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Group pushing for Harpers Ferry park enlargement

September 28, 1998|By DAVE McMILLION, Charles Town

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - A plan to double the size of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park has one strike against it, but those backing the proposal say it's not enough to dissuade them.

In fact, supporters of enlarging the park predict it will remain at the forefront of discussions until more land for the park is obtained.

"I would characterize this story as a community wrestling with its natural history. It's not going to go away," said Donald Campbell, superintendent of the park, which now stands at 2,300 acres.

A group known as The Friends of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park has been leading the effort to enlarge the park, saying it is vital to preserve unprotected Civil War battlegrounds around Harpers Ferry before they are overrun by development.

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The group is focusing on School House Ridge, a combination of rolling farmland and woods along U.S. 340 next to Shipley Elementary School. It is the site where Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson stood in 1862 and surveyed his 14,000 troops on the ridge before his famous seige and capture of Harpers Ferry. The ensuing battle resulted in the capture of 12,500 Union troops, the largest surrender of northern soliders in the conflict.

Jackson's advancement occurred four days before the battle at Antietam.

"If you were a Confederate, it never got better than it did here at Harpers Ferry," said Campbell.

County officials do not deny the importance of protecting the area. It's the process which followed that ruffled feathers.

To expand the park, Scot Faulkner, president of The Friends of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and local historian Dennis Frye asked the Jefferson County Commissioners to approve a resolution enlarging the park's boundaries.

But if the commissioners approved the resoultion, it would only be a "paper boundary." Three land trust organizations which Faulkner had waiting in the wings, including the Hagerstown-based Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites, would still have to purchase property from landowners in the School House Ridge area to make the expansion complete, officials said. If the land trusts buy the land, it would be turned over to the park, officials said.

But some of the landowners did not like the way the deal was progressing. They feared that if the commissioners passed the resolution and allowed the park's boundaries to expand, they would not have any say over how much money the government was going to give them for the property, said Jefferson County Clerk John Ott.

Ott's mother and dad own about 73 acres in the School House Ridge area, a parcel which Faulker said his group would be interested in.

"People are just afraid of the government when it comes to valuation of properties," said Ott.

The commissioners finally voted against the boundary resolution on Aug. 20. The commissioners said one of the reasons they voted against the resolution was because they felt it was important to listen to the concerns of the landowners.

Commissioner Jim Ruland said he was worried that there was something other than free enterprise coming into play with the land deal.

"They can buy the land like anyone else," said Jefferson County Commissioner James G. Knode, referring to the park.

Faulkner said he and his supporters repeatedly emphasized that that the resolution in no way controlled what people would be paid for their land. Despite the commissioners' vote, Faulkner said the attempt expand the park will continue. Faulkner said the reason the commission's endorsement was needed is because land trusts like to know that a battlefield is going to be a part of a national park before they buy property. On the other hand, land trusts will buy battlefields outside of a park if they believe they are under immediate threat of development, said Faulkner.

Faulkner said that is the argument he will make to the land trusts regarding the School House Ridge properties.

Although housing development stabilized in Jefferson County in recent years, Faulkner predicts is is about to "kick into high gear."

"This won't stop the land acquisition in Jefferson County. We will continue to gather land. It's just they could have made it faster and easier," said Vicki Faulkner, Faulkner's wife.

Although there are several landowners in the School House Ridge area, Faulkner's group is primarily interested in 76 acres known as the Murphy farm and 283 acres that was owned by Dixie Kilham, a well-known supporter of the arts who died last month. Faulker said he predict's Killam's property will be liquidated soon.

Campbell said preservation of School House Ridge is critical given the increased interest in the Civil War. Campbell proudly points to the heightened appreciation of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, which tells the story of abolitionist John Brown's 1859 raid on the town. Last March, Historic Traveler magazine listed the park as one of "America's 25 Essential Historic Sites."

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