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Land trust finalizes deal for Murphy's Farm

October 29, 2002|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - A national nonprofit organization announced Monday it was in the final phases of purchasing a 99-acre farm rich with Civil War and civil rights history, saving it from residential development.

The Trust for Public Land said it was purchasing Murphy's Farm from the owners of the property, effectively putting to rest plans for the controversial 188-home Murphy's Landing subdivision.

Officials with the trust organization said they expect to turn the farm over to the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in a matter of weeks after taking care of remaining details.

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Although Trust for Public Land officials said a confidentiality agreement prohibits them from disclosing the selling price, they said much of the purchase money came from $2 million that was appropriated by Congress to allow the park to expand its boundaries.

Murphy's Farm represents one of the most important moments for the Confederacy during the Civil War, according to members of Civil War preservation groups who sought to preserve it.

The farm is in the School House Ridge area, where Confederate General Stonewall Jackson oversaw the capture of 12,500 Union troops in 1862, the largest capture in the war.

On the Murphy Farm, Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill led a flanking maneuver that allowed for the capture, Civil War experts say. The action involved moving 20 pieces of artillery and 3,200 soldiers across the farm.

From 1895 to 1910, the farm was where abolitionist John Brown's fort was located. After Brown's unsuccessful attempt in 1859 to take over a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry and free slaves, his fort was taken to Chicago for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, trust officials said.

In 1895, reporter Kate Field brought the fort to Murphy's Farm where it was put on a foundation overlooking the Shenandoah River.

In 1906, W.E.B. DuBois and other leaders of the Niagara Movement, an organization of African-American leaders, made a barefoot pilgrimage across the Murphy Farm to the restored Brown fort. The Niagara Movement later grew into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, trust officials said.

Alan Front, senior vice-president of the Trust for Public Land, said the purchase of Murphy's Farm will give the public an "unparalleled opportunity" to learn about Civil War and civil rights history.

"This is the most significant battlefield acquisition in the country in 2002," said Dennis Frye, a Sharpsburg resident and Civil War expert who has been involved in other efforts to save land around Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

The Harpers Ferry Conservancy, one of the conservation groups involved in the effort to save Murphy's Farm, claimed some of the homes for the proposed Murphy's Landing were going to be built where artillery was placed for the Confederate siege.

Although the state Department of Environmental Protection was ready to issue a permit for the development's sewage plant, the EPA later instructed state regulators not to issue the permit. EPA officials said the state provided too little proof to show the sewage would have minimal impact on a nearby stream.

Despite concerns by some Jefferson County Planning Commission members, the planning commission in September gave the developers of the project their fourth six-month extension on the project to give them time to work out the issues with the EPA.

The Trust for Public Land, which is based in San Francisco and has offices throughout the United States, is buying the land from property owners Josephine Murphy-Curtis and Karen Dixon Fuller, said trust spokesman Tim Ahern.

The Harpers Ferry National Historical Park plans to conduct tours of the relevant Civil War and civil rights areas of the farm, said park Superintendent Donald Campbell.

The park hopes to develop a trail system on the farm, although there are some nice trails already on the property, Campbell said.

Some of the area's most well-preserved earthworks are found on the farm, said Campbell.

The earthworks, which are embankments made to protect soldiers during conflict, were made after Jackson's siege to protect Harpers Ferry, Campbell said.

"When you see them, it's like stepping back into time," Campbell said.

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