Harpers Ferry Old Armory Grounds

Harpers Ferry National Historical Site opened the grounds of the old armory earlier this year following some years of archeological work.  A short trail, on the ground between the Potomac Street berm and the railroad line features interpretive waysides, several with 3D features.   Henry T. McLin of Hanover, PA cataloged most of these earlier in the year, adding to our coverage of Harpers Ferry.

The story of the Armory began in the 1790s with a bill passed by the US Congress approving the establishment of armories and magazines.  President George Washington selected Harpers Ferry as the second (the first being Springfield, Massachusetts).  With the purchase of 125-acres in 1796, and construction commencing in 1799, the “United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry” took shape.  Activity at the Armory passed through several highs and lows.  By 1810, small arms production reached 10,000.  However by the 1840s the production facilities lapsed into less functional states, suffering from limited funding.  The War Department improved facilities over 1845-54 with new workshops, machinery, mill works, and increased staffing.  At the time of John Brown’s Raid in 1859, the facility employed 400 workers.

Displays at Harpers Ferry today, in the “industrial exhibits” building, show examples of the equipment used at the armory and musket factory.

Duplicating Lathe for Stocks
Duplicating Lathe for Stocks
Rifling Machine
Rifling Machine

The Arsenal produced several generations of small arms ranging from the early flintlocks, to Hall pattern breechloaders, to the percussion cap muskets at the eve of the Civil War.   Some sources credit the arsenal for housing some 100,000 weapons by 1859, in readiness for issue in the advent of a war.  Most readers will recall, the Armory was the initial objective of John Brown’s Army which attacked Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859 – specifically those muskets which Brown intended to use to arm freed slaves and others who joined his war of abolition in the mountains.  Thus, one might say the “war” came to the muskets, instead of the muskets going to war.  Of course, events did not turn out as planned in 1859, and the muskets were not used for THAT rebellion.

In April 1861, with the announcement of the secession of Virginia, the Armory lay within grasp of that state’s militia.  On April 18, 1861, 1st Lieutenant Roger Jones at Harpers Ferry sized up the situation and determined the Arsenal must be destroyed to prevent capture.  He reported burning up most of the facilities and 15,000 stand of arms.  A later report prepared by Lieutenant Colonel William Maynadier of the Ordnance Department detailed the loss of “20,507 arms of different models in store,” $270,235 worth of machinery, $109,560 worth of tools, and $193,616 of parts and materials.  [OR, Series I, Vol. 2, Serial No. 2, pp. 4-6]

However, some of the equipment was salvageable.  Confederates sent tools and machinery south to seed a fledgling armaments industry.  But with Harpers Ferry untenable in the face of threats from Maryland Heights, in June 1861 the Confederates (under a Colonel Thomas J. Jackson) withdrew from the town, leaving behind a burned and pillaged Armory.

Photos from 1862 indicate at least some of the buildings survived.  One looks at the Armory from the east, down what is today Potomac Street.

Armory Ruins, 1862 (Historic Photo Collection, Harpers Ferry NHP)
Armory Ruins, 1862 (Historic Photo Collection, Harpers Ferry NHP)

From another view looking at the Armory from the west, at a higher elevation, the damage is much more apparent.

Overlook of the Armory, 1862 (Historic Photo Collection, Harpers Ferry NHP)
Overlook of the Armory, 1862 (Historic Photo Collection, Harpers Ferry NHP)

After the war, the Government sold off the site, with portions becoming a paper mill.  By the 1930s, even that endeavor had grown stale.  The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad purchased easements and improved the rail lines into what had been the Armory.  Three different rail lines (the original used in 1836-1893, a second used 1894-1930, and the last dating to 1931) have traversed the grounds.  Today only portions of the once vital Armory remain uncovered by the rail lines.

Armory Site from the Berm
Armory Site from the Berm

The armory canal, which provided water power to the engines and machinery, is visible upstream, west of the modern train station.  But around the main Armory area seen here the course is covered by the berm left by the second rail line.

Railroad Berm
Railroad Berm

However, the old wall along the Potomac River remains.

River Wall
River Wall

Along the wall are a few depressions, lined with carefully laid stones – the remains of tailraces.

Tailrace
Tailrace

The output flow of water from the turbines passed through these holes and out to the Potomac.

Output Hole in a Tailrace
Output Hole in a Tailrace

The site is, as mentioned above, well marked and interpreted.  Locations of structures are roped off to help the visitor visualize the foundation traces.

Trace of the Forging Shop
Trace of the Forging Shop

The larger wayside type markers feature three-dimensional displays which aid the descriptions of items found during archeological excavations or historical research.

Examples of Artifiacts
Examples of Artifacts

My four year old “Aide-de-Camp” liked these displays in particular, providing something to touch and ask questions about.  Much more so than the standard photos and illustrations.

Replica Lockplate
Replica Lockplate from 1855 Rifle

The trail is not much more than a few hundred feet, but just enough off the beaten path at Harpers Ferry it is overlooked by many.  I would suggest visitors mark this as a “must see” site, allocating 10-15 minutes on their itineraries.  I have included the markers in this area within a related set at the Historical Marker Database.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

7 thoughts on “Harpers Ferry Old Armory Grounds

  1. Craug
    Thanks for these pictures. I visited the park briefly in 2006 but didn’t get to see this part of it. I went over to Virginius Island to visit the site of Herr’s Mill.

    I bought some good books on HF at the park. This year while doing some research I found a reference to Col. Geary (28th PA) burning an Iron Foundry in “Shenandoah City” after the battle of Boliver Hts. in 1861. I wrote the park service about this because they had ruins of 2 iron works on Virginius Island, and thought one had been destroyed in 1862 by fire. I may have discovered a clue for them which would be great. I love the job they do there. There is so much to see.

    Again Thanks so much for all the photos.
    Brad

  2. Craig,

    Excellent series on HF and environs!

    I visited HF late in 2009 and saw that the boat landing in the Potomac River wall was cleared of trees, thank you Park Service.

    Does the photo showing the engine house and armory grounds not show Potomac Street which would be to the left of the engine house mostly out of sight in this picture?

    My draft HF chapter is almost done.

    Larry

  3. Craig,

    In another visit to the HF research library I read that the street in the armory was in fact named Potomac Street as you show. Sometime in the 1840’s or so the alley that is today’s Potomac Street was enhanced and the named was transferred I guess. I have not found out the new name for the first Potomac Street however–maybe Armory Street nor the exact time it was changed? But definitely during the CW, the name Potomac Street was applied only to the one we see today.

    I see that there are plans to move the firehouse back to its original spot and do some enhancements in that area. I can send you the link to that material if you have interest.

    Larry

    1. Larry,
      I would be interested in the plans to move the fire house.

      Are they planning to cut down the berm next to the railroad?

      Craig.

    2. Craig,

      Looks like part of the berm will be modified so the fire house can occupy its original site.

      I just found an historic base map showing the lower town 1815-1865. It shows that the alley was widened to become the “new” Potomac Street in 1856. Three buildings were partially or wholly removed for the widening in 1855. The map also shows that the street in the Ferry Lot which now is in front of the firehouse and was the street between the commercial buildings there was called Potomac Street as it aligned with the “old” Potomac Street. My guess is that after all of those commercial buildings were destroyed in March 1862 by the Union (those which were extant after the Rebs destroyed much in 1861) this doglegged part likely had no name since it was no longer a street between buildings.

      I have a copy of this map from the HF Research Library.
      It is from a pub named “Cultural Landscape Report: Lower Town, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park,” 1993.

      Larry

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