Archive for the ‘The Night Riders of Harpers Ferry’ Category

The Night Riders of Harpers Ferry

April 24, 2013

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THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

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

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.

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(C&O Canal National Historical Park Photo)

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

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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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(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.

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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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Heading Home

January 20, 2012

(Special note:  Thank you, thank you!  As I write this, Old World Murder and The Heirloom Murders are ranked in the top 1% of the 8 million books that Amazons tracks, and for the last 3 weeks OWM has been in the top 50 on Amazon’s Best Selling Mysteries list.  The Kindle download of Old World Murder will be available for the special price of $1.99 through the end of January.)

The first novel I ever wrote, The Other Side of the Line, was set during the American Civil War. I was fifteen, growing up in the border state of Maryland, and already long fascinated by the difficult complexities citizens faced during those turbulent years. (That novel, thank goodness, was never published.)

That's me in the '70s, looking over Harpers Ferry from the lookout spot on Maryland Heights.

I spent summers in Frederick and Washington Counties. While attending and later working for a summer camp I canoed Antietam Creek, hiked to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and tramped over the rolling fields of Antietam National Battlefield. In the 1970s and early 1980s, most attention was focused on the military campaigns that raged through those places.  I found myself staring at the beautiful old homes that pre-dated the war and wondering, What happened to the people who lived there? What did civilians experience during the war?

The Piper Farm, Antietam National Battlefield

Those questions stayed with me when I moved to Wisconsin in 1982, and I started digging to find the answers. Twelve years later, I received a contract for Too Afraid To Cry:  Civilians in the Antietam Campaign.

This was a from-the-heart project.

The research done for that nonfiction book led to my first three published novels, The Night Riders of Harpers Ferry, The Bravest Girl in Sharpsburg, and Retreat From Gettysburg.

The war-time exploits of Theresa Kretzer, who lived in this private home in Sharpsburg, MD, provided inspiration for my second book, The Bravest Girl in Sharpsburg.

I later published two more Civil War novels but as my career developed, I moved in new directions.  My most recent historical mysteries for young readers, published by American Girl, have let me delve into a variety of eras and places. My Chloe Ellefson mysteries for adults focus—so far—on Wisconsin history. I do love plunging into new themes and settings!

Thirteen years have passed since Too Afraid to Cry was published. This September, however, marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. Next week I’ll be flying to Maryland to be interviewed for a documentary Maryland Public Television is producing to commemorate the event.  That’s prompted me to revisit the stories I found so compelling way back when.

The Pry House, Antietam National Battlefield

It’s also reminded me that the trajectory of my writing career can be traced back to those days when I wandered through Western Maryland, intrigued by the power of battlefield landscapes. The old houses that remain stand as silent tribute to what everyday people—those who didn’t choose to go to war, but instead had war descend on them—once endured.  I’m grateful to the MPT producers who’ve given me this opportunity to return home, in more ways than one.

Long Green Tunnel

May 12, 2010

I believe that in almost every case, employees of historic sites best serve the public when they strive to create an environment that is as historically authentic as possible.

Here’s an exception:  The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park.

The C & O Canal towpath, near Sandy Hook, MD.

The C & O Canal, built between 1828 and 1850, served as an all-water transportation route from Georgetown to Cumberland, Maryland.  A series of locks allowed canal boats to navigate the 184 miles.  The national park service purchased the canal in 1938, after it ceased operation.

The canal follows the Potomac River.

The park is one of my favorite places.  When I was a kid I attended a summer camp perched on a cliff above the canal, near Sandy Hook, Maryland.  Later, I worked there.  I hiked local stretches many times, often tromping down to Harpers Ferry.  In 1981, a friend and I biked the entire towpath.

My friend Ruth (on left) and I pedaled from Cumberland to DC.

The park includes over 1,300 historic structures—more than any other park in the system!  And a few are fully restored.  Visitors can experience a glimpse of life as it used to be on the canal at several lockkeepers’ houses, and even take a canal boat ride at Georgetown or Great Falls.  Rangers and volunteer interpreters provide a variety of programming.

