Harpers Ferry

After our day spent at Antietam Battlefield, we spent Memorial Day at another site important to the history of the Civil War: Harpers Ferry.  We had actually attempted to visit Harpers Ferry last Summer as part of our road trip.  That plan had to be abandoned because of torrential rain.  This was our second chance to visit and we hoped we would not be rained off again.

The whole town of Harpers Ferry (which did once have an apostrophe) is contained within the National Historical Park.  As such, parking is seriously limited and nowhere near the centre of town.  We, therefore, parked up at the Visitors Center (being sure to stamp our National Parks passport) and took the shuttle bus down into town.  It is a system that works well and is no doubt effective in preserving the integrity of the town.  The town is historically important largely because of its geographical situation.  It is built on an area of land where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet.  All of that water generated power and that power could be harnessed for industry.  Upon visiting the area, George Washington determined it should become the site of a Federal Armory and Arsenal.  It was the presence of this facility that led to it become the scene of John Brown’s Raid, an event that contributed to the tinderbox of causes that sparked the Civil War.

Since the shuttle bus had just offloaded a whole pile of people at once, we decided to steer away from the town centre for a bit and instead headed towards the river, following its course around to the railway bridge.  This bridge crosses over to a mountainous area named Maryland Heights.  The bridge is, of course, an example of the town’s industrial heritage.  We learned that – as was true in many places – there was competition between the railroad companies and the canal.  The canal reached the town just one year ahead of the railroad which ultimately led to the demise of the canal.  We walked across the railroad, contemplating hiking up the mountain to take in the breathtaking views.  Tempting as it was, we decided it would eat up way too much time, energy, and goodwill from the children to scale the mountain.  Instead, the wander across the rail bridge was worthwhile to the kids because they found a baby turtle sitting on a tree branch above the water.




Our first stop in the town was John Brown’s Fort.  The building (originally a fire engine house) is inauthentic, having been relocated and rebuilt on a slightly different site but it illustrated the town’s most famous event.  In October 1859, abolitionist John Brown and a band of men raided the town with the intention of inspiring a slave rebellion.  Not only did the slaves not readily join the group but Brown and his comrades made several strategic errors that doomed them to failure.  They managed to capture the Armory on the first evening but by the following day they were besieged in the engine house.  It all went horribly wrong from there.  The President ordered the Marines in to end the siege.  They were commanded by none other than Robert E Lee – wearing mufti since he was on leave at the time.  That brought the raid to an end.  Harpers Ferry suffered massively during the Civil War.  The same geography that had been advantageous meant it was strategically important to the armies of the north and south and thus it switched between the Confederacy and the Union eight times.  Further, when the Federal garrison surrendered to the Confederates in 1862, it was the largest military surrender in US history until World War II.  In the 2oth Century, poor Harpers Ferry was subjected to a battering from the environment as storms and floods destroyed much of the town that was situated on the flood plain and brought its industry to an end.



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That harsh history was evident in the layout of the town.  The buildings closer to the water and at a lower elevation were preserved for their history but definitely had a worn and abandoned look to them and most of the industrial buildings lining the riverside were nothing more than rubble and rocky outlines.  The buildings that lined the roads that ran uphill, however, were in a much better state of preservation and were still being used as dwellings and as shops and eateries.  I loved the architecture of the place as different strategies had been used to manage the steep incline and the heights of the buildings.  We bought the boys ice cream and wandered up and down the street.

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We then popped into a confectionery shop.  This turned out to be a fascinating little place and another genre of history still – edible history.  The owners had researched historic recipes and had experimented with ingredients and methods in order to replicate candies and other sweet treats from throughout history.  The store was arranged chronologically so it was like a timeline of sweeties.  There was marshmallow root that would have been snarfled up by the ancient Egyptians but most of the goodies dated from the 1700s onwards.  I actually felt pretty nostalgic in the 20th Century section.  Even though I didn’t live through most of that century, my Gran used to take me to an old fashioned sweet shop in Edinburgh so I was familiar with sweet traditions older than me, tastes from bygone eras.  We each picked out a bag of sweeties by way of a souvenir of our day and look forward to sampling them and using our tongues and tummies to travel through time.




