The Night Riders of Harpers Ferry



When I was a kid, I attended a summer camp perched on a cliff above the Potomac River and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, and a short hike away from Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

As soon as I was old enough, I became an employee at the camp. During those years I walked hundreds of miles on the canal towpath, canoed the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, and visited Harpers Ferry many, many times. While I was in college, my friend Ruth and I decided to bike the entire C & O Canal Towpath.

C&O Canal Bike Trip 1981

We started at the western terminus in Cumberland, Maryland.

It rained so much that spring that many parts of the towpath were flooded.

C&O Canal Bike Trip 1981

That’s me, trying to figure out how to get around one of the flooded areas.

We had some challenges, but we finally made it to Washington D.C., after pedaling 183 miles!

After I moved to Wisconsin in 1982, I revisited in my imagination the area I loved so much. As I worked on The Night Riders of Harpers Ferry I may have been sitting in a Wisconsin farmhouse on a wintry night, but in my mind I was back roaming through western Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Lots of historic structures—and some ruins—still stand along the towpath. I’d always enjoyed imagining the lives of people who lived, worked, and traveled along the C & O Canal. I created the character of Mahalia, a young woman responsible for tending a lock, so I could share some of that fascinating history.

Here you can get a good idea of what canal boats looked like. Notice the towline? The mules pulling the boat are out of sight.


(C&O Canal National Historical Park Photo)

In The Night Riders of Harpers Ferry, Mahalia tended a lock like this one.


The photograph below, taken from Harpers Ferry during the Civil War, shows the Potomac River and Maryland Heights. The Salty Dog Tavern mentioned in The Night Riders of Harpers Ferry is among the buildings left of center, at the foot of the cliff.


(Library of Congress Photo LC – USZ62-71342)

The photo below was taken on the hill behind Harpers Ferry. The town is in the center of the photograph. The Shenandoah River (right) and the Potomac River (left) converge below the town and flow on south. Maryland Heights is on the left.

LC - B817-7133

(Library of Congress Photo LC – B817-7133)

I also wanted to include some of the drama that unfolded at Harpers Ferry during the Civil War, so I created a young Yankee cavalryman named Solomon. In 1862, Confederates took the high ground around Harpers Ferry, trapping the Yankee force stationed there. What happened next was one of the most daring adventures of the war.  As so often is the case in my books, real events inspired the plot.

This photo was taken from the cliffs of Maryland Heights, looking down at Harpers Ferry. It clearly shows some of the destruction caused by the Civil War.


(Library of Congress Photo LC – B817-7649)

This photo was also taken from Maryland Heights, just from a slightly different angle—and over a century later! That’s me, sometime in the late 1970s. The Shenandoah River and Loudon Heights are in the left side of the picture.


The Night Riders of Harpers Ferry was not the first novel I wrote, but it was the first novel I ever had published, so it will always be special to me! You can see more historic photos in the book itself, and on an earlier blog post about the canal.

Nothing beats exploring in person, though. If you’re ever in the area, be sure to visit Harpers Ferry and take a stroll on the C & O Canal!


PS – In 2012, I was invited to speak at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park as part of the commemoration of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War’s 1862 campaign.  It was a joy to be back in in the park, and one of the proudest moments of my life.


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8 Responses to “The Night Riders of Harpers Ferry”

  1. cookiebaker13 Says:

    This is the first book I read of yours and enjoyed it very much. On one of the trips of the OWW travel group by train, we went thru this town. It looked like I had imagined it. I really appreciate the background and photos that you have here. Thank you

  2. cookiebaker13 Says:

    As you know a loyal follower of your Cloe books.

  3. cookiebaker13 Says:

    For those of you that do not know me, I worked with Kathleen starting in 1986/7 at OWW. I continued to work after she left working a total of 20 years there. One has to enjoy what one does in order to work for so many years. I have the same Love for OWW as she has. We keep in contact with a few of the past and current workers at our Historical Fiction Book Club.

  4. cookiebaker13 Says:

    And if I may add more–I did photography before, during, and after those 20 years with the Shadows of the Past Gift Shop there selling my photo note cards for several years. Every nick, cranny, and corner in and out of the buildings were photographed as well as the animals, wild flowers, gardens and events. A few of the photos were from places not available to the public. I don’t know if I have photos of the second floor of the Kavale House, but I know I went up there many times, especially to check out the squirrels that were running back and forth above my head when I was on the first floor. I won’t say more, I do have much more to say. We at OWW can Talk forever and tell stories. That is how Kathleen got her start.

  5. Sherri Says:

    Thank you for the stunning pictures of Harpers Ferry, both historical and from your teen years! I’m in awe of your pedaling the length of the towpath. Kathleen, I haven’t been to Harpers Ferry in two years and I’ve only walked bits and pieces of the towpath but you’ve inspired me to plan a visit in the next month.

  6. Julie F. Kirk Says:

    George Washington , as president of the Patowmack Company (which was formed to complete river improvements on the Potomac and its tributaries), traveled to Harpers Ferry during the summer of 1785 to determine the need for bypass canals . In 1794 Washington’s familiarity with the area led him to propose the site for a new United States armory and arsenal . Some of Washington’s family moved to the area; his great-great-nephew, Colonel Lewis Washington, was held hostage during John Brown ‘s raid in 1859, and George’s brother Charles Washington founded the nearby Jefferson County town of Charles Town.

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