Playing House
With a toddler and two 15-year-olds in tow, Bill Heavey decides to go camping the easy way in Harpers Ferry

By Bill Heavey
Sunday, September 23, 2001

Sometimes, the reservation Gods smile on you. As my wife, Jane, and I leafed through the brochure of 28 cabins owned and leased at rock-bottom rates by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, we saw that nearly all were categorized as "primitive" or "semi-primitive." At these places, you bring your own candles, use an outhouse, collect and chop wood to replenish the woodpile and haul your own water from nearby springs.

No problem, we thought. That's what a weekend of family camping is all about. We were charmed by the description of tiny Sugar Knob, a stone hut built in 1920 as a forest ranger's outpost in the George Washington National Forest and now a PATC favorite ("the consumate backpackers' sanctuary"). Then we realized that, at 10 feet square, it would be a bit too cozy for two adults, a 16-month-old baby, a 15-year-old daughter and her friend.

Rock Spring, a cabin on the western slope of Hawksbill Mountain that may soon be listed in the National Register of Historic Places, was described as a square-timbered, stone-floored beauty that easily sleeps eight. Unfortunately, it also featured a precipitous drop-off right in front of the cabin, not a safe and sane choice for Emma, a toddler with a serious adrenaline habit.

Then we chanced upon Highacre, one of the four "modern" PATC properties, a three-story Victorian house built in 1887. The place boasts four bedrooms, a bathroom, electricity, oil heat, running water, a refrigerator and range, a porch stretching around two sides of the house and a view overlooking two rivers and three states at Harpers Ferry, W.Va. "Look," said Jane, her voice deepening. "Why couldn't we get this one?" I recognized this tone instantly. It was the one she gets when she is reading about a particularly juicy piece of real estate in the Sunday paper and is about to have an episode of Early Onset House Lust. A woman affected by this syndrome is not to be trifled with. I read the copy and considered all we would be giving up. Boiling our drinking water to fend off giardia. Cold sponge baths in the dark. Drama-in-real-life moments as we raced to foil the baby's attempts to plunge headfirst down the outhouse. "Okay," I said. "It's probably impossible to get. But we'll shoot for it."

Long story short, we got it.

Harpers Ferry is one of those places that are so popular with Washingtonians that nobody goes there anymore. You do it once after you first get here, then never visit again unless you have out-of-town guests who want to see it. Walking down High Street, one of the town's main drags, past the many small museums in restored period buildings that make up Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, is oddly like walking down M Street in Georgetown on a Saturday: You are likely to hear nearly as many tourists speaking foreign languages as English. Climbing the short, steep path above the town to the overlook at Jefferson Rock, I heard a man tell his companion, "You know, I drive past here every day and haven't been up here in 25 years. It's really a heck of a nice view." As a native Washingtonian, I can tell you that this is precisely my own relationship to the Washington Monument.

Harpers Ferry is, of course, best known as the site of abolitionist John Brown's raid on the U.S. Armory and Arsenal in 1859 with a 21-member force that included five black men. The raid was quickly put down and Brown was hanged up the road in Charles Town. But Brown -- who had failed at a number of businesses in four states, who had seen his first wife and nine children die before him, and who once sank so low that he confided to a friend that he wished he were dead -- went to the gallows believing he had succeeded. In a speech to the court that had just sentenced him to death, Brown was utterly composed. "I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, I did not wrong but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say let it be done."

As one journalist from the time is said to have remarked, it was fairly easy to put John Brown up on a scaffold; it would be much harder to take him down. His death created a martyr for abolitionists, worsened the already strained relations between the North and South and is credited with hastening the start of the Civil War. And if you are one of those naive souls who believe that conflict was resolved long ago, you need only check out two competing memorials in the town. One is a large granite boulder bearing one of the more twisted pieces of rhetoric you will ever read, placed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans. It commemorates the death of Heyward Shepherd, "an industrious and respected colored freeman" who, ironically, was the first man killed by Brown's raiders. It reads, in part:

Memorial To Heyward Shepherd

Exemplifying the Character And

Faithfulness Of Thousands Of

Negroes Who Under Many

Temptations Throughout

Subsequent Years Of War, So

Conducted Themselves That

No Stain Was Left Upon A Record

Which Is The Peculiar Heritage

Of The American People, And An

Everlasting Tribute To The Best

In Both Races.

