Monday, August 13, 2007

Shepherdstown and Harper's Ferry.

Because we confined our trip to Berkely Springs to a single weekend, and we got settled in Friday night, we only really had one full day to explore the area. Through the relatively modest amount of research I did beforehand I knew that there wasn't a lot of essentials that I would regret missing. I figured we'd spend part of Saturday on the road, and had some vague plans about towns I'd like to visit while I had the chance.

We were in the easternmost part of WV, and that section of the state seems more like Virginia or Maryland then the land of "hoopies". Part of the reason for that is its proximity to Washington DC. It was pretty clear that many people from the capitol region have summer houses near Berkely Springs. It's not as hilly as the main part of West Virginia, and it has a discernibly different identity. The most common description that ran through my head was "quaint". There are a lot of self-consciously old-fashioned small towns, with clean streets and little shops. In addition the area has a whole lot of Civil War history. Having enjoyed our trip to Gettysburg a few years ago, we figured seeing some similar battle sights might be worthwhile.

Unfortunately since the previous few days had been exhausting, we got a late start. Around noon we plotted a course, and I despaired of seeing much of all. Then of course the bridge spanning that particular stretch of the Potomac was confined to a single lane of costruction (relecting perhaps the recent tragedy of bridge collapse?) , and that took away another bite of precious time. But we made a big circle around our target towns on route 70, and eventually got off around Antietam. I know almost nothing about the specifics of that battle, and I was looking forward to seeing the miniature replica of the conflict at a roadside museum. Can you believe that it was closed at 2PM on a Saturday? This added to our overall bleak impression of our itinerary. We drove a bit through the battleground itself and scanned a few plaques, but without a greater context it meant close to nothing. Anyway neither of us are particularly interested in staring at barren expanses- we are more likely to appreciated a cheesy wax museum. We drove on through Sharpsburg.

Eventually we found Shepherdstown which contains the small Shepherd College. I was struck by the contrived old-timey feeling of the business district. It felt like a living reconstruction of a contemporary yuppie's dream of historically significant shopping. Yes... it was quaint. I did however find several shops worth spending time in. Four Season Books has a nice back room of remainders and used books. Their selection was broad and hip. We grabbed lunch at the Yellow Brick Bank. We probably would not have chosen the restaurant at dinner (too expensive), but lunch was excellent and reasonably priced. I had a pasta dish with several different cheeses, and it was delectable. The interior is charming with its old-school stylings and decor. They also have a good beer selection (which I chose not to take advantage of). I followed lunch with a stop at The Lost Dog coffeehouse, which was surprisingly progressive and hip. There was vaguely edgy art on the walls, and its staff would be completely at home in any prospering inner city enclave. And they didn't stumble on my extremely finicky drink order.

Thus fortified we continued down the road to Harper's Ferry. I had desired a look at at the scene of John Brown's aborted rebellion, and I figured on taking a relaxed walk through another forgotten village. Almost immediately we realized that it's actually a significant tourist destination. The town-planners have set up a system to encourage visitors to park in a lot outside of town, and pay $6 to ride a shuttle bus. I wasn't having it. I figured I'd be able to find street parking. Once we got to its center, I thought I had made a mistake. But against all odds we found a free space right in the thick of things. It was surprisingly crowded with white faces perched atop business-casual outfits. If you ever plan to visit, you need to wear your "sensible" shoes, because it is packed with steep inclines and outdoor stairways. The park service has restored several buildings with artifacts and original designs, and the history buff can peer through glass at the interiors. Among those buildings are a mass of shops and restaurants where you can buy civil war replicas and sweets.

Although we couldn't find anything that looked like a centralized museum, we did go inside the John Brown Wax Museum. Even though I made sure to get permission to take photos, the old crone manning the desk felt obliged to threaten a lawsuit should I deign to sell any images. In every moment she gave us the impression that she hates her plight in life. Maybe she is paranoid that some ambitious competitor will rise up and start a rival wax museum in town. She was actually babbling to herself as we looked at the first few vignettes. Perhaps she continued, but eventually we were beyond the reach of her whiney voice. In retrospect- if she was so suspicious of my intentions, she should have simply prohibited any photography. I would have accepted that, as it is policy at many such places. Anyway the exhibits were vaguely entertaining, if not exactly life-like. I would suggest that when that bitter old woman at the front counter dies, she should be stuffed and promoted as John Brown's long-suffering wife. It will give the place some added bite.

Overall I would recommend Harper's Ferry as a diverting family experience. It does seem that its modern inhabitants have a wish to insulate it from the homogenization of gimmicky technology. I admire the commitment to preserve the historical authenticity of the village. There are a host of live actors in period costumes that lend a serious tenor to the events that took place there. Unfortunately the arsenal itself is long gone, and the firehouse that housed the captured rebels has been moved repeatedly. But there is enough to see to warrant spending the better part of a day in Harper's Ferry. And if the kids get restless they can always go for a dip in the river.

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Anonymous jefg said...

Glad to hear you enjoyed your brief time in Harpers Ferry. At the age of 16, a friend of my older brother decided to take the neighborhood group for a spin in his newly purchased auto. He (we) had no destination in mind, though a road trip at that age sounded exciting. Well, several hours later we found ourselves in Harpers Ferry. Enjoying most things Civil War, I enjoyed the sites. What I didn't really understand or appreciate at the time was how the uprising fit within the bigger picture of the time. Today, if I was going, I'd spend a couple of hours on the Internet studying up. Two things come to mind; first, I thought the view at the confluence of the rivers was beautiful, and two, I recall how a certain young boy who now has a great interest in American History appeared to have absolutely none growing up. In a car of four (different car, about 15-20 years later), I was constantly outvoted (by a vote of 3-1) when I suggested stopping at some distant Civil or Revolutionary War battlefield.

7:40 AM  

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