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.
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.
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.