The Jefferson County Branch of the NAACP fired back just this summer with its own, much smaller plaque, dedicated to "a group of men led by John Brown, who at Harpers Ferry, on October 17, 1859, Struck A Blow Against Slavery."

We drove up the steep incline of Church Street and past the gates of Highacre on Friday afternoon in two cars carrying the bare minimum required to sustain a baby for 48 hours: 150 diapers, 300 wipes, nine changes of clothes, baby gates, a stroller, a portable crib and an economy-size box of Gerber's Rice Cereal With Iron. Between us, Jane and I had four bikes, one with a baby seat, strapped to the backs of our vehicles. We were determined to get out for a family ride. I was even more optimistic. I'd brought a novel and a cigar. I didn't really expect to use either of them, but the first rule of camping is to be prepared.

The three-story, brick-red house sat on a hill overlooking Harpers Ferry. Just above it was the town's four-acre graveyard. Just below stood the ruins of St. John's Episcopal Church, which was destroyed in the Civil War. You could also see the steeple of St. Peter's, an old Catholic church still in operation. The Appalachian Trail skirted one edge of the property at Jefferson Rock, where the great man surveyed the view and pronounced it "worth a voyage across the Atlantic." All in all, not a bad spot for $55 a night.

There were orange day lilies growing wildly all over the property. The lawn was freshly clipped. A legless Weber grill sat on a stone pedestal that might have once held a birdbath. As I got out of the car, a bright orange bird with a black head looped down out of one tree and up into another. It was a Baltimore oriole, a bird I hadn't seen in years. Over the front door another bird, a little one with a rose-colored breast, had built a nest. Buoyed by these omens, we ferried our stuff inside the large house, trying not to slam the screen door and scare the bird. It didn't feel like a rental; it felt like we'd shown up at a house willed to us by a relative we'd never met.

The place was clean, airy, sparsely furnished and huge, with high ceilings, a living room with a sofa and comfortable chairs, and a big dining room with a bank of windows looking out over the ruins of St. John's and, way off in the distance, the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. Even the girls were impressed. "Wow," said Molly, our 15-year-old. "Cool place." The first order of business was to block the stairs with a baby gate and turn Emma loose. Energized by the challenge of new floor space, she began babbling and motoring the circular plan of the downstairs in the counterclockwise style of NASCAR drivers: front hall, kitchen, dining room, living room, front hall, kitchen, dining room, living room. Molly and her friend, Kendra, immediately ran upstairs and staked out the biggest bedroom. Jane and I set up the baby's crib in one bedroom and took the one next to it ourselves. Then, seeking to immerse ourselves as fully as possible in the local culture, we went grocery-shopping at the Wal-Mart six miles away in Charles Town. That night, we fired up the Weber and grilled tuna steaks, then took the baby outside to show her the lightning bugs dancing in the yard.

Harpers Ferry makes a swell place for a getaway, family or otherwise. The restored town is tiny, scarcely four blocks, yet contains more than 30 sites and exhibits detailing its rich history. It's very safe, the kind of place where you feel perfectly at ease letting the kids walk downtown unaccompanied for an ice cream. The views of mountain bluffs and water are good in virtually any direction. You can walk or bike the nearby C&O Canal towpath along the Potomac, hike up to overlooks of the confluence at Maryland Heights and Loudoun Heights, or go fishing for smallmouth bass on your own or with longtime

local guide and fly-fishing instructor Mark Kovach. There's a stable offering trail rides nearby. The battlefield at Antietam is a short drive away. And if your imagination fails utterly, you can always drive up the road to Charles Town and go antiquing.

