In the early part of the 19th century, Ferry Hill Place might have been considered the center of the New World. It was the bridge between the important Eastern cities and the Western frontier, the northernmost outpost of the southern states and the Southernmost outpost of the Northern states.
Through its front yard ran a spur of Jefferson’s “Great Philadelphia Wagon Road,” an important migratory route for settlers who were so eager for a new life that they would take their chances with Indians, diseases, frostbite, and beasts with short tempers and long teeth in order to get it. Once there, they sent food, timber and minerals back to Eastern population centers. This primitive trail evolved into bustling canals and railroads, which evolved further still into the crossroads of Interstates 70 and 81.
We all know Ferry Hill to see it, the colonnaded mansion perched atop a bluff on the Maryland side of the Potomac River overlooking Shepherdstown, W.Va. The exterior is visible from the James Rumsey Bridge, more so now that trees have been removed as part of a C&O Canal National Historical Park project to give Ferry Hill Place its proper spot in history.
The park has owned Ferry Hill since 1974, using it as office space until a decade ago and opening it on odd occasions to the curious and persistent history fans. More recently, those fans would have noticed a sorry sight — peeling wallpaper, crumbling plaster and a general deterioration that spoke of too many projects and not enough funding in the 184-mile-long park.
Last weekend, a large crowd was delighted to discover that Ferry Hill Place is on the road to recovery, helped along by a Civil War sesquicentennial grant, private donations and elbow grease from a group of local volunteers known as the Pebble Project (emblematic of the wide reach of good works, as with ripples on a pond).
And Ferry Hill will remain open daily, at least through the 150th commemoration of the Battle of Antietam in September, for anyone with the capacity to swallow two centuries of local and national history in a single gulp.
As history goes, Ferry Hill is not an event, or even an era. It is a giant swath right down the heart of America, telling rich tales of commerce, society, transportation, war and politics. “You can say it all happened right here,” said Curt Gaul, a ranger for the C&O Canal park.
When construction began on the Ferry Hill mansion in 1812, the Potomac River was “the centre of the Union,” said no less an authority than George Washington. And the Park Service’s exhibits do a wonderful job of conveying the excitement of a young nation.
“Farmers are using the reaper more and more,” wrote Jacob Miller, Sharpsburg farmer and businessman. The implications for production were clear. And with the canal and railroad, those burgeoning crops became even more profitable; a Hagerstown newspaper editorial noted that the swift and easy transportation saved 70 cents off the cost of shipping a barrel of goods — that meant an extra $90,000 into local pockets, the newspaper noted approvingly.
Washington County, wrote Ferry Hill patriarch John Blackford, was “deeply interested” in navigation on the Potomac, which at the time of the ferry to Shepherdstown was more rumor than reality. But who could say what the possibilities were? All day long, from dawn to dark, a never-ending parade of wagons trundled down the wagon road, an indication of the number of people who believed in brighter futures.
Under the Blackford/Douglas family, Ferry Hill was a plantation in the sense of the upper South — a fascinating conglomeration of crops and enterprises, where slaves were more like extended family (an extended family at times subjected to lashings; the relationships were complex), including one jack-of-all trades named Enoch. Enoch, upon receiving his freedom after the war, thought enough of his former owner to send him some cash once he was established in his new career. Henry Kyd Douglas wrote in “I Rode With Stonewall” that he didn’t need the money, but it was nice to hear from his old friend just the same.
Douglas sided with the South, and in 1861 was across the river in Shepherdstown when in the distance he saw the windows of his home light up with an unnatural glow. It was a reflection of the Potomac River bridge, set afire by his Confederate brigade, and “I realized that the war had begun.”
And after it ended, Ferry Hill would never quite be the same. It remained with local families until its acquisition by the park service, including a stint as a restaurant and tavern. The familiar columns, incidentally, weren’t added to Ferry Hill until then — a most effective billboard, giving it an Old South look, Gaul said.
The stories Ferry Hill has to tell are myriad, and well-documented through diaries and literature. As Gaul notes, it’s not just another old house whose tales are known only to the walls. And thanks to the park and its friends, those stories are now there for the hearing.
Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.