Harpers Ferry, West Virginia – Where the Rivers and the History Flow Together

History Buff? Nature Lover? Enjoy time in picturesque towns? Answer yes to any or all of these and you are sure to enjoy a trip to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, about 65 miles west from Washington, DC. Travel there and you are in excellent company. Rich in history with beautiful scenery, this quaint community has attracted visitors for over a century.  

Harpers Ferry sits on a narrow peninsula where two great rivers, the Potomac and Shenandoah, flow together. Over the millennia, the running waters opened a gap through what are today’s Blue Ridge Mountains, providing a natural transit route through the wilderness.

The Confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

In 1745, a tradesman traveling from Pennsylvania named Robert Harper established a ferry across the Potomac River, giving the town its name. George Washington traveled through the area after the Revolutionary War, surveying the need for canals along the Potomac River. Impressed by the potential of the rivers to power manufacturing, as President he directed a United States Arsenal and Armory be built at Harpers Ferry.

Other businesses followed. Plentiful mineral deposits, expansive hardwood forests and water power made Harpers Ferry an attractive location for early factories. Industrial innovations of the day were developed along the banks of the rivers, the most notable being the introduction of interchangeable parts in factory production. This made arms fabrication more efficient. Through its history, the US Armory at Harpers Ferry produced 600,000 rifles, pistols and cannons. In addition to the armory, sawmills, grain mills, leather tanneries and an iron foundry were found in Harpers Ferry.

The U.S. Army Military Police Corps branch insignia is comprised of two crossed Harpers Ferry Model 1805 pistols.

The products made by the bustling mills of Harpers Ferry quickly drew transportation improvements. Early canals were dug to bypass dangerous rapids in the rivers. Railroad routes from Baltimore and Washington were opened. Soon Harpers Ferry was a transportation hub as well as an industrial center.

Today’s visitor can experience this past starting with a short bus ride from the Harpers Ferry National Park Visitor Center into what is known as the “Lower Town” neighborhood. (The bus is a convenient way to access the Lower Town where parking is a challenge.) A recorded narration describes what the area looked like in the Harpers Ferry manufacturing heyday. From the bus windows, ruins and remnants are visible through the trees that are reclaiming the town’s former industrial core which runs along the bank of the Shenandoah River and neighboring Virginius Island.

Restored buildings on Shenandoah Street in the Harpers Ferry National Park area.

The bus deposits visitors along Shenandoah Street, where the National Park Service has restored several blocks along Shenandoah, High, and Potomac Streets to their 1859 appearance. Walking through the area provides a feel of that era. The wood framed buildings, period signage and cobblestones certainly evoke an earlier time, despite a few trappings of the 21st century.  

Among the restored buildings are exhibits of antebellum stores, offices and other establishments, as well as some insightful museums portraying the town’s different eras from the growth of industry through the Civil War and early civil rights movement. A current bookstore sells historical works and souvenirs.

Interior of the restored General Store at the Harpers Ferry National Park.

Adjoining Arsenal Square at the end of Shenandoah Street is a sturdy, old brick firehouse.  The building, known as John Brown’s Fort, is said to be the most photographed building in West Virginia. It was in this building that John Brown’s attempt to incite a slave rebellion came to an end.

On the night of October 16, 1859, John Brown, an ardent abolitionist, led 21 followers in an attempt to seize the Federal Armory in order to arm enslaved African Americans. At first, Brown and his force had some success. Brown’s men had cut telegraph lines and over powered the one night watchman at the Armory. They also captured around 60-70 local residents.

John Brown’s Fort, where John Brown and his followers made their final stand. The firehouse is the only remaining building from the US Armory at Harpers Ferry.

News of the raid eventually spread. Local militia arrived and some secured the railroad bridges, cutting off Brown’s only means of escape from the town. Brown’s force and some of his prisoners took refuge in the firehouse.  On October 18, Colonel Robert E. Lee arrived from Washington along with a detachment of US Marines. They broke open the doors of the firehouse, captured Brown and freed the remaining prisoners.  

Photograph of John Brown

Retrieved from the Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/item/2018697010

The story of John Brown is explored at the Harpers Ferry National Park’s John Brown Museum, located across Shenandoah Street from Armory Square. The exhibits and displays provide intriguing details and insights into John Brown the person, his motivations and the events surrounding the raid.

John Brown’s raid brought national notoriety to Harpers Ferry. Unfortunately, the Civil War brought troubles. The Federal Arsenal, also the town’s largest employer, was burned to prevent it from falling to Confederate forces. (Two brick perimeters in the ground at Arsenal Square mark the locations where two arms warehouses, burned in 1861, once stood).

Harpers Ferry’s prominence in the strategic Shenandoah Valley kept the warring armies in close proximity to the town. A battle in September 1862 led to the surrender of some 13,000 US troops. It was said that Harpers Ferry was easy to capture, but hard to hold and the town changed hands eight times during the war. Many homes, businesses, mills and other buildings were destroyed. With factories closed and local resources consumed by the militaries, hardship became widespread among the civilian population.    