The town traces its founding to 1747, when a traveling architect named Robert Harper on his way to the Shenandoah Valley to build a Quaker church stopped by "The Hole," where the Potomac and Shenandoah meet. He was so taken with its beauty, potential for water power and strategic location for transportation that he settled here and established a town. By the time he died 35 years later, the place had exploded into a metropolis of three houses. But Harper, an optimist, had set aside four acres on a hill overlooking the town as a cemetery for those who would surely come after him.

Come they did. But even today, there is lots of elbow room in the cemetery. The reasons why are bound up in the sad history of Harpers Ferry, whose very success as a manufacturing center for arms contained the seeds of its downfall.

Harper's vision for the town's success came true shortly after he died. The establishment of the U.S. Armory and Arsenal here in 1799 soon transformed the place into an industrial center of 3,000 people. By the outbreak of the Civil War, Harpers Ferry had manufactured more than 600,000 muskets, rifles and pistols. John H. Hall refined the famous "uniformity principle" in manufacturing firearms here, whereby machines produced parts so accurately sized that they were interchangeable, a development that was the foundation of the American factory system. And here James Burton developed his improved Minie bullet, the design that was to prove so lethal in the Civil War.

The convergence of three different railroads and the opening of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in the 1830s further increased the town's prosperity. Trains brought seafood from Chesapeake Bay. Farmers brought fresh produce into town markets. There were seven hardware stores, five shoemakers, four taverns and six churches. Harpers Ferry was filled with the sound of hammers and the smell of burning coal.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Stonewall Jackson and Frederick Douglass would all make their way to Harpers Ferry at some point. It was Jefferson, looking down from the rock now bearing his name, who declared, "The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature. You stand on a very high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain a hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac 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."

Few places in the country felt the brunt of the Civil War as keenly as Harpers Ferry. Trapped on the border between North and South, of great strategic importance to both sides, the town was taken and lost eight times between 1861 and 1865. Less than 24 hours after Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17, 1861, Federal troops burned the Armory and Arsenal to deny arms to the Confederacy. Rebel troops under Thomas Jonathan Jackson (not yet known as "Stonewall") then took the town, dismantled the surviving weapons-producing machinery and shipped it south. When the Confederates left the town two months later, they blew up the railroad bridge and burned most of the remaining factory buildings. The townspeople decided this was not the place to weather the war. Most left and never came back.

On Saturday morning before the older girls got up, Jane and I took Emma over to see Jefferson Rock. Trees that must not have been there in Jefferson's time blocked our view of the confluence, but we could still see the Shenandoah, high and chocolatey after a rain, with white froth forming where it slid fast across rock ledges. A family of hikers wearing ponchos and Christian baseball hats came down the paved walkway, which is part of the Appalachian Trail. They'd started at the southern end, Springer Mountain in Georgia, about two months earlier and were going as far as New Jersey. The told us the whole Georgia-to-Maine trail is 2,160 miles long and takes about six months to hike. Then they disappeared almost without breaking stride, as if obeying some magnetic pull of the trail.

Later that day, we saddled up our bikes and glided the short distance down High Street, past the John Brown Wax Museum and the Molly the Rebel Antiques shop, to the footbridge that crosses the Potomac to the towpath in Maryland. It was a cool day, the sky spitting a little rain. We rode upriver, startling the occasional woodchuck munching grass at the side of the path, which would then dive into the poison ivy lining the riverbank. We passed a fair number of other riders on the path. Nearly everyone waved or called a hello. If your familiarity with the towpath is restricted to the section between Georgetown and Fletcher's Boat House, you may need a little while to get used to all this sociability. Don't take it personally.

We came home for lunch, and then Molly and Kendra went back into town to scope out the local teen scene. A number of young people have weekend jobs staffing the park's museums, where they dress in period costume and explain 19th-century life in places like the Provost Marshal's Office and Arsenal Square. Jane described seeing a girl in a bonnet and long skirt leaning a hip against a boy's muscle car and purring, "So what's up, baby cakes?"

I took a nap with Emma sleeping on my chest and woke up with my shirt soaked with baby drool. The sun had come out, so Jane and I adjourned to the porch, where she sat at the head of the steps to intercept the baby and I sat in the swing and lit up the cigar. Emma ignored us both, busy trying to get a handle on ants, the tiniest black windup toys she had ever seen. "Rab agga!" she said to them. "Rami atta bwah!" It made as much sense as anything I'd ever said to an ant.

