Step Back In Time On the Trails of Harpers Ferry


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 it the site of some of the most significant Civil War battles, but it is also a national park of incomparable beauty.


Harpers Ferry sits at the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers where the states of Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia meet. Covering an area of just 0.61 square miles, it is surrounded by jagged cliffs and acres of natural forest. Below steep slides of shale, miles of railroad track run through the heart of the town before climbing to trace paths along the banks of the rivers.

One of the most prominent features of the park is a double water gap carved by the two rivers on their way down through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Formed over millions of years, the gap rages daily as the two streams collide at the tip of Harpers Ferry. Once joined, the rivers continue eastward, sending up frothy foam on their way past the Chesapeake Bay and on to the ocean. 

The Potomac meets the Shenandoah at Harpers Ferry

Largely due to its location at the confluence of two rivers, Harpers Ferry attracted first native people, then European settlers by the hundreds. Most arrived through the double water gap, which at 256 feet, is the deepest crossing of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Today, the town also contains the remains of two historic bridges, including one of the first wrought-iron truss structures to carry heavy-freight railroad traffic in the United States. 

One of the historic bridges of Harpers Ferry

Most settlers, however, came to Harpers Ferry to harness the wild energy of the Potomac as it raced down through the mountains. Many of them built businesses along the banks of the river. Sadly, the same raging waters that brought financial gain were an equal source of heartache. More often than not, they flooded the town and destroyed much of what had been established.


Located on a flood plain on the banks of the two rivers, Harpers Ferry’s lower town is a 19th century gem. The restored village is a treasure trove of beautiful stone and brick buildings, tiny shops and historic dining establishments. A raised railroad track skirts the southern part of the town. 

Old Town Harpers Ferry

But, beauty is not all Harpers Ferry has to offer. Due to its strategic location, the town has had a tumultuous history. To illustrate, it changed hands eight times between 1861 and 1865 during the Civil War.

In fact, by the late 18th century, Harpers Ferry had become an attractive spot for military maneuvers. In 1799, the federal government purchased a 125-acre tract and began construction on the United States Arsenal and Armory. One of only two such facilities in the United States, the Arsenal transformed the town into a thriving industrial center almost overnight.


A half century later in 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. However, the men were forced to hole up in the Armory’s engine house. They were taken captive by U.S. marines just two days later.


John Brown’s Fort

Charged with ‘conspiring with slaves to commit treason and murder,‘ Brown was tried, convicted and hanged in Charles Town on December 1859. Nevertheless, 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.


During the Civil War (1861-1865), the Arsenal became a strategic point for both the Union and Confederacy. When Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, the U.S. garrison stationed at Harpers Ferry attempted to destroy it. In order to stop them, in September 1862 General Robert E. Lee sent three columns under Stonewall Jackson to capture the town. The ensuing 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 WWII’s Battle of Bataan 80 years later. 

Remains of the old arsenal in Harpers Ferry

By July 1864, Harpers Ferry was back under control of the Union. In spite of this, fierce battles continued on Camp Hill and in the surrounding hills until the war finally ended. Unfortunately, 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.”


Interestingly, the legacy left by John Brown’s raid became the driving force behind a rare racial tolerance in Harpers Ferry. Thus 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 the town’s Storer College. This was the first real academic college to educate freed slaves. 



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.

For over a century, Hilltop House, located on a mountain top overlooking the town, was one of the most popular destinations. 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.

Hilltop House, Harpers Ferry

Hilltop House around 2008/Photo credit: Corporation of Harpers Ferry

Unfortunately the hotel is now closed.


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.