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Bolivar, West Virginia, United States

Harpers Ferry Lower Town Trails

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

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Difficulty: Moderate
Length: 5.6 miles / 9.0 km
Duration: Half day
Family Friendly • Dog Friendly
 
Overview: This trail guide takes you on a history tour of Harpers Ferry Lower Town.

The history of Harpers Ferry has few parallels in the American drama. It is more than one event, one date, or one individual. It is multi-layered – involving a diverse number of people and events that influenced the course of our nation's history. Harpers Ferry witnessed the first successful application of interchangeable manufacture, the arrival of the first successful American railroad, John Brown's attack on slavery, the largest surrender of Federal troops during the Civil War, and the education of former slaves in one of the earliest integrated schools in the United States.


Tips: Make sure to bring a trail map with you. Trail maps are free and located at the Visitor Center. Bring plenty of water and snacks.

Points of Interest

Information
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Harpers Ferry National Historical Park - Visitor Center

The park is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day.

Park passes may be purchased at the fee collection entrance station daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The inscription at the center reads (First Panel):
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is the story of...

Industrial Development and the production of weapons at the Harpers Ferry armory.

John Brown's Raid and his attempt to end slavery.

The Civil War with Union and Confederate armies fighting over this border area for four years.

Black History from slavery to Storer College - chartered to educate men and women of all races, it became one of the first institutions of higher learning for Black Americans.

Explore Harpers Ferry's past!
Information
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Confederate Victory

The inscription along the trail path reads:

"The Rebels were all around us and our only refuge was the open canopy of heaven."
Sgt. Charles E. Smith
32nd Ohio Infantry
September 14, 1862

Thousands of Federal soldiers huddled in ravines on Bolivar Heights to escape the Confederate shells of September 14, 1862. By evening, the Federals were demoralized. Pvt. Louis B. Hull of the 60th Ohio Infantry wrote in his diary at sunset: "All seem to think that we will have to surrender or be cut to pieces."

By 8:00 a.m. on September 15, the situation had worsened for the surrounded and outnumbered Federals. During the night, Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill's division of 3,000 Confederates had turned the Federal left flank on the south end of Bolivar Heights. With Union artillery ammunition exhausted, the situation appeared hopeless.

About 9:00 a.m., Col. Dixon S. Miles, Union commander, decided to surrender his forces. Moments later, a Confederate shell fragment wounded the Colonel. He died the next day, leaving many unanswered questions about the Federal disaster at Harpers Ferry.

An unconditional surrender accepted by Stonewall Jackson from Union Brig. Gen. Julius White on School House Ridge finished the siege. The Confederates captured 73 cannon, 13,000 small arms, 200 wagons and 12,500 prisoners - the largest surrender of U.S. forces until Bataan during World War II.

Jackson reviewed the captured Federal garrison on Bolivar Heights on the afternoon of September 15. On Union soldier recalled: "There we were on the hill, our arms stacked before us, and waiting. Soon the celebrated 'Stonewall' Jackson rode along our lines with his staff. He rode a cream colored horse and was plainly dressed in ... a grey dingy suit."Another soldier shouted, "Boys, he's not much for looks, but if we'd had him we wouldn't have been caught in this trap!"
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Murphy-Chambers Farm Trail

This section of the trail path leads to Harpers Ferry Lower Town and Murphy's Farm. The trail path is well maintained. Use caution when crossing the road.
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Murphy-Chambers Farm Trail

Once the trail starts to turn towards Murphy's Farm, you will need to get off the trail and follow the road towards Harpers Ferry Lower Town. Murphy's Farm is the location where John Brown's Fort once stood.
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Harpers Ferry Lower Town Trail

This is a sign indicating the direction towards Harpers Ferry Lower Town and the Visitor Center.
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Harpers Ferry Lower Town Trail

The trail takes you along the Shenandoah Canal next to the railroad tracks. Wild life may be seen along the way.
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Harpers Ferry Lower Town Trail