"This is great," Jane said after a few minutes. I let that remark hang in the air for a while. "What is?" I finally asked. "This," she said, gesturing to the air, the porch, the baby. "Do you know how long it's been since we could just sit and enjoy the baby? No place to go, nothing to do? It's been months. Look at Emma. She's totally focused on watching that ant. Ever since we had Emma our life has just been whizzing by and we hardly ever stop long enough to, you know, taste it."

My wife had a point. I took a puff on my cigar. It had a pleasant flavor of earth, of something brought to fruition slowly, patiently. Neither of us said anything for a while. Another Baltimore oriole -- or perhaps the same one -- flew down out of a tree and circled up to a higher perch in another tree.

That evening, I took Emma over the wall that separates Highacre from the graveyard. It was twilight, and there were robins out, not so much looking for worms as standing there ceremoniously among the tombstones like church wardens whose job it is to look solemn. In the background, we could hear the sound of the rivers coming together. Day lilies grew abundantly around some of the tombstones, which date mostly from the 19th century and have settled into the earth at odd angles. Many are so weathered as to be unreadable. Emma and I stopped to trace our hands over one that was still legible. "Sacred to the Memory of Emily Jane Hite," it read. "Aged 37 years, 6 months and 12 days." Emma fingered the orange lichen that was slowly reclaiming the rock. "She was an affectionate wife, a pious and Consistent Christian, a warm and steadfast friend. Come; Expresive [sic] silence, muse her praise." We stood there as the slant of the light increased and the first lightning bugs signaled from the darkness of the woods. You could do worse, I thought, than to have your grave overgrown by day lilies, the rain and lichen slowly wearing your stone illegible, with the sound of two rivers applauding each other in the distance.

We wandered up to a spic-and-span

little house at the top of the hill and ran into Arthur Stewart, who does most of the mowing in the cemetery and who has lived here for 35 years. There were hoses coiled neatly, a plastic duck leading three ducklings by the hedge, a little painted wooden sailor holding an American flag. And behind the house, he had a double glider swing with an amazing view of the cemetery and the Potomac. "It's nice and quiet here," he volunteered. "Nobody bothers you. Just me and the wife." I remarked on the beautiful view and said he must enjoy it. "Well, you get so you kinda take it for granted. Tell you the truth, what I do, I like to watch the planes come by when it's not too cloudy." That made sense. City people long for quiet. Country people long for noise.

Emma and I walked back down the hill to the house, which, with all its lights on, looked like a ship that had come to rest at a berth overlooking the town. We walked up the porch steps quietly, so as not to disturb the rose-breasted bird secure in its nest over the door.

Nobody said much over dinner, feeling the Sunday night melancholy that descends when you are preparing to leave a place you don't want to leave. After dinner, we loaded the baby gates and the bicycles, stripped the beds and swept the floors. We locked all the windows and emptied the trash. I did a final walk-through, my steps echoing in the empty house, and found a hairbrush under one bed and a bicycle glove under another.

As we drove out, the headlights threw giant shadows of the day lilies against the undersides of the leaves on the trees. After a while, Jane sighed. "Maybe it's just middle age," she said, "but I could get used to this kind of camping."


Membership in the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (703-242-0315; is $30 a year, and cabins rent for $15 to $55 per night. Twelve of the PATC cabins are let out to members and the public; 16, including Highacre, are for members only.

Mark Kovach Fishing Services (301-588-8742) has been guiding both fly-fishing and spin anglers along an eight-mile section of the Potomac at Harpers Ferry for more than 20 years. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (304-535-6298 or 304-535-6029; offers hiking trails of various lengths and difficulty, including the Virginius Island, Maryland Heights, Loudoun Heights, Jefferson Rock, Bolivar Heights and Camp Hill trails. Rock climbing is permitted in specific locations, though you have to sign in. Call for maps and information. -- B.H.

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