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Park hosts B&O Railroad history display

July 21, 2003|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - Rapid commercial development following new transportation systems is not a new scenario.

In the Tri-State area these days, growth often sprouts along new highway and road systems.

One hundred and sixty nine years ago, it was the railroad coming through Harpers Ferry that spurred the growth.

At that time, the B&O Railroad and the C&O Canal were competing to bring their transportation systems through the natural gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains at Harpers Ferry, said David Fox, a park ranger with Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

It was a huge undertaking for the B&O and an important one because it was the best spot to get through the mountains, Fox said.

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The B&O Railroad reached the Maryland side of the Potomac River in 1834 and the company completed the first railroad bridge over the river to Harpers Ferry in 1837, Fox said.

The town was forever changed.

Before the railroad arrived, there were seven stores and one hotel in the town, Fox said. After the railroad expanded, there were 18 stores and seven hotels, Fox said.

"A lot of the buildings you see today are a result of that growth," Fox said.

It opened new markets in the area, such as the importation of foods like oysters, said Fox, adding that it was probably the first time such seafood was brought to Harpers Ferry.

To pay tribute to Harpers Ferry's railroad history, an exhibit honoring the B&O Railroad's 169-year history in the town is in the works at the park.

The exhibit coincides with the 175th anniversary of the B&O Railroad, the country's first commercial railroad.

The exhibit will include a photographic history of train life in Harpers Ferry, including photographs of the 1837 bridge, one of three built over time in Harpers Ferry, Fox said.

The 1837 bridge was a covered structure - designed to protect it from decay - and watchmen were stationed at several points inside the bridge to detect fires, Fox said.

The bridge suffered greatly during the Civil War.

It was destroyed four times by military action and five times by flooding during the war, Fox said. One theory on why the bridge was so susceptible to flooding during the war is that it was rebuilt so fast following destruction that it may not have been constructed as well as it would have been during peace time, Fox said.

The photographs show railroad improvement projects, including the relocation of the train station and a fire that occurred on a bridge project. The fire occurred when a hot rivet dropped into a bucket of creosote, causing a smoky fire that stretched across the span.

Much of the work for the exhibit was completed by Rob Brzostowski, who researched the history of Harpers Ferry's train station as part of a renovation of that building, Fox said.

Brzostowski said the photography collection includes 13 of his pictures. Many are owned by the park service, he said.

The exhibit, which runs through Sept. 30, is housed on the second floor of the John Brown Museum on Shenandoah Street. Park officials have been working on a room to house the exhibit in the Master Armorer's House across the street and it is expected to be moved there this week, Fox said.

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