Tidewater Traveler: November 2005

Strains, Trains and Rain

     I am torn between two fascinations. The rain drips from the tent flap onto my back. I am looking over the right shoulder of a seated horn player, as the bold strains of the eighteen-piece Indiana Brass Band drown out the din of a steady downpour on the canvas overhead. It is a square, open-sided tent, similar to a funeral tent, but a little larger, and is situated in a grassy area directly behind the brick fire engine house.
      This is the fire engine house where in October 1859 U.S. Marines captured John Brown after his failed attempt to raid the Harper’s Ferry Federal Arsenal. I knew when we left home this morning that the weather would be iffy. It has been overcast most of the day, and now a mid-afternoon shower is forcing spectators and performers to seek shelter throughout this historic little town.
      An earlier shower made it a good time to visit the John Brown Wax Museum, where we were vividly reminded of some of the social-issue struggles our nation has endured. But this shower caught us between a live flintlock demonstration and the fire engine house.
      Experiencing the Indiana Brass Band is an unexpected treat during our Saturday day-trip to historic Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. I understand the musicians are from Indiana, Pennsylvania. They are dressed in the period attire of 1830s military musicians.
      The shapes of the horns intrigue Connor, our grandson, and me. As with most music instrument families, there are a variety of sizes from tiny, shrill horns, much smaller than a modern-day coronet, to a tuba-sized bass instrument.
      Two features common to all of the horns attract our attention. The brass horn valves appear to be more like 20th century saxophones. We learn they are called rotary valves; modern horns employ piston valves.
      But even more unusual, the bell of each instrument, that part from which sound issues, is directed backward over the musician’s shoulder. Actually the bell of a trombone-sized instrument is pointed directly at my face. The conductor tells us the bells point backward so the music is focused to the rear of the band; historically the band marched at the front of the column of soldiers and the stirring sounds of battle marches and patriotic tunes served to bolster the morale of the troops as they marched along.
      Today’s rain has brought the band and the small audience of spectators together under the tent. When the band started playing, Priscilla, Connor and I were the only guests present and we were invited under the shelter. But as the strains of Stephen Foster and John Philip Sousa drifted throughout the National Park area, others joined us under the tent.
      I mentioned being torn between two fascinations. I love the mellow harmony produced by brass horns. Years ago – high school days – I developed the appreciation for brass music by playing baritone and trumpet. So, why is my interest in the Indiana Brass Band compromised? The echo of a distant train whistle is calling me.
      I’m sure that in just a few minutes a freight train will exit the mountain tunnel and cross the Potomac River on a steel trestle bridge. I want to be standing on the bridge’s pedestrian catwalk when the train crosses. I want to feel the vibration of the massive bridge produced by a gang of powerful locomotives as they cross the span.
      I’m not sure Connor appreciates why I am pulling him along in the steady drizzle, half running across the cobblestone area toward the bridge. But, he will! I know Priscilla doesn’t appreciate it; but she understands. She has seen me around trains before.
      We ascend the ramp and walk onto the boardwalk footpath that hangs on the south side of the railroad bridge. Now, before safety freaks declare that I am endangering the youth, let me point out that the catwalk is caged over with a chain-link mesh. We can’t get onto the tracks and we can’t jump or fall into the churning rapids below.
      Two railroad bridges cross the rocky Potomac at Harper’s Ferry, just yards from its confluence with the Shenandoah River. Stone piers are all that remain of other bridges that have been lost to the floodwaters of years past.
      The Appalachian Trail, winding its way from Georgia to Maine, crosses the river on this pedestrian footbridge. We cross the bridge and descend open steel steps to the Maryland Heights side of the river.
      The steps deliver us to the historic C&O (Chesapeake and Ohio) Canal towpath. A century ago mules towed barges along the canal. Today, even in the light rain, bikers, hikers and joggers are plentiful on the towpath. Having taken time to cross the bridge and descend the steps, we walk a few yards to investigate the ruins of a canal lock.
      Just under a three-hour’s drive from mid-DelMarVa, the town of Harper’s Ferry and the Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park offer much for a day trip or a weekend. History, geography, sightseeing, hiking, biking, climbing, shopping, whitewater rafting, kayaking, fishing, photography – and of course, trains and bridges – all these and more summon a visit to Harper’s Ferry.
      One caution: though the National Park Service tries hard to achieve accessibility, the natural terrain of the region is not friendly to those with ambulatory difficulties.
      Huh! I forgot to ask. Who’s Harper? Answering that question can be the focus of our next visit.
      May all of your journeys be happy and safe!

George Sellers and his wife Priscilla are Certified Travel Counselors and Accredited Cruise Counselors who own Travel Selections by Priscilla and George, Inc. and the popular travel web site www.sellerstravel.com.