John Brown's Fort

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John Brown's Fort in 2013
John Brown's Fort, U.S. quarter, 2016
Drawing published in 1883. Note the words over the doors, and the steep hill behind.

John Brown's Fort was originally constructed in 1848 for use as a guard and fire engine house by the federal Harpers Ferry Armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (since 1863, West Virginia). An 1848 military report described the building as "An engine and guard-house 35 1/2 x 24 feet, one story brick, covered with slate, and having copper gutters and down spouts…"[1]

The building achieved fame when it was John Brown's refuge during his 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry. It is the only surviving building of the Armory; the others were destroyed during the Civil War.

The building quickly became a tourist attraction; the words John Brown's Fort—a new name—were painted over the three doors, to attract tourists. It has been moved four times.

John Brown's raid[edit]

Harper's Ferry Armory in 1862, with the fire engine house on the left
Illustration of the interior of the engine house immediately before the door is broken down. Note the hostages on the left.

John Brown planned to capture the armory and the associated arsenal and use them to supply an army of abolitionists and run-away slave guerrillas. Beginning their raid the night of October 16, Brown and his small army of 21 men (16 white and 5 black) captured the armory and arsenal and succeeded in taking 60 citizens of Harpers Ferry hostage. The local militia and armed townspeople killed several members of the insurrection and forced Brown to take up position in the sturdy fire engine house, where Brown's men had placed several of the hostages and prepared to use the building for defense. On the night of October 17, U.S. marines and then Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee and his aide J.E.B. Stuart arrived in Harpers Ferry to put down Brown's insurrection. The next morning, using a ladder as a battering ram, the marines broke down the door and stormed the fire engine house. One marine was mortally wounded in the attack as well as several of Brown's men. Some of Brown's men managed to escape, but most were captured, including Brown, who was stabbed by the Marine commander, Lt. Green. The hostages were freed.

The engine house labeled "John Brown's Fort" so as to attract tourists, ca. 1885.

After the raid[edit]

The engine house was the only part of the Harper's Ferry Armory still standing after the Civil War. There was much combat in and around Harpers Ferry, which changed hands several times during the war.

To attract tourists, who were primarily Black, the words "John Brown's Fort" were painted on the engine house. It "was a tourist destination—almost a shrine—for African Americans in the late nineteenth century."[2] However, by 1882 the had fallen into a state of disrepair.[3]

Many bricks were taken and/or sold as souvenirs.[4]:187 In the nineteenth century silver engravings of the Fort were attached to souvenir bricks; one is in the Park museum (see picture at right).[4]:Plate 9, after p. 90

John Brown's Fort souvenir brick

Some white townspeople, for whom Brown was a madman and traitor rather than a hero, were not happy having the structure in their town.[4]:181

The four moves[edit]

Move to Chicago[edit]

In 1891, the building was sold to a buyer who wished to use it as an attraction at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1st move), "but the venture proved a failure, simply because there was nothing which could connect the 'Brown Fort' with Chicago."[5] The building was dismantled and abandoned on a vacant lot after the exhibition.[6] Another report says that it was used as storage for delivery wagons.[4]:182

In 1894, a movement was spearheaded by Washington D.C. journalist Kate Field, who also helped save the John Brown Farm State Historic Site,[4]:182 to preserve the building and move it back to Harpers Ferry.[4]:182–183 It could not be moved back to its original location because the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had purchased the land and covered it with an embankment in 1894, raising the rail line several feet to reduce the threat from flooding.[6] The original location was marked In 1895 by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad with a white stone obelisk.[7] It stands 150 feet (46 m) from the present-day location of the fort, and is also part of Harpers Ferry National Historic Park.[8]

Return to vicinity of Harpers Ferry[edit]

John Brown's Fort on the Murphy farm

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad offered free shipping back to Harpers Ferry (2nd move); they had lost ridership when the Fort was moved to Chicago. As for a new site, Alexander and Mary Murphy offered 5 acres (20,000 m2) of their farm above Harpers Ferry; Storer College offered only two acres.[6] Reconstruction of John Brown's Fort on the Murphy farm was completed by November 1895, and included the gates that surrounded the fort. Eight thousand bricks were required to replace those that had been lost.[9]:88 While it was in that location Murphy used it as a "barracks" and "to house a wheat crop".[10]

The Murphy farm, originally established September 1, 1869, was purchased by the National Park Service through the Trust for Public Land on December 31, 2002; it is now part of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

