Friday, September 11, 2015

Day 76: Exploring Harper’s Ferry

May 22: For breakfast, I had waffles provided by the hostel then hit the trail early. I didn’t get very far, however, before I was distracted by the sights of Harpers Ferry.


View of the Potomac River in the distance from Harpers Ferry. The bulging land in the distance on the left is Maryland. The bulge on the right is Virginia. And the foreground is West Virginia. There are three states in this photo!


I couldn’t possibly tell of all of the history surrounding this town. The entire city is a national historic park. George Washington himself selected the location as the national armory. Lewis—of Lewis and Clark fame—dropped by to acquire provisions for his little expedition across the country. (Ironically, Harpers Ferry wasn’t a good place for me to acquire provisions for my little expedition across the country—no grocery store in the whole town!) Harpers Ferry saw action during the Civil War when Stonewall Jackson captured it, and it’s been a major transportation hub due to it’s location with both the C&O Canal (now defunct) and the road as it’s one of the few low-level passes through the Appalachian Mountains.


Oh, and then, of course, there was John Brown’s raid, the single event that Harpers Ferry is probably most famous for. Somewhat remarkably, a group of about 20 men were able to take over the single armory housing almost the entire country’s arsenal. Briefly, at least. The raid ultimately proved to be a spectacular failure and John Brown was later tried and hanged in nearby Charles Town. Although the plan to start a slave revolt failed, the event heightened tensions further between the northern states (where John Brown was seen as a martyr) and the southern states (can’t trust those northerners!) and two years later, the United States had fallen into a civil war.

I knew a little about Harpers Ferry from school textbooks and my previous visit there during my first A.T. thru-hike, but this time I did a little advanced research about John Brown’s raid in particular by reading Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War—a thorough retelling of the event. This time when I walked through town, I would have a better sense about how the raid played out, where everyone was and where the killings took place. I knew John Brown had been captured alive and in a small engine building which still stands to this day (albeit a hundred or two feet away from its original location which has since been buried under a railroad), but I didn’t realize what a massacre the event had been. By the time the raid was over, there were dead bodies floating in both the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers as well as several more scattered throughout the town. In the heat of the moment, none of the bodies were picked up or removed, allowed to rot and decompose. To be fair, the townspeople weren’t entirely sure how many people were part of the raid or if they themselves would be shot (or shot at) if they went down to remove a body.


Church in Harpers Ferry


Walking through town now, it’s hard to imagine the rough-and-tumble town of yesteryears. It was a quiet and peaceful morning, the sun shining bright. The temperature was already quite warm despite the early morning hours and the streets were largely empty of traffic and people. None of the stores in town had yet opened. Of course, there were no longer bodies littered throughout the town or floating in the rivers. There was no sense of panic or urgency among the general public concerned about a slave uprising. Wandering around today, it seemed like any other quiet, cute little tourist town. The small town, in the 2010 census, boasted a population of 286 people. That’s it: 286 people. It was a remarkably small town for such a huge influence on the history of the United States. Back in the day when John Brown raided the armory, it boasted a population closer to 1,000 people, but that still seemed like a tiny number for such a huge, outsized influence on American history.


The Appalachian Trail runs right through the heart of Harpers Ferry, but I took about an hour to wonder off trail to tour where the federal armory was once located and read all of the informational signs about it (and there were a lot of them!)


I still had a full day of hiking ahead of me, however, and limited my off-trail wanderings to about an hour before I followed the trail over a railroad bridge crossing the Potomac River and into Maryland. After less than 24 hours, I had completed the West Virginia section of the Appalachian Trail! =)


The trail then followed the C&O (Chesapeake and Ohio) Canal for a few miles—a few gloriously, completely flat miles. Several bicyclists passed by me, then the trail crossed a set of railroad tracks and headed uphill into the mountains again.


The streets of Harpers Ferry were pretty quiet and relaxed this early in the morning—a stark contrast to the tension that would have been in the streets during John Brown’s raid.


The first shelter I reached was the Ed Garvey Shelter, a two-story structure. I went into it and read the last few pages of the register which had the usual hiker writings about what a great time people had in Harpers Ferry or (for those hikers heading southbound) looking forward to arriving in Harpers Ferry. I ate a snack and as I was munching on a gummi worm when I remembered… a hiker had died at this very shelter back in March. At least I thought it was this shelter, the first shelter on this side of Maryland.