Mr Pict and the 11 year old hopped on the shuttle bus to go and retrieve our car.  Meanwhile, the three other kids and I decided we would walk along the canal side.  It was a pleasant walk – though we did have to tread carefully since there was goose poop and squelchy mud everywhere – and very peaceful since few people were walking that stretch.  The stroll afforded us the opportunity to see more of the industrial ruins of the town.  I would have liked to have crossed over the bridge to Virginius Island to see the ruins there but we were short on time so that will have to wait for a future visit.  The kids were more excited about our wildlife encounters along the Shenandoah Canal.  We saw loads of geese with their fluffy goslings swimming around in the algae covered water and there were turtles sunbathing on branches jutting out above the surface of the water.  The walk was a restful way to end our trip to Harpers Ferry.









Road Trip #17 – Cass Railroad & Droop Mountain

On the twelfth day of our road trip, we found ourselves winding up the sides of the Appalachians, flitting between sparsely populated, rural West Virginia and pockets of charming little hamlets in Virginia.  I was very taken with the beautiful wild flowers edging the roads.  Even on the busier roads, the verges were like colourful meadows.

It was just as well it was all so pretty because we spent entirely too long on these winding roads having gotten lost and taken a wrong turn that required us to double back and take an alternative, even more zig-zagging route to our destination.  Two of our children suffer from car sickness so we had to pull the car over a couple of times.  At the end of the day, our youngest was fist pumping in celebration of having beaten his previous record and filled a dozen bags with vomit. Through it all I tried to focus on the  pretty wildflowers.

We also had a couple of wildlife encounters.  The less exciting one was that we found a turtle moseying across the road at an alarmingly slow pace.  Knowing it was likely to get pancaked, we halted the car so I could get out and move the turtle.  As I reached down to scoop it up, however, it decided that was the time to get a wriggle on and it darted from my grasp but in the opposite direction to where it had been headed.  What then followed was a minute or so of me scurrying around after a turtle that was doing the equivalent of handbrake turns and looking like some sort of hybrid of Dr Doolittle and the Keystone Cops.  Far more excitingly, however, WE SAW A BEAR.  We were reaching the crest of a particular steep stretch of road and I was just looking up from the latest bag of puke I had tied up when I saw the dark shape clambering the grass verge to our left.  I yelled, “Bear!” so suddenly and loudly that Mr Pict automatically breaked (which was OK as we were the only car on the road).  And there was indeed a baby black bear scrambling up the slope towards the treeline. By the time I got my phone out of my pocket, the bear was gone and my photo opportunity was missed.  We waited for a good few minutes in the hope that it might reappear or even that its mother or siblings might appear but nothing more stirred and we finally had to move on.  We were, however, all terribly excited to have seen a wild bear.

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After our meandering route, being waylaid by the pukers, and the stop for bear spotting and turtle rescuing, it was late morning by the time we arrived at Cass where we planned on taking the scenic railroad.  Our intention had been to take a railroad trip from Cass up to the summit of Bald Knob, a local mountain, but we had missed that train by a couple of hours.  In fact, we were lucky to be able to take any train whatsoever as the last train of the day was due to depart just 15 minutes after we arrived.  The tickets turned out to be pricier than we had expected but we felt we could not very well have gone through all of that palaver just to turn around and go all the way back again.  It transpired the Bald Knob excursion would have taken us 4 hours so it was possibly lucky we did not end up doing that.  The tickets we bought were for a 2 hour trip to Whittaker Station, a recreated logging camp, and back.



We had no sooner boarded the open sided railcars – converted log cars – and sat ourselves on the benches than we were off on our trip.  Cass was founded in the very early 1900s as a company town serving a lumber operation so the first site that pulled into view was the ruins of the large sawmill.  We were informed that at one time this was the largest double-banded sawmill in the world.  It was so rusty and derelict that I would have loved to have gotten out and explored it but we chuffed on.  We then passed the sheds where we could see two of the Shay engines owned by the railroad.  I know almost absolutely zilch about railway history but we were given the distinct impression that these were a big deal.




