Sunday, April 27, 2014

Harper's Ferry's Mountaintop Fortress (MARYLAND HEIGHTS)

For starters, if you have never been to Harper's Ferry, West Virginia...go!  For those that have gone, one of the more popular hikes at this outdoor playground takes trampers up to the famous overlook on Maryland Heights, looking down on the scenic old town itself and the very wedding of the 'laughing' Shenandoah River and the 'mighty' Potomac River.  The view is breathtaking and the area has its share of humbling vistas.  Thomas Jefferson, on a visit to Harper's Ferry in 1783, wrote that "This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic."

It is very much because of these commanding views that Maryland Heights had such importance during the Civil War.  Few people travel beyond the lower vista towards the top of the mountain to discover what truly amounts to a treasure chest of Civil War history.  IT IS A DEMANDING HIKE for those who do not have much hiking experience, but very much worth the effort.  This blog episode will focus on a photo trip across the rugged slopes of Maryland Heights, exploring visually, the well preserved Civil War landscape that awaits those willing to give a little more effort for a little more adventure.  

Looking up towards Maryland Heights from the railroad bridge, the famous overlook which is most often visited, rises directly above you.  Much higher on the mountain and out of view to the left is a fortress built by Union troops in 1863 called Stone Fort.  It is at the highest point of Maryland Heights at 1,448 feet above sea level (you start at about 350' asl).  From the Information Center along Shenandoah Street in the historic Lower Town, the round trip distance to Stone Fort and back, is 4.4 miles.  For a map of the route, click on this link.   

For the duration of your hike up to the Stone Fort, the trail is marked with interpretive signs such as the one above, filling you in on how these impressive fortifications came to be, and their role in the different Confederate invasions northward.  

Most of your hike will be on the actual "Military Roads" built by Union troops to connect Harper's Ferry with the stronghold on Maryland Heights.  Imagine as you hike upwards trying to pull a 1,200 pound cannon up these slopes, or even worse, a 10,000 pound cannon!  Major Frank Rolfe of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery recalled of the mountain fortress, "The batteries were situated from 250 to 2,065 feet above the river and the roads leading to them very rocky, steep and crooked and barley wide enough for a wagon.  Over these roads the guns, ammunition and supplies of all kinds were hauled."  Lieutenant Charles Morse of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry recorded that, "We began our labor at the bottom of the ravine and worked up a steep hill.  Sometimes there would be as many as twenty or thirty fine trees falling at once: they reminded me of men falling in battle, that same dead, helpless fall."  If you've made it this far up the mountain, don't give up!  You're probably already farther than President Lincoln who attempted to tour the fortifications in October of 1862, but turned back because it was too steep.    

Depending on the time of year, as you climb higher and higher you will be treated with some pretty spectacular views of the Potomac River valley.

Heading higher you will pass the remains of a "Charcoal Hearth," one of the many that helped to feed the local iron works.  

As you reach the top of the ridge, the Military Road becomes nice and level.  Congratulations!!!  You've completed the hardest part of the hike.  What remains is either level or downhill and you will be rewarded with fine views the rest of the way.  The area above is where Union soldiers who helped to man the fortifications made their camps, sleeping atop the wind swept ridge.  

After a short walk on the ridge, you finally reach the outer fortifications of your destination, Stone Fort.  The exterior of the fort was composed of two long breastworks extending down the west slope of the ridge from the fort for more than five hundred feet.  They are on an approximate east to west axis and there is a northern wall and a southern wall.  In the photo above you can see the southern wall and if your eyes are really good, you might be able to pick out the northern wall through the woods.

Looking west/northwest along the southern breastworks.  They may not look like much now, but in 1863 these would have been quite an obstacle.

This view is looking northeast towards the interior of Stone Fort on top of the ridge.  Make your way up the slope along the southern breastworks to the top of the ridge and you will finally get to the interior of Stone Fort.  

Once you reach the interior you'll start to see some pretty neat things.  The large crater-like ditch in the center of the photo was one of the fort's powder magazines.  Turn around and look in the opposite direction and you'll see the fort's main northern parapet.  

These are the remnants of the northern parapet to Stone Fort, again from the inside of the fort.  To get a look at the outside, you can retrace your steps and take a side trail from where you reached the top of the ridge.

This is the view towards the northern parapet of Stone Fort from the outside.  Again, maybe it doesn't look like much now, but imagine hundreds of soldiers and heavy artillery.  These fortifications, again built in 1863, deterred Confederate invaders from even making another attempt on them through their later ventures.  During the Gettysburg Campaign, Lee moved farther west and took on Winchester instead of Harper's Ferry.  In 1864 Confederate General Jubal Early was again invading the north and he also bypassed Harper's Ferry because of the nature of these fortifications.  

As you continue along the trail, it wraps around 180 degrees and leads you back in the direction you came, traversing back through the interior of Stone Fort.  And it this point, you get to see why it was given the name Stone Fort.  Enter the stone foundation that was built in the winter of 1862-1863 as a blockhouse for Union soldiers that was intended to have a major superstructure over top.  The superstructure was never built and the Stone Fort ended up serving mostly as a commissary storage area with rations for about 5,000 men.    

Looking around the interior of the blockhouse.  The eastern slope is extremely steep, unfitting for any enemy's attempt to take the fortress.  The western slope is guarded by the 500 foot long exterior fortifications both north and south.  

Looking east/southeast towards Washington D.C. along the Potomac River from Stone Fort.

The views continue and that is because the ridge-top was home to one of the largest guns used in the Civil War, the 100-pounder Parrott, weighing in at just under 10,000 pounds.  It took 200-500 men to haul the gun from the base of the mountain to near its summit, at this location.

This was the platform for the 100-pounder Parrott, which commanded the Potomac River valley to the east and south for two miles in each direction.

Powder Magazines at the rear of the 100-pounder Parrot platform.

As you continue down the mountain from Stone Fort, the next big stop is this impressive parapet that was once part of a 30-pounder battery, the first battery built on the mountainside in the Fall of 1862.  The 30-pounder siege guns here could fire just over a mile and commanded the surrounding Loudon Heights (Virginia side) and Bolivar Heights (beyond Harper's Ferry).

Just below the parapet, another wayside marker gives some great information on the fortifications around you.

Another view of the western end of the parapet for the 30-pounder battery at the end of the ridge.

From the battery, continue down the mountainside on another Military Road.  Eventually you will merge with the Overlook Trail that leads you down to the more famous part of Maryland Heights.  You can also turn right to continue down the mountain along the Military Road.

At about 300 feet above the river, you'll reach the last of the battery installations on Maryland Heights.  This was another naval battery installation with three 9-inch Dahlgren Guns, capable of firing about two miles.  In the clearing at the left, if you look at the far horizon you can just barely make out a mountain in the distance.  That is Signal Knob at the northern end of Massanhutten Mountain in the Shendandoah Valley.

As you reach the trailhead you can either return directly along the C&O Canal back to Harper's Ferry, or continue exploring along the Potomac for more adventure.  Either way, at this point you've seen some pretty neat Civil War history.

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