The lure of Virginia's Blue Ridge

Some regions exert an irresistible pull, speaking to me over distances of hundreds of miles, and visits only exacerbate the longing. One such area is Harpers Ferry, W.Va., where the double-barreled coming of frontier and Civil War history and the scenery of the Blue Ridge Mountains dramatically pierced by two rivers has imprinted on my psyche an insistent need to return to the home of my ancestors. Feeling that call recently, I turned to my journal since I couldn’t make the trip.
My wife attended hammer dulcimer classes at the Upper Potomac Dulcimer Festival on Saturday, Sept. 14, and Sunday, Sept. 15, 1996, at Shepherdstown, W.Va., and we made a camping weekend out of the trip. We camped at Harpers Ferry KOA, the same campground where I stayed with my parents and younger brother in August 1975.
“Our site is on the edge of a hill that drops down to the Shenandoah River, and the Blue Ridge can be seen to ESE,” I wrote in my journal. (It seems a bit odd to use quotation marks because I’m quoting myself.) “It was cold — chilly weather is upon us.” I recalled hiking alone in 1975 on a trail through the woods downhill from the campground, probably toward the Shenandoah, but I didn’t go as far as the river. “As we lay in bed tonight, I could hear trains in the Shenandoah valley,” I wrote.
My wife left for the festival Saturday morning, and I wrote my journal at our picnic table while waiting for the arrival of friend Dale, who lived in Alexandria, Va. “The sun is rising, it’s still chilly, and I can see the Blue Ridge through a gap in the trees. I can feel the history: the Indians, the white explorers, the Scots-Irish settlers, the Civil War soldiers. Are there any hikers on the Appalachian Trail right now? … I can see the county where my Whitacre ancestors settled, with the sun shining on the green trees of the Blue Ridge. This area is just settling down from heavy rains. The weather radio said that local creeks reached their crests last night.” (Whitacres lived in Loudoun County in the 1700s, when present West Virginia was still Virginia, and some left that county in the early 1800s to settle in Columbiana County.)
Dale arrived, and we went to the Harpers Ferry Visitor Center. “We rode the bus to town and had an enjoyable day of exploration and nature and history. The town is recovering from the flood of last Sunday, and all the lower exhibit buildings are empty. You can see the water marks on the buildings, floorboards are still wet, and park employees were busy cleaning. We climbed the hill to Storer College, came down a path in the woods, went in the Catholic church, and toured various buildings … We walked across the railroad bridge and down to the canal and through the railroad tunnel. Just as we got back to the Harpers Ferry RR station, an Amtrak passenger train arrived and stopped at the station.” (The canal is the Chesapeake and Ohio, which followed the Potomac from Cumberland, Md., to D.C.)
That evening before the festival concert, the three of us ate supper at Cellar Pub in Charles Town. “It was a small establishment in an old building, with stone walls and a fireplace. Dale and I had Blue Ridge beer (on tap).” Quinn’s Cellar Pub, in the town where Edwin Coppoc of Winona, one of John Brown’s raiders, was jailed in October 1859, is 200 years old. After the concert, we explored a creek that crosses an alley and goes under a building in Shepherdstown and sat around a fire at the campground, and late that night Dale left for home. “It’s getting very chilly at night, but we stayed warm under our wool blankets,” I wrote.
On Sunday, I visited Rumsey Park in Shepherdstown, on a cliff above the Potomac, home to a tall monument to James Rumsey, who operated a steamboat on the Potomac in 1787. I  walked a short path to the railroad tracks, drove to a boat ramp and viewed the river and old stone bridge piers. I crossed to the north side of the Potomac and found Blackford’s Ford, where Gen. Lee’s army crossed while retreating from nearby Antietam in 1862, and I found Lock 38 and looked at the river, which was high and brown. After the festival ended,  we looked at the canal lock, drove to Sharpsburg and toured the Antietam battlefield.
We camped at Indian Springs Campground in Maryland and on Monday toured Fort Frederick, a French and Indian War installation built in 1756. In three days I visited Harpers Ferry, the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, the C&O Canal, Shepherdstown, Sharpsburg, Antietam Battlefield and Fort Frederick. It wasn’t enough. It’s been too long, and the Blue Ridge calls me. Even after 16 years, that pull insists I return.

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