Cumberland Valley to Hancock - The woman who sat on the toilet too long (and other odd American tales) - CycleBlaze

May 6, 2014

Cumberland Valley to Hancock

Harper's Ferry; turbulent times, quiet present
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YOU KNOW the name of the Ranger who looks after Harper's Ferry? It's Officer Officer. I know that because it was on his badge when he wandered over to tell us the history of the place. I was, of course, too tactful to mention it. Plenty of others had done that before.

Harper's Ferry is one of those places that sound familiar to Europeans even if we don't know why. Maybe it's in one of those country songs, like singing about Harper Valley PTA. Somebody probably walked the line here after his dawg died. Somewhere round here. And then wrote an awful song.

But today it all comes back. John Brown - and all I knew was that his body lies a-mouldering in the grave - is big news here. He's all there is to Harper's Ferry other than the pretty buildings restored into an outdoor, living by-gone age, and people come here to see where his well-intentioned plans to change America lasted all of three minutes. And everyone likes it because, in Civil War terms, both sides get something out of the story.

John Brown: visionary or crackpot?
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He sounds whacky, John Brown, and by golly he looked it, but he had this admirable idea that if he robbed a government gun store here he could arm his band of outlaws and inspire slaves to rise up against their masters. Good idea badly thought out. For some reason he stopped a train and told the driver he was bringing revolution to Harper's Ferry and America in general. And then he let the train puff on again and, of course, the driver told the next people he saw that he had heard the most extraordinary thing. And the Marines marched across the Potomac to bring an end to it.

A soldier called Israel Greene singled out Brown and recounted the tale:

“Quicker than thought I brought my sabre down with all my strength upon [Brown’s] head. He was moving as the blow fell, and I suppose I did not strike him where I intended, for he received a deep sabre cut in the back of the neck. He fell senseless on his side, then rolled over on his back. He had in his hand a short Sharpe’s cavalry carbine. I think he had just fired as I reached Colonel Washington, for the Marine who followed me into the aperture made by the ladder received a bullet in the abdomen, from which he died in a few minutes. The shot might have been fired by someone else in the insurgent party, but I think it was from Brown. Instinctively as Brown fell I gave him a sabre thrust in the left breast. The sword I carried was a light uniform weapon, and, either not having a point or striking something hard in Brown’s accoutrements, did not penetrate. The blade bent double.”

And that's why John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave. No idea where it is, though. I didn't think to ask. Officer Officer would have known.

Why? Because I liked the old warehouse
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It's hard not to admire history's crackpots. They have the right idea, just go about things the wrong way. Pottiness was in Brown's genes because no small number of his family back home in New England were certifiably crackers. Brown had 22 children, so you'd think he'd be too worn out to start a revolution. Many of his children saw things his way, though, and they were with him when he set off to attack number 171 in Shoreline Drive. Unfortunately not many others were.

The train driver spread his message, the local soldiery turned up and they and shopkeepers surrounded the arsenal. Then the proper army closed captured the bridge across the Potomac, cut off Brown's escape and marched on Harper's Ferry. And that was the end of that and, for a while, any hope of liberating slaves.

You know the other novelty in Harper's Ferry? It's where the American secretary of the interior and his office will go underground should the Ruskies ever attack. They have their own fall-out shelter, stocked with food, medicine, guns and radios. I thought about knocking at door but thought better of it.

Fort Frederick and its outlying buildings were deserted and there were no guides or open doors. Keith hesitated about riding this far... and made the right decision not to
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Fort Frederick: closed until either visitors or war are announced
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Small-town America
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Harper's Ferry: living on the past, but gracefully
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Today's ride: 72 km (45 miles)
Total: 262 km (163 miles)

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