Torches illuminate the extent of developers’ unauthorized digging and pipe laying across preserved hallowed ground at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.
Harpers Ferry, W.Va. – Representatives of four historic preservation groups gathered this evening at the site of John Brown's abortive 1859 attempt to ferment armed slave rebellion and the largest military surrender of the Civil War to remember a tragic incident that raised fundamental questions about the ability of the National Park Service (NPS) to protect federally protected battlefield land.
On August 19, 2006, a consortium of Jefferson County, W.Va., developers did the nearly unthinkable. Without authorization or permit, they proceeded to break ground on a construction project on the Perry Orchard Tract at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. For two days they used heavy machinery to dig two 1,900-foot trenches and lay utility lines through part of the School House Ridge Battlefield associated with General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s flank attack on September 15, 1862.
Despite repeated attempts to curtail their activities by NPS officials, and during the busy centennial commemoration of the historic Niagara Movement at Harpers Ferry, the developers worked well into the night under the glare of generator-powered lights. Their goal: utility lines that would facilitate development of unprotected battlefield land known as the “Old Standard” Tract.
“What happened last summer at the Perry Orchard was nothing short of the wanton desecration of one of our nation’s great historic treasures,” said James Lighthizer, President of the Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT). “Harpers Ferry and the 390 other units of the National Park System belong to all Americans. We are here tonight to ensure that their sanctity will always be protected from pettiness and greed.”
Lighthizer was joined at the press conference and vigil by Alan Spears, Legislative Representative for the National Parks Conservation Association; Rob Nieweg, Director of the Southern Field Office at the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP); and Scot Faulkner, President of the Friends of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (FHFNHP). Each group has been active in calling for prosecution of the developers involved in the trespass.
During their remarks, the preservationists were surrounded by illuminated torches stretching the entire length of the disturbed battlefield land. Participants also held individual candles to solemnly mark the occasion and called on the federal government, which is currently investigating the incident, to prosecute those responsible to the fullest extent of the law for their premeditated desecration. A portion of the evening’s event was made possible by a generous donation from The History Channel, whose “Save Our History Initiative” supports local history education and historic preservation efforts across America.
“The situation here at Harpers Ferry is particularly tragic because the developers clearly knew that they needed to secure permission from the Park before undertaking any construction,” said Spears. “They applied for the necessary permits, but, when waiting became inconvenient, proceeded without authorization. Essentially, they judged themselves immune to the requirements that govern any and all activities on National Park Service land. No one is above the legality of that process.”
Although investigations into the incident continue, no charges have yet been filed against the developers. The preservation groups are united in asking the Department of the Interior and the Department of Justice to move quickly against the consortium of developers – not just to prevent development at Harpers Ferry, but to also prevent future incidents like this at other national parks.
“A year has passed, but we have not forgotten what happened on this ground,” said Nieweg. “We are confident that those responsible for this will be held accountable for the destruction they caused. Tonight we ask the Department of the Interior and the Department of Justice to safeguard all our nation’s treasures and protect them for future generations by fighting for the sanctity of Harpers Ferry.”
Since this spring, the same developers responsible for the Perry Orchard trespass have twice sought to have their nearby property rezoned to allow for a massive project totaling more than 2 million square feet of commercial real estate. According to Faulkner, such development would simply not be possible without the illicit water and sewer access gained by the pipes laid through the Park.
“Clearly, when the construction was done, these developers already had massive development plans in mind. They must have thought that already having access to water and sewer facilities would all but guarantee their proposal’s success,” Faulkner said. “Thankfully, first the City of Charles Town, and then Jefferson County, had the vision to reject their unnecessary and ill-fitting development.”
About the Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT)
With 70,000 members, CWPT is the largest nonprofit battlefield preservation organization in the United States. Its mission is to preserve our nation’s remaining Civil War battlefields. Since 1987, the organization has saved more than 24,000 acres of hallowed ground, including 325 acres at Harpers Ferry.
About the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA)
Since 1919, the nonpartisan NPCA has been the leading voice of the American people in protecting and enhancing our National Park System. NPCA, its members, and partners work together to protect the park system and preserve our nation’s natural, historical, and cultural heritage for generations to come. NPCA is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization with more than 300,000 members.
About the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP)
NTHP is a private, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to protecting the irreplaceable. Recipient of the National Humanities Medal, the Trust was founded in 1949 and provides leadership, education, advocacy, and resources to save America’s diverse historic places and revitalize communities. Its Washington, D.C. headquarters staff, six regional offices and 26 historic sites work with the Trust’s 270,000 members and thousands of local community groups in all 50 states.