Archive for the ‘C & O Canal National Historical Park’ Category

The Night Riders of Harpers Ferry

April 24, 2013



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.


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.