The excitement I felt upon acquiring this circa 1870s view of a man standing on Jefferson Rock above Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia was not really about the location. It was about the man. The stereoview was published by William Moody Chase (1817-1901), and the man in the view is the prolific Baltimore purveyor of stereoviews himself.
I would not have known what William M. Chase looked like if it were not for the work of Ross Kelbaugh. His invaluable Directory of Maryland Photographers 1839-1900 includes rarely seen reproductions of some of the works in his own collection.
One of Kelbaugh’s stereoviews depicts William M. Chase and his younger colleague and sometime collaborator and partner David Bachrach encamped on a stereoview photography expedition. Chase’s long beard, lanky figure, and the distinctive straw hat he wore all match those seen in this view, as well as in the view of Chase and Bachrach’s “Artist Corps” encampment at Niagara Falls.
Those familiar with Harper’s Ferry and with Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia know the shale outcropping became a place of pilgrimage because Jefferson is believed to have stood on this rock in October 1783 while looking out upon the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. In the 1780s he famously wrote that:
“the passage of the Patowmac through the Blue ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature. You stand on a very high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain an hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac, in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their juncture they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder, and pass off to the sea” (Notes on the State of Virginia, p. 27).
The eye was then drawn, says Jefferson, eastward down the Potomac toward the lovely and fertile lands around Frederick, Maryland:
“The distant finishing which Nature has given to the picture is of a very different character. . . . It is as placid and delightful as that is wild and tremendous. For the mountain being cloven asunder, she presents to the eye, through the cleft a small catch of smooth blue horizon, at an infinite distance in the plain country, inviting you, as it were, from the riot and tumult roaring around, to pass through the breach and participate of the calm below” (Notes, pp. 27-28).
Historian Pamela Regis places Jefferson’s book at the heart of “American self-creation and self-definition” (Regis, Describing Early America: Bartram, Jefferson, Crevècoeur, and the Influence of Natural History, Northern Illinois University Press, 1992, p. 3).
“The country itself,” says Regis, “needed to be written into existence,” and the Notes, she argues, were among a small but influential group of such fundamentally creative early American prose works (Describing, p. 3).
Jefferson described the view in terms that an educated 18th century gentleman would understand: America was a worthy location for the rebirth of republicanism because it fulfilled the highest aesthetic standards of the era.
The view was sublime and beautiful, full of both the wildest and noblest scenery, but also of useful rivers, abundant natural resources and broad, fertile lands ready for the plow.
Jefferson’s artful eye and pen composed the view into a land that had all that was required for the establishment of a new society grounded in the best traditions of the old world–a society that would be egalitarian, educated, prosperous and self-governing. Together, says Regis, texts such as these constituted “the description of a ground on which [republican] politics could hold sway” (Describing, p. 4).
With the spread of railroads and middle class prosperity, the shale rock formation that Jefferson is believed to have stood upon became an early tourist attraction. The depredations of weather and visitors necessitated stabilization, and between 1855 and 1860 the uppermost slab of the formation was placed on four stone pillars (“Thomas Jefferson at Harpers Ferry,” National Park Service).
After the Civil War, Jefferson Rock became subsumed into a larger tourism that included pilgrimages to “John Brown’s Fort” and wealthy visitors escaping the heat of the Washington, DC summer to enjoy the mountains, walks and scenery around the town (Paul A. Schackel, Archaeeology and Created Memory: Public History in a National Park, New York: Klewer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 2000, pp. 66-68).
Stereoviews of John Brown’s “Fort,” the ruins of the government armory, and other Harper’s Ferry sites made famous by the war joined views of Jefferson Rock in appealing to middle class hunger to see the places that made America a nation.
In standing where Jefferson stood, seeing what Jefferson made visible, William Chase took part in Jefferson’s descriptive creation of the nation. Mass reproduction of Chase’s views enabled Americans in all walks of life, north and south, to do the same in a time when the nation sorely needed to recall a common vision of itself.