Wide life may be seen along the trail towards Harpers Ferry Lower Town. Over 170 bird species have been identified within the park. Visitors may find different species when exploring the park depending on the habitat encountered. Within the lower historical district, visitors have the opportunity to view great blue herons (Ardea herodias) and Canada geese (Branta canadensis) along the banks of the Shenandoah Canal.
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Harpers Ferry Lower Town Trail

The Harpers Ferry Rangers recently installed a road barrier to create a path for hikers.
Landmark
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Harpers Ferry Railroads

The marker inscription near the railroad tracks reads:
Trains clanking along iron rails have echoed through Virginius Island since the Winchester & Potomac Railroad arrived here in 1836. It extended from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad junction at Harpers Ferry 32 miles southward to Winchester. The W&P line enabled local industrialists to import raw materials and export finished products to the port of Baltimore and into the heart of the Shenandoah Valley.

During the Civil War, both Union and Confederate forces damaged the railroad. By late fall, 1864, however, Union General Sheridan had rebuilt the W&P to supply over 30,000 U.S. troops in the valley.

This railroad still operates today. It stands as the only "living" remnant of the island's industrial past.

Just ahead is the railroad. Please use caution as you cross the tracks.
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Halls Island Trail

The entrance to Halls Islands trail leads to the ruins of Herr's Mil that was once used for milling.
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Halls Island Trail

The trail is not used often and may not be well maintained. A trail map may be needed to be acquainted with the trail path. Trail maps are free and may be obtained at the visitors center.
Landmark
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Halls Island Trail

The Halls Islands trail leads through the ruins of Herr's Mil. These ruins are one of the few ruins where you are allowed to explorer within them.
Landmark
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Halls Island Trail

The nearby marker inscription reads:
Sounds of turning mill wheels and workers filling bags with freshly ground flour once filled the air here.

The foundation of Island Mills, one of the earliest (1824) industries on the island, lies before you. Each fall the railroad brought wheat here from the Potomac and Shenandoah valleys to be ground into flour, packed into barrels, and shipped east to Baltimore.

Fire destroyed the original mill in 1839. Construction of a larger 3 1/2-story stone building followed the next year on the same site. Over the next 5 years ownership changed several times until Abraham Herr acquired the mill in 1844. Then known as Herr's Mill, it dwarfed the surrounding factories in Virginia and could produce $233,400 in flour annually, thirteen times the amount produced by the average flour mill in the United States in 1860.

By the outbreak of the Civil War, Herr owned all of Virginius Island. As a Northern supporter, he donated a large quantity of grain to Union soldiers stationed in the area in October 1861. A few days later, Confederates seized Harpers Ferry and torched Herr's flour mill. The flames completely gutted the building, but Herr escaped to the North.
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Halls Island Trail

Follow the trail which leads towards Virginius Islands. This section of the Halls Island trail is well maintained.
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Virginius Islands Trail

This is the starting path for Virginius Islands. The path starts under the railroad and leads to the Head Gates and Inner Basin.
Landmark
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Virginius Islands Trail - Head Gates

The nearby marker inscription reads:
These brick-lined archways, or "head gates," built around 1850, once controlled much of the island's waterpower. From here, a "wing dam" extended across the Shenandoah River, funneling water through the arches and into the inner basin. A gate at the opening of each arch controlled the flow.

After passing through the head gates, the water was stored in the inner basin until dispersed via raceways and tunnels to the mills and factories. Over time, silt and sand accumulated and eventually filled the basin.
Landmark
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Virginius Islands Trail - Water Tunnels

The marker inscription near the water tunnels reads:
Tunnels increased power. Here water from the inner basin, located off to your right, flowed through a series of underground passages. With openings smaller at the downstream end - like a nozzle on a garden hose - these tunnels increased the water's flow. This increased pressure created more waterpower for the factories.

As you continue along the trail, look for evidence of the river wall and the head gates - other features of this elaborate waterpower system, first built around 1848.
Information
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Virginius Island Trail

The marker inscription at the bridge reads:
In the shadow of the United States Armory at Harpers Ferry, private industry thrived. Across this canal is Virginius Island, site of a town that once bustled with pre-Civil War businesses and the activities of 200 people. Built along the banks of the Shenandoah, the town's thriving factories were powered by the same river that later destroyed them.