We were being pulled and pushed by Shay engine number 4 and there was one chap shovelling a ton of coal just to get us up and down Black Allegheny Mountain.  I write that the engine was both pulling and pushing us because the standard gauge had two switchbacks to allow for the gradient of the hill.  Therefore, sometimes the engine was behind the railcars and other times it was in front of them.  The gradient was 5% until the second switchback when it became 9%.




The train emerged from the trees into a clearing which was the site of a recreated logging camp.  The clearing had once been the camp for the immigrant workers who constructed the railway line but it was now being used to demonstrate what a typical logging camp of the 1940s would have looked like – logging having ceased there in 1960.   According to my phone, the elevation at the Whittaker Station was 3280 and at Cass was 2470 so that was the measure of the journey we had made.




We wandered around and had a look into the wooden shanties.  Some of these were set up as work huts, where the saws were sharpened for instance, and others were set up to show the accommodation the loggers would have stayed in.  There was also a dining car where the workers would have been fed by the camp cook.  There were then several pieces of large mechanical equipment I admit I did not fully understand but which were clearly used for moving massive logs around.  Apparently one of these – a Lidgerwood Tower Skidder – is one of only two left in the whole world.  I know as little about industrial history as I do railroad history so I entirely failed to absorb the information I was reading.





After some refreshments, we boarded the railcars again and headed back down the mountain.  The boys played on some of the old locomotives and cabooses set up near the Cass station but soon we had to make tracks.




Back down the mountains we drove with more groaning from nauseous children and more barf bags being filled and no more exciting wildlife to distract and excite us.  We passed the birthplace of the author Pearl Buck. Not even I could muster enthusiasm for that.  We felt like we were on a road to nowhere.  We were all getting fractious, parents included.

And then we were saved by the Civil War.

Although my husband is a Civil War nerd, he had not actually planned this little detour.  It was just serendipity.  We needed some fresh air and to stretch our legs and he got to visit another Civil War battle site.  Win-win.  The Battle of Droop Mountain occurred in November 1863 when Confederate forces attempted to stop Union troops passing through the area to meet up with other troops and destroy Confederate railway lines.  After a brief but bloody fight, the Union forces won the day and consequently pretty much took West Virginia since the Confederates collapsed and gave up.


Something like 400 men died at Droop Mountain.  Apparently the unknown Confederate dead were removed to a cemetery in Lewisburg.  Some must have remained, however, as there was a small moss covered plot at the edge of the woods containing worn headstones.  There was something very poignant about it, about how remote it was, how untended, the way it was being consumed by nature.


As dusk began to settle, my feral kids wandered around the site, spotted deer lurking in the dark shadows of the woods, and we climbed up a modern watch tower to get a good view of the surrounding landscape.  The place had meaning for Mr Pict and he was soon deciphering the view in relation to what had happened in 1863 but to the rest of us it was just a welcome break from the car and some respite from the winding roads.






Our room for the night was a ramshackle motel in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  It was a spacious room and we all had adequate sleeping space but the place was beat up and had definitely seen better days.  The kids moaned about the parsimonious internet but I was more concerned about the fact the air conditioning was preset and could not be adjusted.  Worse still was the fact that the orange blinking light on the phone would not switch off no matter what we did so I felt like I was napping on a helipad all night.  Not good.  It was a cruddy end to a day that had ultimately been a bit of a bust.  The railroad trip was pleasant enough but we had wasted the better part of a day on it so it did not, for us anyway, represent the best utilisation of our time.  We just had to keep reminding ourselves that had we not taken the road to Cass – indeed had we not taken the wrong road to Cass – then we never would have seen the bear.  Bears win.


Road Trip #16 – Thurmond

After spending a good few hours exploring Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine, we headed a short distance away to visit a ghost town named Thurmond, now in the care of the National Park Service.

