In many ways, this town, today sleeping in the valley that is defined by the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, is one of the most under-appreciated historic sites in this nation. Its history is that of Thomas Jefferson and his daughter, who witnessed its beauty from a rock high above what was yet to be the town during a time of the Continental Congress and the birthing of a nation. His words, "perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature" describes the beauty of the mountains that hover above those two rocky rivers. Photo above: the U.S. Army raid against John Brown's fort, led by Robert E. Lee.
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- Then and Now
- Things You Should Not Miss
Its history includes the arrival of the first American railroad. Its history is that of the Civil Rights movement, one hundred years before it became a popular term, and emancipation, albeit prior to the Civil War and a failed attempt at that when a federal arsenal in Harper's Ferry was overrun by abolitionists who wanted to seed a rebellion. Its history is that of the Civil War itself, when the peaks surrounding the town saw cannons that protected, or more accurately, threatened the town with destruction. The town changed hands many times during the Civil War, you see, because its defense, once overtaken, saw surrender within its confines before what would become an inevitable annihilation. Today, Harper's Ferry is predominantly a national historic park. Yes, almost the entire town. It tells the story of John Brown amongst exhibits housed in the town buildings, as well as the story of Civil War battles, and the history of the armory that had been built there, but is gone now. But it all begins with John Brown. John Brown was the noted abolitionist who moved in from bleeding Kansas and tried to start a slave rebellion two years prior to the start of the Civil War, only to be thwarted by a lack of support from black slaves and an eventual capture by Robert E. Lee, with aide J.E.B. Stuart by his side, while they were still in federal (Union) employ. The town is also situated in one of the most beautiful settings along the east coast, directly on the route of the Appalachian Trail. It contains a historic canal, the ruins of factories that once thrived in the manufacture of weapons, and much else; rock climbing, white water rafting, fishing along both the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, and all that history. Harper's Ferry, West Virginia makes an ideal vacation destination for those interested in either the outdoors or the history that made our nation what it is today. If you have family members who are interested in both, this could be the spot for you.
Photo above: John Brown Museum on Shenandoah Street in the lower town. Courtesy National Park Service.
Harper's Ferry Then
John Brown - There has always been this dilemma when talking about John Brown. Was he a madman, both in Kansas and here at Harper's Ferry, chasing windmills of a dream of racial equality, but utilizing brutal methods to try and win his point. Was he a visionary, knowing that the seeds of a rebellion had to be sowed in whatever manner necessary, even if it meant eventual failure in the immediate action. The mural above shows the madman of bleeding Kansas during the debate of making new states slave or free. He would fail, of course, at Harper's Ferry, when the slaves in the surrounding area did not come to his call to arms. He would hole up in a small arsenal shed (now known as John Brown's fort), get captured, and eventually go on trial that led to his death. Madman or visionary? Perhaps both.
Harper's Ferry - Many famous visitors set foot in this town beyond the John Brown incident. One, George Washington, eyes Harpers Ferry during his surveyor's years and as President urged the building of the armory there. Stonewall Jackson after the April 1861 start of Civil War actions, dismantled that machinery and shipped it south for Confederate purposes, then came back one year later to conduct a siege from the mountains and force the surrender of the Federal troops that now guarded the town. Later, it would shift back into Union hands and serve as an important supply base. After the war, the shift in Harper's Ferry importance came full circle when Storer College was established to educate former slaves in 1867.
Abraham Lincoln & Harper's Ferry - Although not twinned in many ways, besides, of course, the actions of the Civil War that took place there and around it, Abraham Lincoln visited Antietam, only twenty miles from Harper's Ferry, several days after the September 1862 battle there. It was that battle, which was halted after Confederate troops from Harper's Ferry made their way to Antietam at the end of that day, which saw the rationale and timing for Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. So it took a more rational man than John Brown, as well as a Civil War and the loss of 500,000 men, for John Brown's goal to be achieved.
Harper's Ferry Now
Harper's Ferry Historic Park - Dozens of buildings dot the park all along Potomac Street and running half way up High Street. Each building tells part of the story of the town. On the outside of some of the buildings, another story is told, that of the floods that have ravaged Harper's Ferry as much as the Civil War and John Brown have done. There are museums here that should meet most historic vacationers fancy, from the African American bent at the John Brown Museum and the Black Voices Museum, to the Restoration Museum that has been completed part way to allow you to witness the interior of a building under repair. There are seven distinct areas of the park to explore ... the Lower Town, Virginius Island, Camp Hill, Maryland Heights, Loudoun Heights, Bolivar Heights, and Schoolhouse Ridge. During the year, a variety of programs highlight the living history aspect of the site with National Park interpreters and other living history participants. And these living history demonstrations, plus the tours given by park staff highlight the history that the less celebrated soldiers endured, as well as the famous folks who made Harper's Ferry a location of their fame or infamy.
Photo above: John Brown's Fort, circa 1885. Courtesy Historic Photo Collection, Harper's Ferry National Historic Park.
1. This is a great place to walk, with strenuous and less strenuous trails. Want a challenge, climb the hill above town to Jefferson Rock, where Thomas took in the magnificent views of the town and the two rivers that define it. Cross the railroad bridge and you can walk along the B & O Canal Towpath, part of which involves the Appalachian Trail. The towpath of the canal is relatively flat, although you should not deviate toward Maryland Heights. That climb is a doozy.
2. Take the ranger guided tour of Harper's Ferry and hear John Brown's tale. This tour covers his misguided attempt to rally slaves into rebellion and the role of the townspeople and federal troops in thwarting it. Ask about the times at the Cavalier Heights Visitor Center and the Lower Town Information Center.
3. Try to find John Brown's headquarters. You'll have to take your car and it is several miles from town in a small farmhouse. You get the sense of where he came from and how he overtook the town. You'll probably be alone there. Not too many tourists take this detour.
4. Two museums should not be missed. The large John Brown Museum across from Arsenel Square contains a multitude of exhibits and short films about the raid. Also, the A Place in Time Museum, closer to the other end of town, includes a nice film and soundtrack on West Virginia and Harper's Ferry, plus exhibits on the town and area.
Photo above: Tourist photograph of Jefferson Rock, high above the town, July 31, 1890. Courtesy Historic Photo Collection, Harper's Ferry National Historic Park.