Virginius Island today has returned to nature, but a stroll along this trail offers a glimpse into its colorful past. As you explore, search for ruins of canals, dams, tunnels, homes, and mills - all built by optimistic businessmen who harnessed the power of the Shenandoah River.
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Lower Town Trail

This trail leads through the once busy market vendors. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance on this path. The Butcher Shop and Boarding House (within shouting distance); Armory Workers (within shouting distance); Casualties of Time (within shouting distance); A Government Factory Town No Longer (about 300 feet away, in a direct line); Shenandoah Street about 1880 (about 300 feet away); Floods (about 300 feet away); St. John's Episcopal Church (about 400 feet away); Market House (about 400 feet away).
Landmark
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Lower Town Trail - Market House

This was once a busy path. The nearby marker reads:
Armory workers purchased fresh vegetables, meat, and fish every Wednesday and Saturday here at the Market House. Constructed by the government near mid-century, the building that once stood here architecturally resembled the refurbished armory buildings along the Potomac.

The Sons of Temperance, a 19th-century organization campaigning for the prohibition of liquor, financed construction of the second floor for their meeting hall.
Landmark
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Lower Town Trail - Armory Paymaster's Residence

Along the way towards the lower town overlook is the armory paymaster's residence.
The nearby marker reads:
Rank has its privileges. The paymaster, second in command at the armory, enjoyed an unobstructed view of the factory grounds and water gap from the substantial brick dwelling erected here about 1800.

Soot and noise disrupted the scene with the arrival of the Winchester and Potomac Railroad through the paymaster's front yard in 1836. The paymaster moved to new, elegant quarters on the hill overlooking the river gap. The government then leased the old structure to armory workers.
Viewpoint
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Lower Town Trail - Early Travel

The Shenandoah and Potomac River collide at this location. This spot is great for pictures.

The nearby marker reads:
Situated in a gap of the Blue Ridge Mountains and at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, Harpers Ferry, from its beginning, functioned as a natural avenue of transportation.

The first mode of travel consisted of a primitive ferry established in 1733 by Peter Stephens. Stephens sold his business to Robert Harper in 1747, and Harper and others carried settlers and supplies across the waters until 1824 when a bridge constructed across the Potomac made ferryboat operations unnecessary.
In less than a decade after the completion of the bridge, the iron horse and the mule brought the transportation revolution to Harpers Ferry.
Landmark
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Lower Town Trail - John Brown Fort

This is not the original location of the John Brown building, but it is in a busy location where guests may see it.

The nearby marker inscription reads:
Here is a building with a curious past. Since its construction in 1848, it has been vandalized, dismantled, and moved four times - all because of its fame as John Brown's stronghold.

The Fort's "Movements"

1848 Built as fire-engine house for U.S. Armory.
1859 Serves as stronghold for John Brown and his raiders.
1861-1865 Escapes destruction during the Civil War (only armory building to do so), but it is vandalized by souvenir-hunting Union and Confederate soldiers and later travelers.
1891 Dismantled and transported to Chicago Exposition.
1895 Rescued from conversion to stable and brought back to Harpers Ferry area to be exhibited on a farm.
1909 Purchased by Storer College and moved to campus.
1968 Moved by National Park Service to within 150 feet of its original location.

On the right side is a portrait of John Brown: "On October 16, 1859, the abolitionist John Brown and his men attacked Harpers Ferry. By the following afternoon the local militia had penned the raiders in this building at dawn on the 18th and captured Brown. Convicted of murder, treason, and inciting slaves to rebellion, he was hanged in nearby Charles Town on December 2, 1859."
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Lower Town Trail - John Brown Fort

These stairs lead to the original location of the John Brown Fort.
Landmark
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Lower Town Trail - John Brown Fort

This marks the spot of the original site of John Brown's Fort.