The drive to Thurmond was beautiful.  In fact, throughout our travels in West Virginia I was struck by just how arrestingly beautiful the landscape was.  Perhaps it reminded me a little bit of Scotland and was stirring some homesickness for hills and glens and thick forests of trees.  The road to Thurmond was also very reminiscent of the single track roads we were very familiar with from living in Argyll for over a decade, winding and bumpy and with a new vista opening up around every corner.  It also took us, however, past scenes of pretty dire poverty. There were lots of run down shacks and trailers, some looking to be derelict to the point of collapse.  I don’t think I have seen poverty like it in America since visiting reservations in the South West.


We crossed a single track road bridge that was attached to a rusty iron rail bridge and emerged on the other side of the gorge at the railway depot building that serves as the NPS office and small museum.  We chatted to the friendly Park Ranger and had a look around the small museum and saw a three dimensional map of the area, demonstrating the extreme curve that trains have to take around the curve of the gorge and Thurmond nestled on the edge.  Trains still come through Thurmond including Amtrak passenger trains which people can board at Thurmond a couple of times a week.  Thurmond, fact fans, is America’s second least used train station after one in Texas.  Looking at the map again, it seemed to me a bit of a marvel that trains could make that bend at any sort of speed and still keep on the track.


Thurmond was once a bustling and thriving Appalachian town.  Its economy was dependent on the interrelated business of the local coal mines and the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway.  It was at Thurmond that all the trains from the surrounding mines would be coupled together to form one large train for shipment elsewhere in the nation.  In its heyday, there was a strip of commercial buildings along the line of the railway track and then residential buildings on the hills behind.  A hotel – long since burned down – was famous as the site of the longest card game in history, lasting something like fourteen years.  This hotel, the Dun Glen, had made Thurmond a resort town but when it burned down in the 1930 and one of the town’s two banks failed the following year that was the start of the town’s rapid decline.

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As we set off to explore the remaining buildings, we were warned that the heat had brought out lots of rattlesnakes in the area to bask in the sunshine.  This set up the kids to have high expectations of a dangerous snake encounter.  When none materialised, they became somewhat irked.  This was because they were already annoyed at not being able to access any of the abandoned buildings in the ghost town.  Back home in Argyll, one of their favourite spots had been the abandoned crofting village of Arichonan and then there were all the ruined castles in the vicinity too so they were used to being able to get into places and quite annoyed that Thurmond did not permit that.  The grumps swiftly set in and, in the baking heat, they were soon fractious.

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Then, just when the kids were nearing peak crankiness, a train saved the day.  We heard the train hooter (that’s not what it’s called, is it?) echo long before we saw it but soon a coal train came into view and stopped just beside the depot briefly before setting off again.  Apparently these trains only come through eight times a month so we were lucky to be there to see it during our visit.  It was massively long and the boys enjoyed trying to count the coal wagons as it hurtled past us and one of the boys even tried to race it for a bit.




Following our visit to Thurmond, I risked inciting the wrath of the children by dragging us on a bonkers detour.  We had noticed on the map that there was a place nearby named Lochgelly.  Since I am from Fife, I knew the original Lochgelly well and thought it would be fun to go and see a town in West Virginia that had been named after a coal mining town in Fife.  A bit of googling reveals that the town was originally named Stuart but a mining explosion in 1907 that killed 85 workers led to a difficulty in hiring miners to the mine there.  The name change was, therefore, a way to remove the taint of disaster.  The mining connection meant it was named for Lochgelly in Fife.  There was really no purpose to our excursion to Lochgelly other than for me to be able to say I had been.  We pulled up at a mulch company which was handily right next door to a frozen custard place.  The kids were plied with frozen custard which cooled them down and put an end to their cantankerousness.


