Back in time along River Road
Across the railroad tracks near the German Reform Church. Past the one-time elementary school and cresting the next hill.
Winding down the curving and narrow road … and on the left is the Potomac River.
This is the beginning of River Road. It’s quiet. Much more restrained than less than a mile away in downtown Shepherdstown, where shops are bustling, tourists are finding the food needed to tour German Street and imposing McMurran Hall looks down at the Town Run, library and a metal sign calling attention to Shepherd State Teachers College of yesteryear.
River Road as it takes its time moving alongside the Potomac River is a quiet place with little traffic and fewer intrusions on the peace found there.
It’s almost as if the area is still taking time to catch its breath after the fierce happenings that warred the senses during the Civil War. After the Battle of Antietam across the river in Sharpsburg, the forces Confederate commanded by Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and A.P. Hill slogged back into Virginia via Pack Horse Ford.
Many of Shepherdstown’s out buildings, sheds, barns and livery stables were filling with the wounded from Antietam’s carnage. Thousands of Confederate troops slowly made their way across the shallows at Pack Horse Ford and traipsed into Shepherdstown looking for solace and medicines.
Pack Horse Ford is snug against the low-slung bank of the river. It had been crossed by some Confederate forces when they first entered Maryland and moved on to Frederick. Troubles in Frederick and the Battle of South Mountain caused Lee to move just west to Sharpsburg. And then on the fog-filled morning of September 17, 1862, came to Battle of Antietam, where 23,000 people were killed, wounded or went missing.
Several days later the Corn Exchange Regiment was sent to Shepherdstown to engage the Confederates again. From a building along River Road known as Potomac Mills/Boteler’s Cement Plant, the Confederates fired on the men of the 118th Pennsylvania.
The Union soldiers moved again back into Maryland and the few days concerning Antietam were finished.
Early settlers to the area had used Pack Horse Ford to reach what would become Shepherdstown.
Native Americans knew of the shallows that stood from bank-to-bank at Pack Horse Ford. They constructed weirs and caught fish for their families.
The same shallows are there today. Both sides of the river have much more vegetation and many more trees than years ago. Slender maples spar for every available space. Sycamores are sentries instead of soldiers given duties as lookouts.
Farther down the narrow strip of paved surface there are small places where vehicles can pull off the road and park, either to fish or swim in the Potomac.
Across the river is the C&O Canal and another road of kindred spirit that hugs the Potomac on the Maryland side.
Houses are arranged maybe 35 yards off the pavement, and quickly a different road juts at a left angle, up a hill and back toward Sharpsburg.
River Road eventually comes to a pair of slender bridges and then swings away from the river and courses on toward Moler’s Cross Road and Bakerton, using the farm land between Shepherdstown and the east as its pathway.
History that rushed past in many forms has taken River Road to its 2017 destiny.
It’s very quiet along that twisted ribbon of road. But it wasn’t that way 350 years ago when settlers first came or 155 years ago when the Battle of Antietam bloodied the Maryland countryside.