Most Jefferson County residents know about the federal armory established here in 1802. It might also be difficult to find any local resident who isn’t aware of John Brown’s raid in 1859 that helped to light the spark that became the Civil War.
But in between those landmark events of American history occurred the less well-known but still significant story of Virginius Island, a once-bustling but now bygone village built on 19th-century water power along the Shenandoah River.
“It was a good instance of local people, entrepreneurs trying to make a living,” Harpers Ferry historian and author David Gilbert said of the century-long story of Virginius Island. “And I wouldn’t say eking out a living. For a while here business thrived.”
Oriented on 13 acres of low-lying silty soil south of Harpers Ferry’s onetime Lower Town commercial district, Virginius Island is a story of entrepreneurial speculation as well as exceptional industrial energy, innovation and grit, Gilbert said.
“There’s a lot of things happening here - with turbines that were adopted and used and experimented with - that you read about in other establishments across the country,” said Gilbert, who has led tours of the island’s industrial vestiges of overgrown brick-and-stone foundations and is the author of “Waterpower: Mills, Factories, Machines and Floods at Harpers Ferry,” a book that includes Virginius Island’s industrial history.
A director for the Harpers Ferry Park Association, Gilbert said the industrial story of Virginius Island represents a small slice of the often-overlooked human events that happened in Harpers Ferry that mirror or helped shape our nation’s history.
You wouldn’t think much happened on the island at all to look down on it from the rocks above Harpers Ferry or even to walk parts of its wide dirt trail along the river’s edge. The island is now almost covered by a canopy of trees and overgrown with grass and vines, only a handful of restored stone foundations along the river’s edge - the remnants of a cotton mill - and the remains of a pulp factory and stone arches and tunnels that were once part of the island’s once- impressive waterpower system betray the island’s storied past.
“There’s nothing left, other than some ruins,” Gilbert said.
The town of Virginius Island was incorporated in 1827 following a few highly lucrative real estate speculations a decade earlier that bet on the island’s potential for industrial development. A canal and railroad also passed through the community to serve various industries and markets.
At the island’s industrial height just before the Civil War, a community of 184 people lived and worked in dozens of buildings and rows of dwellings facing what is today’s Shenandoah Street. Two bridges connected the island to the mainland, including an existing reproduction bridge on Shenandoah Street.
Over the years, water powered a thrum of whirling shafts and pulleys that animated looms, saws, grinding wheels and machinery of all kinds. Mills producing cotton, flour and sawn wood were in operation for many years. So was an iron foundry, a carriage factory, a blacksmith and a machine shop.
A private gunmaker, John Hall set up shop there in 1820 to pursue a revolutionary rifle manufacturing process based on interchangeable parts, Gilbert said. That model of precision production adopted would be adopted by other industries and would help spark the industrial revolution that continues to unfold today.
“This area certainly had a pre-eminent role in the early industrial development of this whole Jefferson County, eastern West Virginia,” Gilbert said. “That legacy, I think, is important, because as you look at the particulars of how water power evolved both nationally and here.”
However, many of Virginius Island’s fortunes followed a boom and bust cycle similar to the Shenandoah’s own mercurial nature and rhythms. Among the once prominent structures on the island was an imposing four-story cotton factory that was built and began operating along the river in 1848.
That $60,000 investment opened with 97 power looms, 18 spinning frames and two iron turbines driven by artful hydraulic engineering, Gilbert said. “It was all state-of-the-art equipment,” he said.
According to the 1850 Census, the cotton factory employed 35 men and 35 women. The men earned on average $16 per month, and the women, which mostly likely included children, earned about $4.60, said Gilbert.
But the cotton factory proved short-lived. At the time the spread of modern loom machinery spurred new cotton manufacturing ventures in the South that generated an oversupply of cotton. “The supply of cotton hadn’t changed, and so these factories were competing with the Northern factories and the prices really began to drop for manufactured cotton,” Gilbert explained.
Within four years the factory failed, the victim of intensified competition in industrialized cotton manufacturing between the South and the North before the Civil War.
In the end, Southern factories like that on Virginius Island couldn’t match the vastly larger production scales and efficiencies of the Northern factories, Gilbert said.
“It just never got any traction in the cotton business,” he said of the Harpers Ferry venture.
With its four iron turbines left amid its stone foundation today, the cotton factory’s building was abandoned for years, Gilbert said. The building was used briefly as a military hospital during the Civil War. Following the war, it was converted into a flour mill, which became the island’s most enduring, profitable and productive business.
According to the 1850 census, the Child & McCreight flour mill turned 90,000 bushels of wheat into 20,000 barrels of flour. It continued operating until 1884.
But, along with the Civil War, which resulted in the destruction of the flour mill in 1861, the island that harnessed the power of the river eventually fell victim to it. In 1870, a devastating flood washed away many of the island’s homes and several manufacturing businesses, including the foundry, the carriage shop, the sawmill and the machine shop. Forty-two people lost their lives according to newspaper accounts at the time.
“Probably more people that were unaccounted for just were lost,” Gilbert said.
While the flour mill recovered, the diversion of water to power a wood pulp mill upriver undermined it and flour mill operations ceased in 1889. The pulp mill was the last factory to operate on the island until it shut down in 1935. A year later, an even worse flood consumed the island, destroying the pulp mill and washing away what few buildings had survived the floods of years before. The few residents living on the island abandoned it, ending what had been more than a century of activity on Virginius Island.