Virginius Island is a small island located in the southern portion of Harpers Ferry on the Shenandoah River. Virginius was once an independent town and was home to various businesses, with the primary industry being water mills. Financial problems, destruction caused by the Civil War, and repeated flooding caused the island to be completely abandoned by 1936. Today, Virginius Island is accessible to the public and has many ruins of structures such as factories and mills.
Backstory and Context
Virginius Island was one of the only plots of land in Harpers Ferry that was not owned by either the federal government or the Wager family in the early nineteenth century. In 1806, the Patowmack Company built a 580-yard canal through the land to create a bypass around the Shenandoah River’s rapids. In 1816, Virginius Island was claimed by a surveyor named Daniel McPherson; the property switched hands two more times before being purchased by a group of entrepreneurs in 1824. The group consisted of locals Townsend Beckham, Fontaine Beckham, Edward Wager, and Lewis Wernwag. In 1826, they petitioned the Virginia General Assembly to incorporate the island as the Town of Virginius, which was approved in January of 1827.
Virginius quickly developed into a small industrial village. The Winchester and Potomac Railroad was built through the island by the 1830s. Houses were constructed, as well as a variety of businesses which harnessed the water power provided by the Shenandoah River. There was a tannery, a machine shop, a cooper’s shop, a blacksmith shop, a foundry, cotton mills, flour mills, grist mills, and sawmills. One of the most prominent enterprises was the Harpers Ferry & Shenandoah Manufacturing Company, established in 1846. The company built cotton mills and constructed new waterworks to provide more waterpower. However, the company went bankrupt in 1852, and many of its assets were destroyed by flooding the same year. The Harpers Ferry & Shenandoah Manufacturing Company, like several other businesses in Virginius, had accumulated too much debt. The town of Virginius was absorbed into the faster-growing Harpers Ferry when it was incorporated in 1851.
By 1854, the entire island had been acquired by Abraham Herr, and was referred to afterwards as Herr’s Island. Herr continued operating the island’s industries through partnerships or by leasing them to individuals. Virginius Island was hit particularly hard by the Civil War. In 1861, Confederate forces torched Herr’s mill after he had provided Union troops with wheat. Later on, all the remaining structures were commandeered by Union forces for the remainder of the war. Many residents of the island left, including Herr himself. Finally in 1867, he sold Virginius to Jonathan C. Child and John A. McCreight.
Child and McCreight refurbished one of the island’s cotton mills into a new flour mill. Of all the industries on Virginius Island, flour milling was the most successful and longest-lasting. Child and McCreight’s mill would produce up to 80,000 barrels of flour annually. Gradually the flour industry tapered off as steam power began displacing waterpower. In 1887, Thomas H. Savery created the Shenandoah Pulp Company and opened a pulp mill on Virginius. The pulp mill was very successful, and generated small amounts of electricity in its later years before closing in 1935.
One of the biggest hindrances to permanent development on Virginius Island was its tendency to flood frequently. Catastrophic floods in 1852, 1870, 1924, and 1936 destroyed or damaged many of the island’s structures. By 1936, there were no more residents or businesses remaining on Virginius. Today, the ruins and foundations of many buildings survive, including factories, mills, water tunnels, and houses. Virginius Island is open to the public, and visitors are advised not to touch or disturb the ruins as they are very fragile.