The nearby marker reads:
You are in the line of fire. The stone marker in front of you identifies the original site of the armory fire engine house - now known as John Brown's Fort. Barricaded inside the fort, abolitionist John Brown and his men held off local militia and U.S. Marines for three days in October 1859. Brown's men fired from inside the fort at militiamen and townspeople who shot back from positions around you. Finally, U.S. Marines stormed past where you stand, battered down the door, and captured Brown and his few remaining men. Famous orator and former slave Frederick Douglass later proclaimed that Brown's fight here began "the war the ended slavery."
Viewpoint
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Lower Town Trail - Daring Escapes

This view overlooks the Potomac River and Maryland Heights. You can see the Maryland Heights overlook marker from this position (On the top right of this picture above the rocks and under the tree line).

The nearby marker reads:
The boat ramp in front of you was the site of two daring escapes in the Battle of Harpers Ferry. Under the cover of darkness, 1,400 Union cavalrymen fled on horseback down the ramp. crossing a pontoon bridge into Maryland on September 14, 1862. The next day Confederates captured the remaining 12,500 Union soldiers. Among them were free black laborers, working for Union Colonel William Trimble's regiment.

Here at this ramp Confederate soldiers began dragging the free black laborers away. falsely claiming the Union was "stealing their slaves." Colonel Trimble shouted "My men are unarmed - I am not. Unhand them!" Then he ordered "Regiment march," swiftly moving both the laborers and the soldiers past the Confederate guards, down this ramp, and across the bridge to safety in the North.
Parking
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Lower Town Trail - Railroad Station

The B&O has shifted the rail lines at least three times. The first, mentioned on the marker, passed along the river wall. The second passed further inland along what is today a berm along Potomac Street. The last crosses the river at a less critical angle to a point roughly in the middle of the old Armory site. This area is also used as a parking lot for visitors.

The nearby marker inscription by the "Daring Escapes" marker reads:
On this spot in 1838 the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) pulled into the lead in the race for transportation industry dominance with the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (C&O). Denied across to the Maryland side of the river, the B&O struck a deal with the armory to build an elevated train trestle on the river wall beneath your feet. Continuing west along what was then the Virginia side of the river, the B&O Railroad quickly passed the C&O Canal and won the race west, becoming the first successful railroad in the United States.
Landmark
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Lower Town Trail - Confectionery

What is a town without a bakery?

The nearby marker inscription reads:
The enticing smell of bread, cakes, candies, and pies undoubtedly attracted many customers to Frederick Roeder's Confectionery, making it a prosperous business from 1845 to 1861. In addition to his store, it is reported that he carried small pies to the train station to sell to hungry passengers before the days of dining cars. By 1856, Roeder was so successful that he enlarged this structure by one and a half stories, creating much needed space for his business and family of 7 children. Thriving in his adopted homeland, this German baker turned skills from his native country into sumptuous treats for his friends, neighbors, and community. Caption for the pencil sketch of the interior of the Confectionery: By Artist, Steven N. Patricia.
Landmark
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Lower Town Trail - St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church

The church marker inscription reads:
Construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad produced an influx of Irish laborers into the Harpers Ferry area during the early 1830's. St. Peter's Catholic Church, completed in 1833, symbolizes America's melting pot tradition and the customs, habits, and religion of the early Irish immigrants.

During the Civil War, to protect the church from Union and Confederate shells, Father Costello flew the British Union Jack flag as a symbol of the church's neutrality. St. Peter's escaped the war relatively unscathed.

St. Peter's was remodeled to its present appearance in 1896, and Mass is offered here every Sunday.
Landmark
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Lower Town Trail - St. John's Episcopal Church

The church marker inscription reads:
These weathered ruins are all that remain of St. John's Episcopal Church - one of Harpers Ferry's five earliest churches.

