Merritt Roe Smith, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1977
  • Waterpower: Mills, Factories, Machines, and Floods at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia 1762-1991, David T. Gilbert, published by the Harpers Ferry Historical Association, 1999.
  • "John H. Hall, Virginia Gunmaker," by Philip R. Smith, Jr., in Virginia Cavalcade, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, Spring 1962. [Sadly, Virginia Cavalcade, published for 51 years by the Library of Virginia, has been cancelled as a part of massive State funding cutbacks in the Fall of 2002.]
  • Date of March 1, 1761 given for licensing of a ferry "... from the land of Robert Harper, in the county of Frederick, over Potowmack river, to his land on the opposite side, in the province of Maryland, the price for a man, three pence three farthings, and for a horse the same ...", from Statutes-at-Large of Virginia, compiled by William Waller Hening for the General Assembly and printed as a multi-volume series from 1819-1823.

Also on the Web:

  • Edward Beyer's Album of Virginia (drawings from his travels in 1857, published in 1858) on the Valley of the Shadow Web site includes two handsome illustrations of Harper's Ferry, one of the Armory and the railroad bridge, and the other a somewhat enhanced "view from Jefferson's Rock."
  • The John Brown page on the Valley of the Shadow Web site includes transcriptions of eyewitness accounts of the Harper's Ferry raid by Charles White, a minister visiting the town at the time of the raid, and Alexander Botelor, who owned Botelor's Mill near Shepherdstown.
  • The Library of Congress also has John Brown page for October 16 in its "Today in History" series.
  • See the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Web site for an extensive on-line collection of historical photographs.



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