The move of the Fort back to Harpers Ferry attracted African-American viaitors, as the railroad hoped. This reached a peak in 1906, when the first American meeting of the Niagara Movement—a predecessor of the NAACP, whose first meeting was held in Niagara Falls, Canada—was held in Harpers Ferry, at Storer College. Attendees held an on-site memorial for Brown they called "John Brown Day" (August 17). Over one hundred prominent African-American men and women walked from Storer to the Fort's location, among them W.E.B. DuBois, Lewis Douglas, and W. T. Greener. The leader of the procession, a physician from Brooklyn named Owen Waller, "took off his shoes and socks and walked barefoot as if he were treading on holy ground".[11] Painting by Richard Fitzhugh

Move to Storer College[edit]

John Brown's Fort at Storer College. On the right is Lincoln Hall.
Poster announcing John Brown's Fort, Storer College, Harpers Ferry WV

As a direct result, the Fort was moved again (the 3rd move), in 1909, to Storer College, where it remained through the college's closure in 1955. They bought John Brown's Fort from Alexander Murphy for $900—Murphy wanted compensation for the damage the many tourists did to his crops—and moved it to the college's campus.[citation needed] It was disassembled and when on the Storer Campus it was inadvertently reassembled backwards, as the builders did not realize that the glass negative they were using as a guide had a reversed image.[9]:88

While there, it was used as the college museum. Glass cases of museum quality contained "a collection of old guns, helmets, money and other curiosities".[12] An elevated gallery was added.[13]:101 The college published a pamphlet about Brown and tbe Fort, written by Brown scholar Boyd Stutler.[14]

Students gave tours of the Fort. "They took great pride in that. That symbol of freedom meant a lot to those students."[15] At the time, these student tours were required of many students, to give them practice in public speaking.[16]

In 1918, the alumni of Storer paid for a plaque attached to what is now the west wall of the firehouse.[17]

John Brown's Fort plaque[note 1]

When the College closed, the museum collection was auctioned off to pay debts, and borrowed items were returned to their owners.[9]:89

The National Park Service acquires and moves the building[edit]

When Harpers Ferry National Monument was created, it did not include John Brown's Fort or its original location. The local Black community was opposed to having it moved away from the College grounds, and the College trustees were "squeamish" about turning it over to the Park Service. The Park Service was accused of using "white paternalism" to oppose Black wishes and detract from the significance of the Raid for African Americans.[9]:89

In 1960 the National Park Service acquired the building, which remained the main tourist attraction in Harpers Ferry. In the early 1960s local concessionaires operated a private gift shop in it.[9]:89 Many visitors came to visit it at the College, to the point that they made it difficult to carry out the Park Service's plans for the former College. Park Superintendent Joseph Prentice wanted to "drastically eliminate the hordes of visitors and their automobiles from this location".[9]:89

Fort being moved back to lower Harpers Ferry, in 1968.

To accomplish this goal, removing "the only important attraction from the Storer College campus",[9]:89 in 1968 the Park Service moved it once more (the 4th move). The original location is covered by a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad embankment, so it was moved to a location close to the original, actually the most central location in Harpers Ferry. The Fort is now part of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and sits 150 feet (46 m) east of its original location, at 39°19′22.95″N 77°43′46.43″W / 39.3230417°N 77.7295639°W / 39.3230417; -77.7295639.[1] It is the most visited tourist attraction in the state of West Virginia.

The structure is not fully authentic due to the number of times it has been dismantled, moved, and reassembled.The doors are not original; at the Armory the building was painted grey. (See poster at right.) It is also not an exact replica, as portions of the building were "rebuilt backwards".[9]:92 It was described in 2005 as "a bit smaller than its original size".[4]:187

A Harpers Ferry Historical Association publication states that "the John Brown Museum" now houses the original armory gate. It was donated in 1991 to the National Park Service by Jim Kuhn, a great-great-grandson of the Murphys.[18] Coordinates: 39°19′24.42″N 77°43′47.59″W / 39.3234500°N 77.7298861°W / 39.3234500; -77.7298861

Subsequent to the National Park Setvice's move of the building, it acquired the original site, along with portions of the former Armory grounds.[9]:90

Controversy over Armory bell[edit]

During a Union Army occupation of Harpers Ferry, a contingent of soldiers from Marlborough, Massachusetts, removed a bell hanging in the Harpers Ferry arsenal firehouse.. Several of those from Marlborough were in the local fire department, called the "'Torrent' Fire/Engine Company", according to the city of Marlborough website. They took the bell back to Marlborough, where it has remained. Harpers Ferry has attempted to retrieve the bell without success.[19]