Having gone as far as Lochgelly, Mr Pict and I decided it was not much further to the New River Gorge Bridge so we should go check it out.  It was once the longest single span arch bridge in the world, is the second highest bridge in America, and stands 876 feet above the New River that runs beneath.  Having got the idea from driving across the bridge, the kids refused to get out of the car to see it.  I, therefore, wandered out to the viewpoint on my own to see a vista of it.  There were steps that would take my down to the bottom for a worm’s eye view but I decided that I had neither the time nor inclination to descend and ascend hundreds of wooden steps just to get a different perspective on a road bridge.


We ended the day with a challenge.  Dining at a local steakhouse in Beckley, our 9 year old pleaded with Mr Pict to try their steak eating challenge.  Mr Pict initially resisted and placed an order for an entirely different meal.  Our 9 year old loves cookery competition TV shows so he was disappointed.  Between his pleading chocolate brown eyes, pouting lip, and his broken arm, his Dad capitulated and changed his order.  He had to eat a 31 ounce steak plus the sweet potato fries and salad that accompanied it.  Every. Last. Morsel.  And he managed it!  The kids were over the moon and our 9 year old declared him to be his “idol”.

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Road Trip #15 – Beckley Exhibition Mine

Just a brief drive from our hotel was the Beckley Exhibition Mine.  I have been in several coal mines but never an American one and the kids had never been in a coal mine at all.  West Virginia is famously a coal mining region so it seemed like the ideal place to go and visit.


We started with a mine tour led by a brilliantly engaging former miner named Roger.  He had immense knowledge about coal mining, of course, but also wonderful patter, anecdotes galore, and great regional idiom.  I could have listened to Roger talk for hours on end.  We clambered aboard rickety trailers and were pulled through the chilly dark mine.  At various points, the trailers would come to a halt and we would be shown and taught some aspect of the mines.  For instance, we were shown the various and evolving methods for monitoring and managing deadly gases and oxygen levels in the shafts and seams.  We also learned about kettle bottoms, pieces of petrified wood that might fall dangerously from the roof.  Having seen petrified wood (and I own some as a memento of my visit to Arizona’s Petrified Forest) I had never considered that the below surface wood might present a subterranean hazard.  The kids also learned about piece work payments and the pittance payed being reduced further by being issued partly in scrip that could only be used in the company store, over and above the rent for tied housing.  We also learned about mining accidents and the fact that widows had five days to find a new miner husband or else be evicted.  We saw scooters that were used to ride the rails and were later used by miner’s children as toys.  Roger also showed us an example of a miner’s metal lunch pail, all compartmentalised like a bento box, with water in the bottom to slake thirsts.  We were advised that putting granny’s false teeth in the pail would stop the water being pinched.




The site contains – in addition to the mine – authentic buildings from mining camps around West Virginia relocated and reconstructed on site.  We first visited the Superintendent’s house.  It was surprisingly spacious and looked quite comfortable.  While the contents were sold as vintage and from a bygone era, I smiled in recognition at many of them since my Grandad was still using a mangle, for example, well into my childhood.  The boys were particularly taken with the one room school house.  The volunteer docent in that building was vivacious and bubbling with information.  The boys chuckled at her tales of dipping girls’ pigtails into ink wells, getting the paddle, and the dunce corner.  They also liked seeing the quills, water crock and heating stove.  As a former teacher, I had to have a go and being the mining camp teacher while my kids played the role of school students.  It was great fun.




Next we headed to the tiny bachelor house.  It really was no bigger than a decent sized shed.  It looked comfy enough in a compact bedsit sort of a way but one could appreciate the incentive to marry and graduate to a larger property.  This was represented by the adjacent three room miner house which was decorated in 1930s style.  The kids had fun playing house and swinging on the veranda.  We finished our tour of the mining buildings in the church.  I liked it for its simplicity.  The kids pretended to deliver sermons and play the organ.








Also on site, housed in cabooses, was a Children’s Museum.  We almost skipped this, mindful of time, but were very glad that we decided to pop in because it was an absolute hoot.  For some reason, the theme was the Wizard of Oz.  I have no clue what the connection to either mining or West Virginia was but as Oz fans the kids and I cared not.  There were loads of fun activities for the kids – they could act out the Oz stories using puppets or costumes (scripts supplied), click their heels in magic slippers, create a tornado, do target practice with flying monkeys, rebuild the scarecrow, and play with mirrors – and the latter had everyone howling with laughter.








