A Great Big Lark

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Caves and Goats at Harpers Ferry

This small cave is located in the hillside above Potomac Street and below High Street in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia-- a beautiful, sleepy old town at the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. Centuries of peace and quiet have enveloped the town, with the exception of the years before and during the Civil War, when it was the scene of John Brown's attempted takeover of the U.S. Armory and the object of constant contention between the Federal and Confederate Armies.

The photo above is a reminder of two of Harpers Ferry's more eccentric residents. The cave, I am told, is Dr. Brown's Cave, or at least that is the name by which it is currently known. There are stories of a cave located in or near town, yet the identity of which "Brown" used the cave, or if either of the "Browns" actually used this particular cave, remain unclear. "It is said" that there's a cave at Harpers Ferry that John Brown used. Local lore recorded in the papers of Grant Conway tell of a cave near the B&O Railroad tracks where slaves met and plotted to assist John Brown in his insurrection. This cave was said to have had a passage which ended at the basement of the Harper House. A Union soldier named Edward Schilling wrote a letter to his family in March of 1863 where he described a cave found by him and a group of friends while they were foraging for boards. He described long passages and large caverns, some containing water, as well as signs that someone had used the cave before them.

There was an earlier Brown, however, who may have used this cave first and given it its name. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, a former surgeon in the American Revolutionary Army, a native of Scotland, took up residence in Harpers Ferry. This Dr. Brown was a bachelor and was well enough off that he could afford to be eccentric and risk the disapproval of local society. One of the manifestations of his uniqueness was his great love of dogs and cats. It is said that in his strolls through this tiny town, Dr. Brown was sometimes accompanied by as many as 50 dogs. He used, as his storehouse and pharmacy, "a cave, partly natural and partly artificial." Dr. Brown's residence was on the south side of High Street, just above the cave in the photo above. When I looked into this cave, it appeared to be just a small chamber. Could there have been a passage in a corner that I overlooked, which may have led to more openings and passageways beneath the town? Maybe the natural portions of the cave have been closed off....or maybe they just remain hidden from the casual visitor. Then again, maybe this little chamber is just a conveniently visible feature useful for ghost tours and historical interpretations, something accessible that can be attached to the colorful legends of this town.

The most interesting thing about the cave I found to be the painting of a goat on the rear wall, facing the entrance. This made more sense, however, when I later came upon the story of a man who, shortly after the Civil War, lived across the Potomac River from Harpers Ferry and kept a herd of goats. Some of these goats got into the habit of climbing the steep cliffs of Maryland Heights, and became more and more wild as the years went on. In 1890, the herd was thought to number about a hundred, and goats could clearly be seen on most days by people on the train platform at Harpers Ferry, scrambling among the rocks in the inaccessible areas of the Heights above the river. The rocky hillside on which the feral goats loved to roam faced the opening of my goat cave, on the opposite side of the Potomac River. The goats remained and in 1980, there were still 28 wild goats roaming the cliffs. At one point following this, residents began to notice the absence of the once familiar goats, and still no one knows what happened to them. Harpers Ferry Park historian Kevin Frye has a theory, though....He believes that one cold winter night, the goats took shelter in the railroad tunnel and were killed by a freight train.


View of Maryland Heights and the railroad tunnel from the hillside near the Catholic Church in Harpers Ferry

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