Derelict-ious: An Abandoned House in Harper’s Ferry National Park

November 29, 2016 — We were driving through the battlefields of Harper’s Ferry National Park in West Virginia on our way to Charles Town to see the execution site of abolitionist John Brown, when we saw something in the distance.

It was adjacent to the Bolivar Heights battlefield where Stonewall Jackson took Harper’s Ferry and won the Confederacy’s biggest victory in the Civil War. A row of cannons memorializes the event today. Had it been any other season, we probably would have missed the thing. It was situated on a hill in the middle of a large copse of trees, their limbs already denuded for winter and revealing what they usually sheltered.

We looked at it, commented on it. A two-story brick house that seemed to be in ruin, although we couldn’t be quite sure from that distance. Derelicts aren’t too uncommon here. There are abandoned places throughout the park. Somewhere in the area is even an abandoned Yogi Bear-themed camp and an old tourist cavern system.

But a few hundred feet after we passed it, we saw a hiking trail that seemed to lead right to the place. Was it an historic house?

We decided to park and head up the rise. It was cold, the good kind of cold, the kind stuck halfway between Fall and Winter. According to the gate at the foot of the path, we were embarking on the School House Ridge South trail, but as we got to the top of the hill, the trail veered away from the house as if actively avoiding it.

Maybe it wasn’t abandoned. Just awkwardly situated. We decided to leave the path and head toward it anyway, the thick carpet of dead leaves crunching loudly beneath our boots a good enough warning of our benign intentions in case somebody was there.

Finally, we found ourselves among the mostly bare trees. There were no historical placards anywhere. Just a scattering of lonely, ramshackle outbuildings. We made our way through thick weeds and over fallen tree limbs to the main house. The front porch had sheared away, as had a first story overhang. Almost all of the doors and windows were missing, and we could see deep into the house. I clambered over into the frame of the doorway, but didn’t step inside. Through the debris on the floor, I could see gaps into the basement, meaning that there was no way I was going to cross the room for the set of concrete stairs beckoning to me at the back of the house.

I circled around outside the house on good ol’ firm earth, and peered into each empty first-floor room. They were mostly the same. Slat-board walls and ceilings and crumbling plaster. A glance up to the second-floor holes that used to be windows revealed more of the same. One room still had its old wallpaper, the pattern a grid of old-fashioned kitchen utensils.

We wandered among the outbuildings for a while before leaving. It was just an old, abandoned house.

Later I would try to look it up, but could only find one site listing it with the bare minimum of information: O’Brien House, circa 1850. If that’s true, it was 12 years before the battle at Bolivar Heights.

In my head, I see those 160-odd years sped up. From its careful original construction to the smoke of cannons enwreathing it to the families who lived there and wallpapered it to make it homey to the eventual abandonment and decay and then Lindsey and I tiptoeing delicately around its carcass.

It was just an old abandoned house, but we connected with it. Gained perspective from it. Instagram’d it.

An old battlefield, a ruin, and a pre-winter ambiance. That’s a pretty good Black Friday.

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