Built in 1852 with money provided by church fairs, St. John's served as a hospital and barracks during the Civil War and suffered considerable damage. It was rebuilt afterward, but was abandoned in 1895 when a new Episcopal church was built in the upper town.
Landmark
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Jefferson Rock

In 1834 former President John Quincy Adams visited the Armory at Harpers Ferry and in particular observed the scene described by Jefferson. From the Diaries of John Quincy Adams, May 24, 1834-
"Here we saw the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, described somewhat enthusiastically by Mr. Jefferson. I went to the hanging rock that bears his name, and observed the double range of precipitous rocky hills between which the river flows - It has some resemblance on a much smaller scale to the course of the Elbe between Dresden, and the borders of Bohemia. There is not much of the sublime in the Scene, and those who first see it after reading Mr. Jefferson's description are usually disappointed..."
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Jefferson Rock

The marker inscription near Jefferson Rock reads:
"On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain a hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac [Potomac], in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder, and pass off to the sea....This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic."

This is how Thomas Jefferson described the view from here during a visit to Harpers Ferry in 1783. Around 1860, the U.S. armory superintendent ordered red sandstone supports placed under "Jefferson Rock" because it was "endangering the lives and properties of the villagers below."
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Lower Town Trail

Harper cemetery is located above Jefferson Rock. You will need to take the stairs to the top.
Landmark
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Lower Town Trail - Harper Cemetery

The nearby marker inscription reads:
Passing through this region in 1747, Robert Harper — a Pennsylvania architect contracted to build a Quaker church in the Shenandoah Valley — was so impressed by the beauty of this place and the water-power potential of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers that he settled here and founded Harpers Ferry.

When Harper died in 1782, there were only three houses in the town. Optimistic about the community's potential for growth, however, Harper had set aside this 4-acre cemetery. Childless, Harper left most of his estate to his niece, Sarah, who subsequently married a Wager. As you wander around the cemetery, you'll find the grave markers of some of Sarah Wager's descendants as well as stones of Irish and German immigrants who settled in this area during the 1830's.
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Appalachian Trail

This section of the trail collides with the Appalachian trail. Use caution on this trail.
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Appalachian Trail

This section of the trail has its up and downs.
Junction
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Appalachian Trail

Here is a sign indicating the trail directions. The trail path taken from this spot goes down and is located on the left near the edge of the mountain. The trail path taken was not displayed on the sign.
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Lower Town Trail

This section of the trail is not well maintained and you will need to use extreme caution when going down this trail path. Rocks are loose and footing is not great.
Landmark
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Island Access and House Ruins

The marker inscription at the bridge reads:
Bridges spanning the canal, like the one to your left, provided access from the island to the mainland for residents and factory workers. During floods, they were paths to safety. To delay departure could spell disaster, as in 1870, when swiftly rising water swept away all avenues to higher ground.

As you cross the bridge, you will pass the house ruins. The marker inscription reads:
An island entrepreneur or owner likely resided in this 2 1/2-story house which once stood on this foundation. Owners and workers both resided on the island. Other dwellings included four large 2-story structures, five 2-story brick tenements, and five 1 1/2-story wooden cottages.

The 1850 census reveals about 200 people living on Virginius Island. Only ruins remain of their homes.
Water
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Lower Town Trail Spring Water

The lower town trail has a surprising hidden spring water that is rarely seen by visitors. The spring water is located next to the road on the lower town trail path.
Water
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Lower Town Trail Spring Water

Spring water flows down from the top of the rocks. The spring water flowing down from the rocks is a great site to take pictures.
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Lower Town Trail

The stone stairs are well maintained and will lead you to a path back to the visitor parking lot.
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Lower Town Trail

The trail path is one of the best looking trails within Harpers Ferry. As you climb up the stairs, you can enjoy the sounds of the spring water flowing down.
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Lower Town Trail

This trail path leads you back to the visitor center parking lot.
Information
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Lower Town Trail

This is the sign indicating the start of the lower town trail. The entrance is located at the end of the parking lot near the picnic area. Not many visitors use this enjoyable trail path.
Pictures in this guide taken by: Lucky_Dog

2011

Harpers Ferry Lower Town Trails Trail Map


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About the Author

Lucky_Dog
Lucky_Dog
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My paws may be short, but I can hike like the big dogs.

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