America's Best History - Harper's Ferry

John Brown, Abolitionist
Abolitionist John Brown
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.   

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.

Civil War soldiers at Harper's Ferry
A soldier from the 22nd New York State Militia near Harper's Ferry in 1861.

Things You Should Not Miss

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.

Harper's Ferry, National Park Interpreters

What is There Now

Visitor's Centers
There are two visitor centers in Harper's Ferry National Park.  Several miles outside town, the main visitor and shuttle bus center on Cavalier Heights is meant to serve all visitors to the park.  Due to inadequate, and almost non-existent parking, within Harper's Ferry proper, visitors to the park are highly suggested to park their vehicles at the shuttle center and take the bus into town.  The buses run on a continual basis from opening to closing.
Cavalier Heights Visitor Center
-  On Route 340 a little more than one hour from Baltimore and Washington, D.C., this visitor center provides the starting off point for your visit to Harper's Ferry.  Pay your fee and jump on a shuttle bus for the ride to the Lower Town Area.  Buses run on a continual loop between Cavalier Heights and the town of Harper's Ferry.

Lower Town Information Center
- This is the point where most ranger guided tours of John Brown's raid and other aspects of the town start from.  It also includes staff and exhibits which can get you going on your Harper's Ferry visit.

Each building within the park itself serves as a museum on some topic concerning the town.  There are also several small museums outside the park, and within the citizen's town, that also discuss the history there.  Park museums include the John Brown Museum, John Brown's Fort (accessible through park ranger tour), a Civil War Museum, African American Museums, a Natural History Museum (Wetlands Exhibit), Industry Museum, A Place in Time Museum, and other park buildings such as an Apothecary Shop, bookstores, etc.

Harper's Ferry arsonal on fire

Drawing by D.H. Strother depicting the burning of the U.S. arsenal at Harper's Ferry on April 18,1861.

Lodging and Camping

Lodging around Harper's Ferry is not plentiful, although rooms are usually available during the season.  There are bed and breakfasts and old inns in the town, and several chain and non-chain motels on the outskirts and in Charlestown down the road.  A KOA campground is located very close to the Cavalier Heights visitor center, and other campgrounds are available within the Shenandoah Valley region. - Free Shipping on ALL orders

Harper's Ferry Transportation

Shuttle Service - Operates between the parking lot at the Cavalier Heights, Harper's Ferry National Park Visitor Center outside town and the center of the Lower Town section of Harper's Ferry.  These shuttles run continuously during visiting hours and are quick, clean, and efficient.

Parking - In Harpers Ferry proper.  Very limited near the train station (only a couple slots) and at few other locations.

Harper's Ferry Links

Harper's Ferry National Historic Park

Harper's Ferry Historical Association
Harpers Ferry Main Street

Nearby Attractions

Antietam National Military Park
Appalachian National Scenic Trail
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Harper's Ferry Then and Now

John Brown in Kansas mural

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 (picture below with General McClellan), 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.

Lincoln & his generals after the battle of Antietam

Harper's Ferry Now

Harper's Ferry, 1860 Election Day Reenactment

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.

Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers - Now mostly part of the scenery and a good source of recreation.  A number of outfitters and river rafting companies ply the trade near Harper's Ferry for runs down the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers.  As for scenery, there is that steep trek up to Jefferson's Rock.  One thing you'll note is how breathtaking the scenery is, but if you look back at old photos, there's a lot more green and timber around than in the days of the Civil War.  That's what needing wood for fuel will do for you.  Geez, we might have to do that soon again, it seems.

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Visitor Statistics

Harper's Ferry
National Historic Park
255,714 Visitors

#161 Most Visited National Park Unit

Park Size

Harper's Ferry Historic Park

3,294 acres (Federal);
3,646 acres (Total)

Source: NPS, 2013 Visitor Statistics; Visitor Rank among 369 units.

Harper's Ferry Historic Park Entrance Fees

$5 walking, biking, motorcycle.

$10 for 3 days.

Yearly Harper's Ferry Pass - $30

Fees subject to change without notice.

Protecting Harper's Ferry

Protecting Harper's Ferry is one of the ongoing fights within the eastern United States as suburban Washington and Baltimore creep into the Shenandoah Valley.  Although recent efforts to thwart housing on the rim of the peaks overlooking the town have been successful, it is a battle that is never truly won, as witnessed by a developers dig across NPS grounds within the past year.  If you wish to contribute to conserving our national parks, please visit the National Parks Conservation Association to find our more about how you can help.

When you visit, please pay attention to the warnings and instructions of park rangers and the National Park Service to insure that your visit in safe and wonderful.


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