You think you know it all about your home town, don’t you? I thought for sure there wasn’t too many surprises that Harpers Ferry could hold for me. I thought I had heard it all; from John Brown’s gold hidden in the caves along the Shenandoah, to the ghostly marching band of Seminary Hill. Harpers Ferry had, I thought, told me all the nifty secrets she had.
I’m very please to say this isn’t true.
Recently, while doing a research project, I stumbled across a photo of “Byrne’s Island Park.” An honest to goodness amusement park, right here in Harpers Ferry. I blinked, looked again, rubbed my eyes, looked a third time. But there it was in black and white. Harpers Ferry with an amusement park. No, it is true you can not see the town of Harpers Ferry in the photo, but anyone who knows the area can identify the landscape easily. O
ne can clearly make out the midway, rides, a merry go ’round and all the trimmings that go with it.
This grabbed my interest with a steely fist. I was a carny myself for a time. I know the smell of the midway in the height of summer. I can still taste the corndogs, popcorn and almost flat sodas that I used to live on in my wild, misspent youth. Byrne’s Island Park was a tidbit of my town’s history I didn’t know about.
But there’s more to it.
If you look in the photo above, you can clearly make out a gazebo. That is the Harpers Ferry Bandstand. Every summer on July 4th, they have a old time brass band come and play the old 4th of July classics. I know this because that bandstand is directly across the street from my house.
I see it every morning that I open my door. It stares at me as I walk down the stairs to my car, and it greets me as I make my way up the stairs after a long day. It tilts drunkenly to one side, most likely due to the extreme age of the small wooden structure. I’ve seen this gazebo every day since I can remember, and not until now have I learned its fairly unique history.
This bandstand was one of the original structures on Byrne’s Island Park. The park was created and operated by the B&O Railroad from 1879 to 1909. The island was nestled on the valley and caught the cool summer breeze that blew on the Potomac. Island park was a very well-known tourist attraction for its day. They had the most advanced rides (for their day) that money could by. The park boasted a steam-driven Merry Go ‘Round and Ferris Wheel. The dancing pavilions would fill to capacity on
a Friday or Saturday night. The midway had all the games, bottle toss, ring toss, break a balloon and all the classics that we each have wasted fortunes on trying to win that stuffed bear. The park had wading beaches where summer revelers could cool themselves in the midday sun while munching popcorn, or feeding the ducks that would gather on the shore. The picnic areas would be filled to capacity on a daily basis. And boat rentals would let merry makers take short jaunts on the relative calm of the Potomac. Reviews of the park have stated that it was every bit as exciting as Coney Island. Which, having been to Coney Island, is saying something…even then.
The B&O Railroad ran excursions from Baltimore and Washington D.C. for $1.00. it offered post Civil War city dwellers a means of escaping the city’s summer heat, and to socialize and relax in the historic surroundings of Harpers Ferry. And it would appear that they had no trouble in getting people to come.
Sadly, after years of flood repairs and the battle to manage the damage that the Potomac sometimes wrought upon the park, the B&O Railroad closed operations of Island Park in 1909. However the public outcry was so great, the railroad kept the park open for picnicking, and the wading beaches stayed open.
That same year, The Citizens Concert Band, a local brass band, helped to save the bandstand from certain destruction by purchasing it and moving it to the lower town on the corner of Shenandoah and Potomac Streets. The CCB bought the bandstand because they had frequently played there, and for many of the annual excursions offered by the B&O Railroad. Those excursions (as they were called) were held by groups such as The B&O Employees Union, The YMCA, The Odd Fellows, The Masons, and many, many other civic groups.
Harpers Ferry bought the Bandstand from the CCB in later years and moved it to its current location…across the street from my house. The bandstand, or town Gazebo, is still used today for many of the annual events, including the Easter Egg Hunt, the Herb Fair (an event I have yet to miss, I do so like fresh rosemary), the 4th of July Concert and the Tree Lighting Ceremony.
Island Park was completely and finally destroyed by the flood of 1942. The bandstand that resides across the street from me is the only structure that survived from Island Park. It is the sole witness to countless summers of joy and laughter. And its history is at my door.