The Hilltop House: A part of life gone forever

April 02, 2010|By ALLAN POWELL

It was saddening to read about the plans to demolish the historic Hilltop House. It has been a source of joy for many years and can never be replaced by a modern resort. The scenic beauty from this site is beyond description. One stands in awe as they view the converging rivers and majestic heights in the background. Jefferson was right when he said that this view was worth a trip across the Atlantic.

My appreciation of Hilltop House began in the spring of 1955, when I was hired as a park ranger for the federal park service. The government was just beginning its program of restoration and needed several seasonal interpreters for the new hordes of anticipated visitors. In retrospect, the most vivid moments in memory are those of reading book after book about the life of John Brown while seated on Jefferson's Rock and viewing the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers from the hotel porch.


My tenure at Harpers Ferry was short-lived because William Brish, the former superintendent of education, invited me to join the faculty of the new all-county televised education project funded by the Ford Foundation. My assignment would be presenting 11th-grade American history to all seven county high schools. Needless to say, the adventure ahead was at the cost of a labor of love at Harpers Ferry.

It is hard to imagine a setting that could surpass Harpers Ferry and the Hilltop House. Lunch there was a special treat and the added attraction of rum-raisin ice cream (a rare find) made the trudge up the steep hill bearable. On two or three occasions when my car was contrary, it was necessary to rent a room at the Hilltop House. The consolation being that, it was possible to say that Mark Twain also had slept there many times.

Once, when my car was malfunctioning, I was forced to hitchhike back to Hagerstown. Fate was not in my favor and the car that stopped to offer a ride was driven by the park superintendent, who was in a foul mood. He began a lecture about the glory and honor of the park service and that hitchhiking in a park service uniform was diminishing its public image.

"Maybe so," I said, "but for four years, while serving in the United States Navy (World War II), I had 'hitched' rides and it had a lot more glory and honor than a whole lot of government agencies." The superintendent seemed pleased when I got out of his car.

Artists came to the Hilltop House to paint the beautiful scenery. Paintings were displayed in the hotel's dining room and lobby and made available for visitors to purchase. It was 40 years ago when my wife, Joanie, came to Hagerstown and then made her first visit to Harpers Ferry. Among the many works of art was a beautiful flower arrangement that she admired and "could not live without." That painting has graced the dining room wall all of these years and we have enjoyed it every day.

It would be a lapse of judgment not to write something about the mysterious and mercurial Mr. Brown. It is not unreasonable to call him a monomaniac. He was indeed a one-issue fanatic - a wild mix of St. Paul and St. Vitus - who was to be commended for his hatred of slavery, but condemned for his lack of judgment in his methods of trying to rid the nation of this crime against humanity. His slaughter of the slaveholding family in Kansas was just one of his irrational acts.

Directly behind the Hilltop House are the remains of a long island near the West Virginia shoreline. It once had its glory days teeming with happy people of all ages who came to enjoy the food, games and a merry-go-round. It is now deserted and the only human to get close is an adventurous fisherman.

Sadly, the Hilltop House will also join the ranks of what used to be. Will presidents, novelists and artists visit the new resort and bask in the quaint, rustic atmosphere with the same satisfaction that we were fortunate enough to sense in the old mansion? I doubt if they will.

The new resort will reek with modernity and the smell of newness, but it will never match the serenity of those gazing at the wood burning in the big stone fireplace of that old building.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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