Following the war and the destruction of the Federal Arsenal, Harpers Ferry’s industrial era faded. In addition to the damage caused by the war, devastating flooding was always a concern. In the hundred years from 1850 -1950, floodwaters ravaged the river town eight times, damaging buildings and infrastructure. Destroyed factories were often not rebuilt as businesses relocated. Technology developments brought alternatives to river power, which made other locations more attractive for new plants and mills.

Abutments in the Potomac River from a railroad bridge destroyed by flooding during the early 20th Century. Many infrastructure and industrial ruins can be found around Harpers Ferry.

However, Harpers Ferry would become known for something other than its factories. Opposite Arsenal Square, along High Street, two Harpers Ferry National Park museums are dedicated to the African American experience in Harpers Ferry, which became notable following the Civil War. John Brown’s Fort became an important symbol of liberation for African Americans. Additionally, Baptist missionaries founded Storer College to educate teachers for recently freed slaves and others.

Visits by Frederick Douglas and W.E.B. Dubois, along with meetings of the Niagara Movement, an early equality organization, established the town as an early center for civil rights. As a result, Harpers Ferry began attracting African American travelers. Soon the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was expanding service to travel from Baltimore and hotels began opening to accommodate African American tourists. The African American experience in Harpers Ferry can be explored at two National Park Service museums located along High Street within the Harpers Ferry National Park area. 

A newspaper advertisement circa 1900 for a Harpers Ferry hotel.

If all of Harpers Ferry’s history wants you hungry for more, head further up High Street to True Treats, a researched based candy store. Walking through this shop is its own history lesson as you learn about how confections developed from ancient times as remedies and medicines. You will also find some interesting reminders of yesteryear’s candy shops. The store is like a museum — where you can eat the artifacts!

When you have had your fill of history, continue north on High Street where 19th century buildings house an assortment of restaurants, boutiques, outfitters and shops with regionally produced merchandise.  Glasswork, pottery, quilts, jewelry, art and photography are just a few available items produced by regional craftspeople and artisans inspired by the area’s mountains and rivers.

Jefferson’s Rock, where Thomas Jefferson reputed to pause while admiring the scenery around Harpers Ferry.

Those mountains and rivers have long drawn people to Harpers Ferry. Standing on “The Point” at the foot of Shenandoah Street, it is easy to be captivated by the confluence of the two rivers and the rugged landscape of the surrounding mountains. Thomas Jefferson, visiting in 1783, called the view “worth a voyage across the Atlantic”.

Numerous trails of various lengths crisscross the area today along which hikers can view any number of natural vistas and historic ruins. The famous Appalachian Trail also runs through Harpers Ferry as it makes its way from Maine to Georgia. The Appalachian Trail Conservatory’s headquarters is in Harpers Ferry, and is open to visitors and hikers alike. There’s a 3-D map of the entire 2,190-mile trail and an interpretive wall with the stories of many of the trail’s famous hikers.

Those interested in only a short walk along the trail should make their way to a set of hand carved stone steps found just off the Public Way above the Harpers Ferry National Park area. The steps are part of the Appalachian Trail and lead past St. Peter’s Church to the stone where Thomas Jefferson made his intuitive observation about the natural beauty of the area.  

These stone steps are part of the Appalachian Trail.

In addition to hiking, the two rivers provide a variety of recreational activities, including rafting, tubing, paddle boarding, boating, fishing and other pursuits. All are available through local guides and outfitters.  

A steady stream of visitors, including the famous and infamous, have made their way to Harpers Ferry since the town’s founding in 1745. They have come for many reasons: to make money, to enjoy nature, to make war, to seek equality. And people still make their way to Harpers Ferry today drawn by the town’s unique legacy and the equally unique appeal of the landscape. So visit soon — and make some history of your own.

Route Recon

Harpers Ferry is best reached by taking US Route 340 which connects Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia in the Harpers Ferry area.

The Harpers Ferry National Park Visitor Center is located at 171 Shoreline Drive, Harpers Ferry, WV 25425. More information about the park, bus transportation and parking in the Lower Town can be found at the Harpers Ferry National Park website.

Mess Call

The Rabbit Hole – 186 High Street, Harpers Ferry, WV 25425.

The friendly staff at this self-described gastropub serve regional and upscale takes on traditional American food to be enjoyed with over 75 craft beers. The outdoor seating area overlooks the train station and features a spectacular view of the nearby mountains. 

Command Reading List

  • Harpers Ferry, the History of the Federal Armory that Became One of America’s Most Famous National ParksBy Charles River Editors. At fifty-eight pages, this work by the digital publisher Charles River is a straightforward review of Harpers Ferry before, during and after the Civil War. It is a great reference to help you make the most of your visit.
  • Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War – By Tony Horwitz. This book examines John Brown as a man of his time and provides a moment-by-moment account of his raid in October 1859.
  • Six Years of Hell: Harpers Ferry During the Civil War – By Chester Hearn. Harpers Ferry changed hands eight times between the Union and Confederate sides during the Civil War era. This book examines the terrible toll the war took on the town by examining the 28 different Union and Confederate commanders who governed Harpers Ferry doing the Civil War years.

   

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