Harpers Ferry – a History Steeped in Irony
I’m standing in the middle of the footbridge across the Potomac River at Harper’s Ferry looking downstream. Beneath me flows the nation’s river that at this point in its journey, drained six million acres of land.
Just downstream to my right the waters from another two million acres join the Potomac – it’s the Shenandoah River. Our farm, 135 miles upstream is part of the beginning of that River.
The Potomac will empty into the Chesapeake Bay 165 miles downstream from this bridge.
Harper’s Ferry is a magical place. In 1783 Jefferson wrote, “The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature”. Indeed, seeing all this water vent through the “hole” in the Blue Ridge Mountains is austere.
Indeed, all this water generated power for one the country’s first industrial complexes and one of our nation’s largest armory and arsenal prior to the American Civil War.
It was here 1803 that Captain Meriwether Lewis purchased rifles, ammunition and other supplies for the Lewis and Clark expedition and it was here that abolitionist John Brown pulled the trigger that began the purging of slavery from our land.
The history of Harper’s Ferry is steeped in irony.
Today the water in the river is clear and so is our path for the equality of human rights for all. It wasn’t so clear in 1859 when John Brown and his band of men captured the US Arsenal and took hostages in hopes of inciting an insurrection of the slaves.
Ironically the first person killed by Brown’s raiders was a free black man, Hayward Shepard.
John Brown was convicted of treason. He was hung in Charles Town, Virginia (later to become West Virginia). John Wilkes Booth, who later assassinated Abraham Lincoln, witnessed the hanging. Brown’s raid itself failed but it lit the fuse that started the American Civil War and the end of slavery.
I’ve been on this bridge when the waters were as brown as a chocolate milkshake. Sediment, nutrients, pathogens, and toxins enter the water from poor land use. Polluted water hurts everyone downstream. Ironically, we know what pollutes the water and the Chesapeake Bay and we know how to clean it up yet there are so many people who just don’t care or are not willing to do their part on their land to keep from harming those downstream. After all, what we do on our land directly affects the water leaving our land.
There are streams throughout the Bay Watershed that are being delisted from the nation’s dirty waters list because the people in those watersheds are banding together to clean them up. One of the best things happening for the Bay is farmers fencing their livestock out of their streams and installing riparian buffers. Wastewater Treatment Plants are being upgraded throughout the watershed and when streams get clean enough, native trout are coming back.
The path to restored streams and the Chesapeake Bay is clear…we need to keep going and we need to persuade more people to do their part. The Chesapeake Bay is on its way to being restored. How about the stream in your backyard or on your farm? Let me know if I can help you move forward.
© Robert Whitescarver