It would be fiscally impossible for the the park service to rebuild or maintain every lock and historic structure along the way.  But in some ways, the building foundations and now-gateless locks still found along the canal are even more evocative than the restored buildings.  Who hauled those stones?  Who tended these locks?  What was life like in the heyday of canal travel?

Every ruin has stories to tell.

The fact that these remnants are not directly interpreted invite passers-by to wonder, and to imagine for themselves.

My first published novel!

During one of my early Wisconsin winters, I amused myself by writing my way back to the C & O Canal, and to nearby Harpers Ferry.  That led to my first published book, The Night Riders of Harpers Ferry.  One of the main characters, Mahalia, tends Lock 36 during the Civil War.

A couple of weeks ago I had a chance to take a quick hike on one of my favorite stretches of the canal.  I wandered back along the towpath from Sandy Hook to Lock 36.  The ruin of the locktender’s home, where Mahalia lived with her family in my novel, is more substantial than many along the canal.  It is also tucked away among the undergrowth, being reclaimed by the forest, visible from the towpath and yet easily missed.

My character's home near Lock 36. In real life, the structure was severely damaged during a flood in 1936.

And the environment?  I saw orioles and butterflies, wildflowers and ferns, snapping turtles and frogs… and lots more, all within a mile or so.

I like to imagine what the towpath looked like in its heyday, and I applaud the restoration work that still goes on along the canal.  But I wouldn’t want to see the trees cut down along all 184 miles of the towpath in order to simulate the period when tow ropes stretched from the canal boats to teams of mules trudging along the path.

The towpath looked quite different back in the day. (NPS photo)

The combination of history and greenspace is very special, just the way it is.

Whitewater Canal State Historic Site

October 8, 2009

When I was a kid, I attended a summer camp perched on a steep rise above the C&O Canal near Sandy Hook, Maryland.  We hiked miles and miles along the shady towpath, finding the ruins of old lockhouses, and wood ducks, and all kinds of adventures along the way.  Later, during one very rainy spring break, my friend Ruth and I biked the entire length of the canal.  So my fondness for canals goes way back.

In fact, my first published book, The Night Riders of Harpers Ferry, is set along the C&O Canal.  During one long Wisconsin winter, the writing process took me back—at least in my imagination—to some of my favorite haunts.

Replica packet boat, Whitewater Canal State Historic Site, Indiana

Replica packet boat, Whitewater Canal State Historic Site, Indiana

All those memories came back last weekend, when I visited the Whitewater Canal State Historic Site in Metamora, Indiana.  Visitors to Metamora can take a short ride on a replica packet boat, the Ben Franklin III.   What struck me the most was the peaceful sensation of silently gliding along the waterway.   It wasn’t hard to imagine the lure of 19th-century canal life.

The Whitewater Canal was conceived in 1836, when Indiana legislators passed the Internal Improvements Act to help entice new white settlers and business to the area.  Unfortunately, the state of Indiana actually went bankrupt in the 1840s, and private investors had to take over the canal project.

In my own travels along canals and towpaths, I’ve been most fascinated by the lives of those who worked the boats and the locks.  The guide on the Ben Franklin III did talk of those people.  (I learned that fistfights sometimes broke out among rival boatmen wanting first passage through a particular lock.)

Today, Belgians do the work once done by mules.

Today, Belgians do the work once done by mules.

However, he spoke most about the men who built the canal.  Most of them were Irish laborers who had fled famine in Ireland, working for years to pay off their passage to America.  It took eleven years to build the canal (which then operated for only eleven years.)   Some men, perhaps those with big families, were still in debt when the canal was finished; they were then assigned to labor on one of the new railroads.  The guide made me wonder what life was like for these men and their families.  Poor, illiterate, more likely to rent shabby shacks than to own homes, they left little evidence of their personal lives behind.

I actually touched on this topic in another book, Retreat From Gettysburg, which is about an Irish-American boy in the canal town of Williamsport, Maryland.  That book is set during the Civil War, however, and explores different themes.   If I ever write another book set along a canal, I’ll dig a little deeper into the lives of those immigrants who gambled their future on new lives as laborers in America.  And the next time I walk or bike along a canal towpath, I’ll remember the men who sweated to provide me such a pleasant outing, all these years later.