The stone piers stand like ghosts. Ghosts keeping watch over the mostly unplanned history that literally flooded the Potomac River at Shepherdstown. Ghosts of Native Americans that once built a fishing weir at what is now known as Pack Horse Ford or Boteler’s Ford, less than a mile or so east of the town limits.
Pack Horse Ford was as important to the Indians as it was in 1862 to Robert E. Lee and his Confederate troops when they straggled back to Virginia’s soil after the Battle of Antietam.
The nearby stone piers — the sentries there to remind historians of the devasting floods of 1889 and 1936 that tumbled bridges — came along when Shepherdstown and Sharpsburg needed to be connected by more than a ferry . . . or the two covered bridges that were once in place.
The repeated floods were not planned. And neither was the post-Antietam, forced retreat of Gen. Lee.
Lee had crossed from Maryland back into Virginia at a place where his few cannons and artilley carriages could reach the river’s low banks. The increased water level in mid-September was manageable because of the expanse of loose rocks.
Those loose rocks were not in place by accident.
Native Americans had inhabited the area long before Thomas Shepherd and his kin came to found their village first known as Mecklenburg.
In the area where both serious and leisure-time fishermen cast their lines after sunnies, bass, tiger muskie, and catfish, the Indians built weirs of the rocks found in the Potomac’s bed.
Weirs herded fish to waiting nets or the wooden spears the Indians used to land them. Pools were formed where the stone formations sent the river’s water. And the Indians harvested them for both present and future use.
It was only much later that history of every kind and stripe took control of the river on both sides — Maryland and Virginia (now West Virginia) — took control of its meanderings.
After the people of mostly Germanic backgrounds filtered into Shepherdstown over Pack Horse Ford, there became a need for a “proper river crossing” as decreed by the Virginia General Assembly.
In 1755, Thomas Swearington was given authorization to put in practice a ferry between the Maryland side and Shepherdstown. Eventually, Swearington’s ferry went into the hands of Thomas Blackford.
As the populations on both sides of the river grew, commerce was also expanded and more and more wagons loaded with produce and goods from the area’s shops crossed on the ferry.
The ferry caused long waits at times as wagon traffic and people on horseback grew impatient.
Something better was needed.
Blackford was persuaded to sell his ferry and some property to the Virginia and Maryland Bridge Company.
Construction was begun on a covered bridge and by 1850 it was completed. The lengthy covered bridge connected a present site near the boat ramp on lower Princess Street with a group of white buildings (one of which was a hotel) on the Maryland side in what was known as Bridgeport. It was a toll bridge and it made money for its owners.
Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson burned and destroyed that covered structure in 1861.
When the Civil War was over, a second covered bridge was erected in 1871. But only 18 years later the same series of rain storms that caused the Johnstown (Pa.) flood took out that second covered structure.
A bridge constructed with a visable iron frame replaced the second downed covered bridge.
That structure was in place until 1936 when a monstrous March flood crumbled it into the Potomac’s then-turbulent waters.
A much more modern and floodproof bridge was completed and dedicated in 1939. It was built at a different location than where the other bridges had been burned or flooded.
The highway between Sharpsburg and Shepherdstown no longer came through Bridgeport to connect with low-lying Princess Street.
The newly christened James Rumsey Bridge connected Rte. 34 from the Maryland side, where it passed just to the east of the Ferry Hill restaurant, and Rte. 480 just at the edge of Shepherd College in West Virginia.
The Indians and their clever fishing methods had been mostly forgotten by time. But the Pack Horse Ford/ Boteler’s Ford/ Blackford’s Ford shallow water crossing was much the same as it had been hundreds of years before.
Experienced fishermen equipped with waders, bait buckets, and even creels parked their vehicles on Canal Road on the Maryland side, crossed through the C & O Canal, and tried their luck at the same site where the Native Americans had been successful.
First-time youngsters come to Pack Horse Ford from the boat launch area at the foot of Princess Street or Snyder’s Landing and Sharpsburg Landing on the Maryland side.
They roll up their jeans or come better prepared with cutoff shorts and they jump into the water and start casting their crankbaits or earthworms in search of some action.
Should they catch a fish they’ll likely release it and go after another one. If they run out of bait . . . or patience . . . they will implore the adult that found Pack Horse Ford to move back toward Shepherdstown. Maybe the crew will drop anchor in the deeper water near one of the ghostly piers. Maybe a question will be asked about what those piers were or what they supported.
Hundreds of softwood trees block the view to where the remnants of Bridgeport still stand. The same sort of growth of trees and vegetation has now partially hidden the old toll house on the West Virginia side. However, that structure is now a family’s home.
The styles of fishing are much different than they were hundreds of years ago. The Indians fished to help them survive. Necessity was very much a part of the equation that had them at Pack Horse Ford.
Fishermen equipped with sneakers and cut-offs as much as rod and reel are there for the pleasure of the day. Recreation in the midst of so much history carries the day at Pack Horse Ford, the site of Swearington’s ferry, and Bridgeport on the Maryland side of the river.