The Beckley Mine was one of the highlights of our road trip.  We had actually rather expected it to be a bit of a detour between other activities but it was thoroughly interesting and engaging.  We all got something from it and we all had immense fun.  My 10 year old even made an inchworm friend.




Road Trip #14 -Daniel Boone National Forest

After a day of thought provoking stimulus at the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter, we needed an unstructured day where the kids could be wild and feral.  They had done a great job of containing their thoughts and opinions so it was time to let loose and be uninhibited.  Therefore, as we trekked east across Kentucky, we popped into the Daniel Boone National Forest.

The National Forest has been in existence since the 1930s (though it was only named after the famous frontiersman Daniel Boone in the 1960s) and covers a vast expanse.  Given we had a child with a broken arm and time was required in the day to get from Kentucky to West Virginia, we knew we could not accomplish anything too adventurous in the forest.  The kids fancied swimming in a lake so we settled on an area called Two Knobs (honestly) where the map indicated there was a swimming beach.

My aversion to sand is well recorded on this blog but this beach was covered in the worst possible kind of sand.  It was actually just dry and gritty dirt that happened to abut a body of water.  It also was not a very clean beach.  There was litter all over the place and thousands of cigarette butts.  Given the beach was manned by wardens and we had to pay for the pleasure of parking within the forest’s boundaries, I was disappointed that the beach was not being maintained to a better standard.  Despite it being picturesque and peaceful, grit and litter is rather yuck.

Nevertheless our boys loved the water. Sitting in a little bowl shaped dip, surrounded by hills and trees, the lake was a muddy colour but very warm.  While three of the boys swam and splashed, the 9 year old and we parents paddled.  Feeling ticklish, we realised that there were little fish nibbling at our toes. It was a weird feeling but quite pleasant.  When I was a child, I was swimming in a river when a shoal (if that is the word) of eels rushed past me.  They felt slippery and muscular and left me feeling a bit claustrophobic.  Not a pleasant feeling.  But the little nibbly fish were quite welcome.  I have never had that treatment where you shove your feet in tanks to get dead skin cleared off by fish but I could understand the appeal.  The 9 year old was delighted.  It somewhat made up for not being able to swim.  Maybe.






We crossed the border into West Virginia that afternoon and immediately searched for a place to eat.  We found a lovely place in Hurricane called the Fireside Grille.  I am not sure if it is part of a chain or not but we had certainly never encountered another.  It had the feel of a gastro pub, was clean and tidy and had a nice atmosphere.   The service was excellent and, while the menu was simple, the food was all really well made and delicious.  I had an amazing beer and cheese soup with a chicken salad sandwich but it was so stuffed that I became too stuffed to finish it.  My husband and 10 year old had shrimp and Mr Pict declared that the blue cheese dressing he had with the salad was the best he had ever had.  Somewhat predictably the other three had burgers.  The youngest two had cheeseburgers with wonderfully fluffy, potatoey, crunchy coated fries (I know because I stole one) and my oldest customised a burger which was cooked perfectly medium-rare and to which he awarded four out of five points on his burger scale.  And with that pit stop I got to claim West Virginia, my sixth new state  – and last new state of this trip – and 31st state overall.

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Our hotel for the next two nights was the Country Inn and Suites in Beckley.  Given all of our accommodation hiccups we were a bit trepidatious about staying somewhere untried and untested for two consecutive nights but it turned out to be the best accommodation on this road trip.  The hotel was lovely, spacious and spotless, and our room was great.  It also had the boys’ favourite swimming pool of the road trip.  The indoor pool – and there was also a large whirpool tub type pool – was large and had a little underwater tunnel through which the outdoor pool could be accessed.  The orthopedic doctor in Chicago had said it was OK to swim in a pool so our 9 year old could actually swim on his back in the whirlpool tub since he did not have to use his broken arm and nobody else was using it.

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