I looked at the register and picked it up again, wondering how far back it went. I had heard the hiker died when a tree behind the shelter fell and struck him, and I remembered it happening either on or very near March 16th. I don’t normally remember dates so specifically months after the fact, but this one happened to be Amanda’s birthday so it kind of stuck out in my mind, and somewhat nervously, I started flipping back to March 16th.


The first entry that popped out was written was one that included a sketch of a tree and what looked somewhat like a gravestone that read “J.P. RIP”. It was dated March 16th and read, “Trees grow and die every day. In memory of the fallen one.” Below it was written more information, like a continuation of the entry but written in a different hand—like someone who wanted to explain the note a bit more. “On Mar 15, 2015, a tree fell just behind this shelter and Jason Parrish was killed.”


This monument marks the original location of the engine house where John Brown was finally captured. The engine house is now a short ways away from its original location—you can see it in the background of the photo! The original site was covered with dirt and gravel when a railroad line was run through. That line has long since been removed, but the dirt and gravel to raise the railroad above the flood plain is still there. Originally, the ground was probably 10-15 feet lower than where it is now.


The next several entries I found difficult to read. A sense of loss and sorry hit me hard. I didn’t know the guy, but he was a hiker and trees fall all of the time. The likelihood of being struck by one is low—wrong place at the wrong time—but this was as close as it had come to me. I was hiking this trail when he was killed. Admittedly, I was a thousand miles to the south at the time, but a lot of bad weather had hit the area there as well. One of the register entries a few days after the event mentioned being able to see a blood stain on the log that that killed Jason.


It occurred to me that it’s possible Jason himself had signed this register before he was killed, but if he did, he used a trailname because I didn’t find any entries that appeared to be him. The last register entry before he was killed kind of tugged at my heart as well: “Spending the night after a big day – 4 miles. First night with other backpackers. Friendly group. A little rain today but nice. Into H.F. [Harpers Ferry] to resupply and back on the trail. Hope to do about 15 [miles] tomorrow. Lookout NOBO’s [northbounders]—heading south!” It was signed The Duke. Could that have been Jason? I don’t know.


It was dated the 14th, the day before Jason was killed. Even if it wasn’t Jason, though, it’s very well likely the person who wrote that was at the shelter the next morning when Jason was killed. He might still have gone into Harper’s Ferry that day, but I kind of suspect he didn’t walk the 15 miles south like he’d originally planned. It’s a little sad reading an entry like that. So full of excitement and plans for the future, knowing the tragedy that would strike the next morning and throwing all that out the window.


I left the shelter feeling more than a little sad and depressed. Life can really suck sometimes, and random acts of God suck even more. On my way out, I couldn’t help but take a closer look behind the shelter for the tree that killed Jason. I didn’t notice it on my way in, but someone had created a large cross out of branches and a large, noticeable tree laid on the ground nearby. I didn’t see any blood stains, but it was over two months later now. I didn’t really want to see blood stains either, though, and didn’t really search for them.


A close-up of the engine house where John Brown was finally captured. It’s one of the few original structures from Harpers Ferry to survive the Civil War.


I continued onwards, eventually stopping for the night at the Rocky Run Shelter. When I arrived, the shelter and area was packed with people. It was Memorial Day weekend and I expected a heck of a lot of people on the trail this weekend, but it was a little dispiriting to see what seemed like a hundred people milling around and setting up camp. One level of the shelter was filled with a bunch of students from Roanoke College and they surrounded a campfire they had started.


I sat down to rest a bit and eat a snack thinking I might go on a bit more and find somewhere to camp that wasn’t infested with so many people. Until Heavyweight and Superman arrived shortly after I did and decided to stay in the shelter. It was kind of remarkable, really, that there was any room in the shelter at all given the huge numbers of people camped in the area, but the college students took up one level of the two levels of the shelter and I think it “scared off” other hikers from trying to get in. Other hikers… except us thru-hikers who’ll barge our way into anything. =)


I really enjoy the company of Heavyweight and Superman, though, and decided to stay at the shelter after all to hang out with them. They quickly made friends with the college students—about their age and I figured they were probably checking out the girls (who were, I’ll admit, very cute). So we regaled them with tales from the trail. They were actually out for a class which must be the best class ever because I never got to backpack for any of my classes! They were actually backpacking several sections of the Appalachian Trail during the school term, and this time they were out for about 5 days, if I remember correctly.


