The Abandoned Road and Railroad Bridges at Harpers Ferry

Looking over both the Potomac River and the Shenandoah River at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, one can spot Civil War and abolitionist history pretty much all over the place. But two spots we want to discuss are the abandoned bridge piers that are visible across each of the respective rivers.

Both bridges suffered destruction before, during, and after the Civil War, but it would be not humanity, but Mother Nature that would ultimately destroy them. 

Bollman Bridge over the Potomac River

In the foreground, all that remains of this original railroad bridge over the Potomac are some piers. The active railroad bridge is in the background - it allows pedestrians to cross adjacent to trains.

Despite being abandoned today, the Bollman Bridge is one of numerous similar bridges constructed by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad which were designed by its namesake, Wendel Bollman. These ruins are from an 1868 installation of the bridge. As one might expect, given the history of Harpers Ferry and its importance in the Civil War, the bridge in this spot is not the original.

Harpers Ferry got its name because it was an 18th-century ferry crossing over these rivers before any bridges were built in the area. Since the Civil War, the Potomac River separates Maryland on the north and east side of the river from West Virginia.

B&O first constructed the bridge in 1836-37, and in 1859, abolitionist John Brown crossed the bridge from Maryland into what was then Virginia, in order to raid the town of Harpers Ferry, in an attempt to begin a slave revolt, in what was considered a precursor to the American Civil War.

The Confederates blew up the bridge two years later, and it was rebuilt and destroyed numerous times throughout the war, sometimes being replaced by a temporary pontoon bridge.  

The ruins that remained began operation in 1870, but rail traffic was shifted to a new replacement bridge in 1894, which is the bridge that exists today. "The railroad bridge was paved as a highway bridge, but finally swept away in the 1936 flood." (River Explorer)

"Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, West Virginia. Photograph taken from Maryland Heights, Maryland, USA. The Shenandoah River (left side of the image) flows into the Potomac River. On the left is a steel Pratt truss and plate girder bridge built in 1894. On the right is a deck plate girder bridge, built 1931. Both bridges were built by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad." (Mongo, via Wikipedia Commons)

Shenandoah River Bridge

Bridge piers over the Shenandoah River.

Much like the bridge that emanates to its northeast, the Shenandoah River Bridge was also destroyed during the Civil War. The piers that remain today are remnants of a bridge constructed in 1882 that replaced what had been destroyed, but even in peacetime, the history of this bridge did not fare any better, as it was destroyed in an 1889 flood, and rebuilt once again shortly thereafter.

1906 view of the Harpers Ferry Bridges, all still standing.

Unlike the other bridges over the Potomac, the bridge over the Shenandoah River was not a railroad bridge, but rather simply a wagon road bridge, which later was used by vehicles once the automobile came into existence.

Another view of the bridges, this time via Industrial History.

The original alignment of the Appalachian Trail used both this bridge and the aforementioned Bollman Bridge. But like the Bollman Bridge, it too ultimately suffered the same fate and was destroyed in the 1936 Flood, when Harpers Ferry crested at a record 36 1/2 feet. This bridge was ultimately replaced with the modern US-340 Shenandoah River Bridge slightly less than a mile upstream.

As destructive as the Civil War was, it is an interesting thought that two of Harpers Ferry's bridges were not rebuilt as a result of war, but rather as the result of a major flood. In the greater context of infrastructure resilience in the era of climate change, this is certainly an interesting footnote in the greater story of Harpers Ferry, for whom I will leave those who have discussed the town's importance more thoroughly and thoughtfully than I could to tell their stories.

Thanks as always for reading!


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