In July 2011, Howard Swint, of Charleston, West Virginia, stated that the bell was taken without authorization. In legal terms, according to Swint, it was stolen, and still belongs to the federal government. Swint filed a lawsuit in Boston's US District Court but since the bell's original Federal records proving ownership were apparently lost in a fire, the judge dismissed the case without prejudice.[20] Swint's legal actions generated controversy in the Marlborough area,[21][22][23][24] but the bell has stayed in Massachusetts.[20]

Replica at Discovery Park of America[edit]

An approximate replica of the firehouse was built in 2012 at the Discovery Park of America museum park in Union City, Tennessee. There is a marker explaining the link with John Brown's raid.[25][26][27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^

    BY THE


  1. ^ a b "Harpers Ferry National Historical Park - John Brown's Fort". National Park Service. Retrieved September 15, 2016.
  2. ^ Brophy, Alfred L. (April 2008). "The Creation of Harpers Ferry". h-Net (h-Civil War). Retrieved December 15, 2018.
  3. ^ "General Notes". New York Times. August 20, 1882. p. 6 – via
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Shackel, Paul A. (2005). "John Brown's Fort. A Contested National Symbol". Terrible Swift Sword. The Legacy of John Brown. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press. pp. 179–189. ISBN 0821416308.
  5. ^ Tate, Tilden Garnett (January 18, 1898). "The John Brown Raid. His capture, trial, execution and comments". Spirit Of Jefferson (Charles Town, West Virginia). p. 2 – via
  6. ^ a b c Field, Kate (August 11, 1895). "Home for John Brown's Fort. Kate Field Makes an Appeal for Contributions of Cash. Is Anxious to Establish the Building at Harper's Ferry". Chicago Chronicle (Chicago, Illinois). p. 20 – via
  7. ^ Zittle, John Henry (1905), A correct history of the John Brown invasion at Harper's Ferry, West Va., Oct. 17, 1859, p. 256
  8. ^ "John Brown Monument". Appalachian Studies Association et. al. May 22, 2019. Retrieved March 21, 2021.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i Moyer, Teresa S.; Shackel, Paul A. (2008). The Making of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park: A Devil, Two Rivers, and a Dream. Lanham, Maryland: AltaMira Press.
  10. ^ "Notes from nearby". Shepherdstown Register (Shepherdstown, West Virginia). August 20, 1903. p. 2 – via
  11. ^ Quarles, Benjamin (2001). Allies for Freedom & Blacks on John Brown. Da Capo Press. pp. 4–14, at p, 4.
  12. ^ "Sto[r]er College Faces Crisis". Evening Sun (Baltimore, Maryland). April 13, 1955. p. 38 – via
  13. ^ Burke, Dawne Raines (2015). An American Phoenix: A History of Storer College from Slavery to Desegregation, 1865–1955. Morgantown, West Virginia: Storer College Books, an imprint of West Virginia University Press. ISBN 978-1940425771.
  14. ^ Stutler, Boyd (1930). Captain John Brown and Harper's Ferry : the story of the raid and the old fire engine house known as John Brown's fort (2nd ed.). Harpers Ferry, West Virginia: Storer College.
  15. ^ Schelle, Crystal (February 5, 2017). "Storer College: A statement of equality". The Herald-Mail (Hagerstown, Maryland).
  16. ^ "John Brown's Fort". National Park Service. 2016. Retrieved April 2, 2021.
  17. ^ Hamilton, Calvin J. "John Brown's Fort". Archived from the original on December 23, 2018. Retrieved December 10, 2018.
  18. ^ Harpers Ferry Historical Association (Fall 2009). "Gratitude for Donations from the Kuhns Family" (PDF). The View: 8. Retrieved March 15, 2021.
  19. ^ Joan Abshire (March 12, 2008). "The John Brown Bell" (PDF).
  20. ^ a b Thompson, Elaine (June 27, 2020). "Mayor: Civil War-era symbol to stay put". Milford Daily News. Retrieved March 15, 2021.
  21. ^ Kendall Hatch (July 20, 2011). "Battle resumes over Marlborough's John Brown bell".
  22. ^ Paul Brodeur (July 24, 2011). "Battle of the John Brown bell".
  23. ^ Metrowest Daily News (July 25, 2011). "Editorial: Give back the bell".
  24. ^ Paul Brodeur (July 29, 2011). "Legal reality behind Brown's Bell". Archived from the original on December 14, 2013.
  25. ^ "Fire Station House at Discovery Park Of America". Dreamstime. 2013. Retrieved November 15, 2018.
  26. ^ Caudle, Glenda (March 29, 2013). "DPA firehouse based on historical building" (PDF). Union City Daily Messenger.
  27. ^ Hughes, Sandra (2017). "The Firehouse". Historical Markers Database.

Further reading[edit]

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