Posted by: harpersferry | December 13, 2007

A Harpers Ferry Traveler Passing Through – 1917


Here’s a wonderful entry from 90 years ago by American author, playright, and all-around bon vivant Julian Street (1879-1947). Among his novels, screenplays and non-fiction writings (including pioneering treatises on French wine!), Street wrote a couple of popular travel books: Abroad at Home: American Ramblings, Observations, and Adventures, published in 1914, and a sequel a couple of years later simply called American Adventures: A Second Trip “Abroad at Home.” Long out of print – and out of copyright, Street’s second book is now available for online reading and download via the excellent online catalog Project Gutenberg. Chapter IX finds him crossing into Harpers Ferry from the East:

Three States meet at Harper’s Ferry, and the line dividing two of them is indicated where it crosses the station platform. If you alight at the rear end of the train, you are in Maryland; at the front, you are in West Virginia. This I like. I have always liked important but invisible boundaries—boundaries of states or, better yet, of countries. When I cross them I am disposed to step high, as though not to trip upon them, and then to pause with one foot in one land and one in another, trying to imagine that I feel the division running through my body.Harpers Ferry is an entrancing old town; a drowsy place piled up beautifully yet carelessly upon terraced roads clinging to steep hillsides. which slope on one side to the Potomac, on the other to the Shenandoah, and come to a point, like the prow of a great ship, at the confluence of the two.

There is something foreign in the appearance of the place. Many times, as I looked at old stone houses, a storey or two high on one side, three or four stories on the other, seeming to set their claws into the cliffs and cling there for dear life, I thought of houses in Capri and Amalfi, and in some towns in France; and again there were low cottages built of blocks of shale covered with a thin veneer of white plaster showing the outlines of the stones beneath, which, squatting down amid their trees and flowers, resembled peasant cottages in Normandy or Brittany, or in Ireland.

Harpers Ferry in 1917 - sketch by Wallace Morgan

It is a town in which to ramble for an hour, uphill, down and around; stopping now to delight in a crumbling stone wall, tied together with Kenilworth ivy; now to watch a woman making apple butter in a great iron pot; now to see an old negro clamber slowly into his rickety wagon, take up the rope reins, and start his skinny horse with the surprising words: “Come hither!”; now to look at an old tangled garden, terraced rudely up a hillside; now to read the sign, on a telegraph pole in the village, bearing the frank threat: “If you Hitch your Horses Here they will be Turned Loose.”

Now you will come upon a terraced road, at one side of which stands an old house draped over the rocks in such a way as to provide entrance from the ground level, on any one of three stories; or an unexpected view down a steep roadway, or over ancient moss-grown housetops to where, as an old book I found there puts it, “between two ramparts, in a gorge of savage grandeur, the lordly Potomac takes to his embrace the beautiful Shenandoah.”

N. B. Both of Street’s “Abroad at Home” books are now out of copyright and can be freely downloaded, along with a lot of his other works.