“The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature… worth a voyage across the Atlantic.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1783
When the sign points left to Maine and right to Georgia, you know you are smack dab in the middle of the Appalachian Trail. The two states, on either extremity of the eastern seaboard of the United States, are 1,165 and 1,013 miles away, respectively. This is the famous crossroads in tiny Harpers Ferry, one of the few towns the trail passes through. Not only is this the site of some of the most significant Civil War battles, but it is also a national park of incomparable beauty.
ABOUT HARPERS FERRY
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia, Harpers Ferry sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. Covering an area of just 0.61 square miles, it is surrounded by jagged cliffs of shale and acres of natural forest. Below the cliffs, miles of railroad track run through the heart of the town, then climb steadily to trace paths along the banks of the rivers.
THE WATER GAP
The most prominent feature of the park is a jagged water gap cut by the Potomac River through the mountains between Maryland and Virginia. Formed over million of years as the mountains weathered and eroded, the gap rages daily with frothy white water. As the Potomac flows eastward through the gap, the Shenandoah joins it at the tip of Harpers Ferry.
The Potomac meets the Shenandoah at Harpers Ferry
Due to its prime location between two rivers, Harpers Ferry has for centuries drawn first native people, then European settlers through the passage carved by the water gap. The rare geological feature also enabled the first crossing of the Potomac by a railroad on the first structural steel bridge in the world. Located at the far end of the town, the bridge is still in existence today.
First structural steel bridge in the world
Still others came to Harpers Ferry to harness the wild energy of the Potomac as it raced down from the mountains. Many of them built businesses along the banks of the rivers. Sadly, the same raging waters that brought financial gain were an equal source of heartache. More often than not, they flooded and destroyed much of what had been established.
THE LOWER TOWN
The lower section of Harpers Ferry, known as Lower Town, lies on a flood plain on the banks of the two rivers. A raised railroad track skirts the southern part of the town. A tourist’s dream, the 19th century village is full of beautiful stone and brick buildings, tiny shops and historic dining establishments.
Old Town Harpers Ferry
That being said, dramatic natural beauty is not all Harpers Ferry has to offer. Due to its location at a crossroads, the town has also endured a tumultuous history. To illustrate, it changed hands eight times between 1861 and 1865 during the Civil War.
As early as 1799, Harpers Ferry’s strategic location on the railroad and just north of the water gap also made it an attractive spot for military maneuvers. Consequently, the federal government purchased a 125-acre tract and began construction on the Harpers Ferry Armory (formally known as the United States Arsenal and Armory.) This was one of only two such facilities in the United States and the burgeoning business in arms manufacturing transformed the town into a thriving industrial center almost overnight.
JOHN BROWN’S INSURRECTION
Decades later on October 16, 1859, the abolitionist John Brown led a group of 21 men on a raid of the Armory. Brown’s intention was to use the weapons to start a slave uprising throughout the south. Forced to hole up in the Armory’s engine house, however, the group was taken captive by U.S. marines two days later.
John Brown’s Fort
Charged with ‘conspiring with slaves to commit treason and murder,‘ Brown was subsequently tried, convicted and hanged in Charles Town on December 1859. However, historians generally agree that his raid was the catalyst for the Civil War.
John Brown’s fort moved a number of times until finally coming to rest in Harpers Ferry next to the remains of the old armories. A stone marker on a floodplain known as Camp Hill indicates the original location of the building.
CIVIL WAR BATTLES
When Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, the U.S. garrison stationed at Harpers Ferry tried to destroy the arsenal and its equipment. In order to prevent them from doing so, in September 1862 General Robert E. Lee sent three columns under Stonewall Jackson to capture the town. As a result, the Battle of Harpers Ferry led to the surrender of the entire Federal garrison (12,419 troops). This remained the largest surrender of U.S. military personnel until the battle of Bataan 80 years later during World War II.
Remains of the old arsenal in Harpers Ferry
By July 1864, Harpers Ferry was back under control of the Union, but fierce battles continued on Camp Hill and in the surrounding hills until the war ended. This left most structures damaged or destroyed.
According to local historian Joseph Barry: “No spot in the United States experienced more of the horrors of war.”
FIRST COLLEGE FOR FREED SLAVES
Interestingly, the legacy left by John Brown’s raid became the driving force behind a rare racial tolerance in Harpers Ferry. Subsequently in 1906, author and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois led the Niagara Movement’s first meeting to secure rights for African Americans on the campus of Storer College, the first real academic college to educate freed slaves. The Niagara Movement later became the NAACP.
As Harpers Ferry grew and prospered, it became a popular tourist destination. People came by train from Washington, DC and Baltimore to spend a few weeks or the whole summer in the cool forests by the rivers’ edge.
Hilltop House, situated on a mountain top overlooking the town, was one of the most popular destinations for over a century. Built in 1888, its first proprietor and manager was Mr. Thomas Levitt, an African American native of Harpers Ferry. The building burnt twice in the early 1900s but Mr. Levitt and his wife rebuilt each time, maintaining their stewardship of the hotel for over 38 years.
Unfortunately the hotel is now permanently closed.
TRAILS AND NATIONAL PARK ACCESS
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park encompasses almost 4,000 acres in West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia. As the mid-point of the 2,178-mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail (AT), hikers can access the trail going either way. Visitors can also walk along the 184.5-mile-long towpath of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park by crossing the footbridge over the Potomac River. The Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail overlays the C&O Canal and continues north all the way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Although there is some parking on the hill leading in to the Lower Town, the best place to stow the car is at the parking lot maintained by the National Park Service a couple of miles up the road. A shuttle bus runs back and forth from Lower Town every few minutes. You can also walk the couple of miles back to the lot on well-maintained foot paths. On the way, be sure to look out for bald eagles, red-tailed hawks and southern flying squirrels, which are all indigenous to the area.