Eventually we all headed off to sleep, though, and that was the end of the day.


The trail crosses the Potomac River on this railroad bridge. This river also marks the dividing line between West Virginia and Maryland. (I took this photo from West Virginia, but that hill back there is Maryland.)


The trail followed the C&O Canal towpath for several wonderfully, easy and flat miles!


Some of the men from John Brown’s raid who were shot while trying to ford the Potomac got caught up on the rocks. The river is really quite rocky!


This is a bridge that cars can use to cross the Potomac.


I took a quick snack break under the bridge where the trail came out next to the river.


Turtle on the trail!!!!



This pair of railroad tracks essentially marked the end of the flat C&O Canal walk. =(


Looking down on the Potomac River.


Snake on the trail!


The Ed Garvey Shelter where Jason was killed.


A very somber shelter register.


The memorial created for Jason. The cross is made out of branches and I actually missed it when I walked into the shelter. The log behind it (I assume—it was the only fallen tree close behind the shelter that looked fairly fresh) is the tree that killed Jason.


Caterpillar hiking the trail!


The War Correspondent's Memorial in Gathland SP.




The Rocky Run Shelter actually had a second, smaller shelter hidden further up the trail from the new one where Heavyweight, Superman, the college students and myself stayed—and they got this nice covered chair/swing to sit on!


Campfire for the night!


Unknown said...

I found myself looking for the > so I could see and hear the fire crackle

Anonymous said...

Loved the history contained in this post - and seeing the wonderful pics of HF. RIP Jason.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading your Harper's Ferry post especially since I live in the area. Got to the bottom to this comment section and was shocked to see an advert for a concealed gun holster. Do you choose the adverts that appear on your blog and do they reflect your position on gun control (or lack thereof)?

I feel compelled to relate a story to you. I just returned from a month in Canada. Here's what one Canadian told me (verbatim): 'After Sandy Hook when nothing happened (to change the gun control laws), I just figured, well if it's all right to kill little kids, then I guess nothing will ever change.'

Sadly, I have to agree and sadly I won't be following your blog any longer. I have enjoyed it and will miss it.

Emily M.

Mary said...

Emily - Ryan does NOT select his ads! Click on the tiny arrow in the upper right hand corner of the ad and it'll state the ad has been chosen for you because of your browsing history. The ads rotate and it's ironic you viewed a gun holster. The ad I just viewed was for Goodyear tires. I have no interest in or browsing history of tires of any kind. Don't blame Ryan for the ads.

Of course it's not OK to kill little kids and there are gun control laws in effect. That young man was mentally ill and hated his mother so he killed her and kids and adults at her school. Don't blame the gun laws - blame his parents for allowing an unbalanced person to have access to guns (his mother was a hunter). Personally, I'm scared of guns, don't like hunting or fishing and wish everyone who owned guns was a loving and responsible person. Mary R.

Jaxx said...

Geesh Emily,

You don't like guns so you're not going to continue to read a blog that has absolutely nothing to do with a pro or anti gun position?

That's just weird ........

Lovin' the blog and the stories, Ryan. Glad you finished the AT safely


Anonymous said...

Yes, there is little in the way of shopping in downtown Harpers Ferry. You have to go up to the highway above the park service visitors center in WV, and find the KOA campground.. They have a small store, or hitch down the highway to Walmart.

Unknown said...

Enjoyed the information on Harper's Ferry!
The post is a bit sad (to me, anyway) RIP JP
-only dreaming *

Ryan said...

No, I don't select the ads that are displayed. I just leave a space for Google to fill in with an ad that they feel is best, so you'll probably see that ad on ANY website that uses Google AdSense (which is a lot of them!). You can mark your displeasure with the ad, however, by clicking that arrow in the upper-right corner. In theory, Google will use that information to better target ads to your taste (which, in theory, won't include anything to do with a pro-gun stance!)

Also, if you refresh the page, you'll likely see a different ad every time. So just refresh the page and you likely won't see it again. =)