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The town the river gave and the river took away

Even the most ardent Jefferson County resident, if asked the names of incorporated towns in the county, would likely leave out the town of Virginius.

Yet Virginius — located on Virginius Island at Harpers Ferry — was incorporated by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia on Jan. 8, 1827. The approval was contingent on the island being “laid off into lots, with convenient streets and alleys.”

The island was part of the plan by the Patowmack Canal Company of which George Washington was a stockholder. It was Washington’s vision that brought the arsenal to Harpers Ferry, then a part of Virginia.

The island itself was originally owned by James Stubblefield, the superintendent of the federal armory located just a short distance at the point of convergence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. Its original designation was “Stubblefield Island,” which took up 13 acres along the Shenandoah River. Some also knew it as “Herr Island” because of the Herr Flour Mill located there.

Around 1815, a rubble dam went across the Shenandoah River just east of where the U.S. 340 bridge is today. The dam was replaced by a more substantial dam in 1824 and it channeled water into the industrial section of the island. Tunnels and canals were an important part of the island, bringing water to the factories and sending the water right back into the river. Some of those tunnels and canals are still visible today.

By 1820, the population of Harpers Ferry was nearly 1,400. The John Hall Rifle Factory was established that same year in Virginius.

The Harpers Ferry, Charlestown and Smithfield Turnpike crossed the island by 1831. The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, located on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, opened to Harpers Ferry in 1833. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad crossed the bridge into Harpers Ferry in 1836 and began to provide for ingress of products for the mills and egress of products to be taken to markets throughout the region, including to Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

In 1835, the Winchester and Potomac Railroad bought a parcel along Virginius Island to construct its railroad spur, which connected the Harpers Ferry Bridge to Winchester, Va. The railroad ended up completing the depot in the lower town near the bridge in 1840.

The 1840 census shows 113 persons living in Virginius, including stonemasons, a cooper, a miller, a tailor, operators of an inn, the operator of a fancy goods store, bricklayers, carpenters, machinists and druggists.

An 1844 brochure, which would be known as a prospectus today, said of Virginius Island that it was the “most important and valuable island in the Shenandoah River.”

The census of 1850 showed 180 people living in the town of Virginius. In 1851, Virginius became incorporated into Harpers Ferry by action of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The town’s most prominent citizen was probably bridge builder Lewis Wernwag. The only street on the Island was Wernwag Street. He was a town trustee. Wernwag invented a self-regulating railcar that was intended to run around curves, constructed a lock on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, built a pedestrian bridge at Harpers Ferry, built dams on both rivers, and helped construct the rifle factory and other town buildings.

By 1860, over three dozen buildings were operating in Virginius, including John Hall Rifle Factory. Those additional buildings included a flour mill, an iron foundry, a tannery, a machine shop, a cotton mill, a saw mill, a cooperage, a chopping mill, a carriage shop and a blacksmith shop. It is believed that the small town had perhaps as many as 20 private homes.

The flour mill could produce 150-200 barrels of flour per day from locally grown rye, wheat and corn. In 1860, the flour mill reported production of 32,000 barrels of flour worth $233,000. By comparison, that production was 18 times the average production of other Jefferson County flour mills and 13 times the average of the mills throughout the country.

Fontaine Beckham was manager of the flour mill. He is most known as the mayor of Harpers Ferry who was killed in the 1859 John Brown raid.  The flour mill closed in 1889 when water-powered mills were replaced by steam-operated mills.

The four-story cotton mill had 97 looms and 18 spinning frames with 132 spindles each. The work force at the cotton mill included 70 employees equally divided between men and women.

The cooperage made barrels for the flour mill along with other products.

The tannery was the only one in the region. The saw mill had two circular saws of 24-inches diameter. A chopping mill chopped corn and rye and ground them with lime to make plaster.

The water that drove the mighty water wheels of the mills and that in turn made the machinery run was both a blessing and a curse – the curse being the flooding. The first major flood occurred in 1852 and caused much damage to the town of Virginius.

A devastating flood in 1870 destroyed 12 island buildings including the carriage shop, machine shop, sawmill and foundry, and severely damaged the flour mill. The flood killed 42 persons on the island.

The last inhabitants left with flood of 1936.

The Shenandoah Pulp Mill ruins along Shenandoah Street can be seen today from the National Park bus.

— Robert O’Connor writes from Charles Town

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