Not too many buildings still standing in this country have the track record that the John Brown fort has in regards to the miles it has traveled over the years.
The building, made most famous as the engine house where John Brown was captured at Harpers Ferry on Oct. 18, 1859, traveled to Chicago and back and then was moved two more times before resting where it stands today in the lower town as part of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.
In 1892, a group of investors purchased the building. The president of the John Brown Fort Company was Adoniram J. Holmes, a former congressman from Boone, Iowa. The company dismantled the fort carefully, with each brick numbered, and shipped it to Chicago. There it was reconstructed and became part of the Columbian Exposition.
On Oct. 15, 1892, from the hours of 8-10 p.m., the John Brown Fort Company hosted a formal reception of the fort at 1341 Wabash Ave., just outside of the main exposition grounds. Those invited to the reception received a formal invitation to see the buillding called “the fortress where the man of iron and of blood fought his last battle for universal freedom in America.”
Following the reception and for the next few months, visitors could enter the place where John Brown had been captured. The price of admission was just a dime. During the exposition, Col. S. K. Donavin, a journalist from the Baltimore Daily Exchange, who had covered the raid, trial and execution of Brown, lectured.
Holmes had reached out to Annie Brown, John Brown’s daughter, who had been at the Kennedy Farm prior to the raid, and asked her to appear at the exposition. Annie declined, saying “I may be a relic of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, but I do not want to be placed on exposition with other relics and curios, as such.”
The exposition was not a financial success for the John Brown Fort Co. When the event was over, the building became a pile of bricks forgotten in a warehouse in Chicago. It was rescued by a journalist, Kate Field, who had already raised money earlier to save the John Brown farm at North Elba, in New York. This time she raised $2,000 to return the iconic and historic building to Harpers Ferry.
Field chose to locate the building on the Alexander Murphy farm, which today is adjacent to the Cavalier Heights visitors center at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. A controversy arose when it was rumored that she intended to dig up and re-inter the bodies of the other raiders and memorialize them on the same property.
The Spirit of Jefferson reported: “When Kate Field can get a piece of ground large enough on which to replace the old engine house these bodies will be reinterred near the fort and a monument erected above them, bearing their names and the incidents of their death.”
The article said there was no opposition to the rebuilding of the engine house where “Robert E. Lee captured the old villain” but that there was much opposition to memorializing the other raiders. The newspaper said memorializing “his crew was going just a little too far, and those engaged in it had better think twice before they attempt it.”
Field, who had no intention of honoring the other raiders anyway, agreed. The fort was rebuilt at the Murphy Farm. A pilgrimage to the John Brown fort was an important part of the program of the Niagara Movement meetings in Harpers Ferry in 1906.
The Murphy farm wasn’t the fort’s final destination. In 1909, the structure was moved again, this time to the campus of Storer College on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the raid. It was used as a museum and contained mementos from the famous events of the 1859 raid.
In 1918, Storer College’s alumni commemorated the heroism of John Brown and his men by placing a plaque on the building. If you have ever watched the movie “Santa Fe Trail,” depicting the capture of John Brown, the filmmakers in Hollywood evidently thought the engine house had been on that campus all along. They show a mighty charge by the troops up a long hill to get to the engine house.
In 1960, the National Park Service acquired John Brown’s fort and in 1968 the building was moved again – this time to the lower town where it stands today. Its location is near its original site, but not at the exact spot where John Brown was captured. Since the building’s long trip to Illinois in 1892, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had constructed a rail siding obscuring the location where the fort had originally stood.
Its location today may not be its last one. There are rumblings in the National Park concerning a plan down the road, when the funds are available, to take the rail siding out and return the John Brown fort to its original location.
— Bob O’Connor writes from