Ghosts, here in our own Potomac River valley? You bet your broomsticks. Combine your foliage and Halloween getaways this weekend in a trip to Harpers Ferry, a town full of legends from its violent past, and you'll learn about Confederate spies and phantom armies, a freed slave searching for his family, buried gold, a priest who walks through brick walls, a whimpering drummer boy, staircases that tremble . . .
Harpers Ferry, where the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers meet and Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland touch, was originally a trading center for trappers. When Robert Harper took up residence there in the late 1700s, he ran a ferry crossing the two rivers. During the Civil War, an arsenal and armory there served the Union forces, and the town's population boomed because the location was crucial to troop movements.
Today Harpers Ferry and Bolivar, a neighboring village, have few residents -- live ones, at least -- but lots of visitors. The National Park Service maintains the old buildings primarily for their historical value: where Union rifles and muskets were made, where battles were fought, where abolitionist John Brown raided the arsenal.
The ghosts? Harpers Ferry's past has given it plenty. Shirley Dougherty, who runs the Iron Horse Inn restaurant across from the railroad station, offers "ghost tours," as the Park Service used to, and you can sign up for them. Or, with her book available at the National Park Service bookstore at the corner of Shenandoah and High streets, you can run your own tour. Dougherty's book of local lore and legend,A Ghostly Tour of Harpers Ferry, sells for $3.50; at the Little Brown House bookstore there's also a booklet called Ghost Tours of Harpers Ferry, with a map and record, for $3.95.
Then go scare yourself. Here's a sampling:
The house of the superintendent of the armory was where the Iron Horse Inn is now, near the railroad tracks crossing from West Virginia to Maryland. The building alternately housed Confederate and Union troops, and was auctioned by the government after the war. Residents have reported that the stairs periodically shake violently -- a reminder of the violent death of a Confederate spy shot point-blank as he unknowingly ran up them into Union officer quarters.
Walk up the steps near the Iron Horse Inn to High Street and turn left. In that building, the Town House, people say they hear a little boy crying as if for his mother. He's said to be a Confederate drummer boy, kept by the Union soldiers to wash their clothes, clean their guns and shine their shoes. One night, being tossed from one drunken soldier to another, he fell out the window to his death.
During John Brown's raid, townspeople would fire anything they could find from their powder-loaded guns, including six-inch spikes. One of those spikes hit the throat of Dangerfield Newby, a former slave who was trying to earn enough money to buy the freedom of his wife and seven children. Incensed by Brown's raid, the townsfolk mutilated Newby's body and left it for the swine in Hog Alley, between High and Potomac streets. Since then, visitors have reported seeing a man wearing baggy trousers and an old slouch hat, with a scar across his throat: Dangerfield Newby, still trying to free his family.
After the armory was built, the Union forces no longer needed the storage shacks they'd built near the railroad tracks, so the poor moved into them, heating them with kerosene lamps. One night, a woman came running down the railroad ties screaming for help, her dress afire. She was hit by the night train and killed instantly. For years afterward, engineers coming through the tunnel on the Maryland side of the bridge said they saw a ball of fire coming down the tracks, then heard a thud under the train. She's called Screaming Jenny.
Several years ago there was a string of drownings in the swift Potomac and Shenandoah; each time the same man reported the drownings. Dressed in a checked shirt and baggy trousers, he would come dashing up from the river, grab a tourist or ranger and report that someone was in trouble in the river. Later, a Park Service ranger going through old photographs found a man's picture that looked just like him: Mosha Fine, a peddler who drowned in the rivers during the 1920s.
Another old man, found loitering in the park during the summer of 1974, looked so much like John Brown that he earned the nickname John B. or Johnny B. Good. Enjoying some popularity, he posed for tourists' cameras all summer. But when film was developed, his image wasn't there, it's reported.
St. Peter's Catholic Church, built in 1830, was the only church in Harpers Ferry to survive the war. When troops on Maryland Heights would shell the town, the priest at St. Peter's, Father Costello, a British subject, would hoist the Union Jack up the steeple. Fearful of an international incident, both sides spared the church, which was also used as a hospital. Visitors have reported seeing an old priest going down the path beside the building, of an evening, turning and walking through the wall as though it were a door.
Revolutionary War ghosts exist, too:
Near the church is Harper House, built by the town's founder. Fearing the British, Robert Harper had told his wife, Rachel, to bury the family gold and tell no one. But Rachel Harper died when she fell off a ladder just before the couple were to move into the home, and her secret went with her to the grave. She's seen, in her 18th-century clothes, gazing from an upstairs window toward the garden, still guarding the gold.
In 1799, troops were sent to Harpers Ferry to guard the armory in anticipation of a war with France. While diplomacy dragged, the men marched up and down the streets to the accompaniment of fife and drum. A cholera epidemic swept the encampment; since then, the drumming and piping heard in the streets are attributed to the phantom troops.