“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 the tiny town of Harpers Ferry, one of the few towns the trail passes through. It is also the site of some of the most significant Civil War battles and a national park of incomparable beauty.
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia, Harpers Ferry sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers at the borders of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. Covering an area of just 0.61 square miles, it is surrounded by jagged, grey brown cliffs of shale and sandstone and acres of pristine natural forest. Miles of railroad tracks run through the heart of the tiny town and climb to trace paths in the hills along the banks of the rivers.
The most prominent geological feature in 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 with frothy white water. As it flows eastward towards the Chesapeake Bay, the Potomac rushes through the gap to join the Shenandoah at the tip of Harpers Ferry.
The Potomac meets the Shenandoah at Harper’s Ferry
Situated as it is like the prow of a ship between two rivers, Harpers Ferry has for centuries drawn first native people, then European settlers and railroad workers through the natural passage carved by the water gap. The rare ecological feature made possible the first crossing (at Harpers Ferry) of the Potomac by a railroad on the first structural steel bridge in the world. The bridge is still in existence today.
First structural steel bridge in the world
Still other people came to Harpers Ferry to harness the wild energy of the Potomac as it raced down from the mountains, building many successful businesses along the banks of the rivers. Sadly, the same raging waters that brought financial gain were an equal source of heartache, as they intermittently flooded and destroyed much of what had been established.
Historic Lower Town
The lower section of Harpers Ferry, known as Lower Town, is situated on a low-lying flood plain on the banks of the two rivers. A raised railroad track skirts the southern part of the town. Quaint and picturesque, the 19th century village, now owned mostly by the National Park Service, features beautiful old stone and brick buildings with wide porches, tiny shops and historic dining establishments.
Old Town Harpers Ferry
But dramatic natural beauty is not all Harper’s Ferry has to offer. Since it is located at a crossroads, the town has endured a tumultuous history, changing hands eight times between 1861 and 1865 during the Civil War.
Harpers Ferry’s strategic location on the railroad and just north of the water gap, made it an attractive spot for military maneuvers as early as 1799, when the federal government purchased a 125-acre tract and began construction on the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. This was one of only two such facilities in the United States and the burgeoning business in arms manufacturing, between 1801 and 1861, transformed the town into a thriving industrial center.
On October 16, 1859, the abolitionist John Brown led a group of 21 men, including slaves and freed slaves, on a raid of the U.S. Armory and Arsenal. Brown’s intention for his “Provisional Army of the United States” was to use the weapons to start a slave uprising throughout the south. The raiders were eventually forced to hole up in the Armory’s engine house where they were taken captive by U.S. marines two days later.
Brown was charged for “conspiring with slaves to commit treason and murder.” He was tried, convicted and hanged in Charles Town on December 2, 1859. It is generally believed that his raid was the catalyst for the Civil War.
John Brown’s fort has moved a number of times (including being transported to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1891) before coming to rest at its current location in Harpers Ferry next to the remains of the old armories. A stone marker on the floodplain known as Camp Hill indicates the original location of the building.
When Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, the U.S. garrison stationed at Harpers Ferry attempted to destroy the arsenal and its equipment so the Confederates would be unable to use it. In September 1862, General Robert E. Lee sent three columns under Stonewall Jackson to capture the town. The Battle of Harpers Ferry led to the surrender of the entire Federal garrison (12,419 troops), the largest surrender of U.S. military personnel until the battle of Bataan in 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, leaving 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 to educate freed slaves
The legacy left by John Brown’s raid became the driving force behind a rare racial tolerance in Harpers Ferry. On August 15, 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.
Currently the hotel is closed for renovation.
Trails and National Historical 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. They run a shuttle bus back and forth from Lower Town every few minutes. You can also walk the couple of miles back 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.
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Photos: Here By Design