MORE THAN JUST HISTORY
Harpers Ferry, lies on the confluence of the Poatamac and Shanandoah Rivers and is famous for John Browns Raid back in 1859 but once you have wandered around the small town which is set up mostly for tourists, explore around Harpers Ferry and you will find many activities such as fishing, water sports such as camoeing, kayaking, tubing, swimming, many trails for hiking, there is rock climbing and even ziplining. The place is beautiful but nice to get away from the multitude of tourists and explore the park.
- Historical Travel
Harpers Ferry and Environs An Overview
Harpers Ferry is a wonderful travel destination. While other reviewers have gone into great detail as to every aspect of Harpers Ferry, this overview acquaints any traveler with the many activities to start an adventure.
Harpers Ferry, located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, had its beginnings in the mid 1700s when Robert Harper was given a patent for 125 acres that includes the present day town and a short time later established a ferry service across the Potomac River.
The town was originally named Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harper's Ferry by the Virginia Assembly, before West Virginia was its own territory.
Robert Harper is buried in the cemetery at Harpers Ferry adjacent to Jefferson Rock. The trek up the stairs to both is a worthwhile treat.
In the late 1700s the United States Government purchased Harper's land after his death to establish an armory and arsenal to manufacture period weaponary.
The importance of Harpers Ferry to the United States Government, at that time, was the use of the water power from both the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. Thus, Harpers Ferry became an important industrial center and grew as a result of the C & O Canal reaching the area with its race with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.
However, political unrest resuting in the Civil War the changed Harpers Ferry. Most of what the visitor experiences at the National Park are the events surrounding the Civil War, starting with John Brown's Raid and the fort. The fort was actually a fire house and today sits in its fifth location at Harpers Ferry, once having been an exhibit at the 1891 Worlds Fair.
Only a portion of Harpers Ferry is part of the National Park, as there is a commercial area just beyond the park where there is plenty of food establishments and shopping. The Harpers Ferry the visitor sees today pales in comparison to the town when it was a bustling industrial center.
However, mother nature has played a big part in the history of Harpers Ferry when surviving numerous floods that threatened to wipe out the town that always seemed to make a come back. On the west side of A Place In Time Museum (building number 8 on the National Park map) are markers showing the many floods.
Still skeletons of past building structures are marked by their foundations and the visitor using his or her imagination can realize the magnitude of this once thriving industrial center now a part of our history. A walk through Virginis Island among the ruins of industry harnessing the power of the river, is not obscured by time and nature. Ruins remain throughout Harpers Ferry telling the story of a time past and for visitors to explore.
But that is not all there is to Harpers Ferry. The C & O Canal passes through Harpers Ferry as does the B & O Railroad as both played an important part of Harpers Ferry's history.
The visitor to Harpers Ferry can also visit the C & O Canal which has a lock and skeleton of a lock house, which is in Maryland. The canal tow path provides a nice walk or bike ride along the Potomac River in either direction. To get to the canal tow path a walk across the railroad bridge pedestrian path provides access and nice view of the river.
To get an amazing view of Harpers Ferry one exploring the C & O Canal can take a 2+ mile round trip hike up Maryland Heights for the view. This trek should be accomplished before dusk, the hiker is cautioned to bring an adequate supply of water and wear the appropriate dress. Maps of the trails on Maryland Heights (there are 2) should be obtained from the National Park visitor's center for Harpers Ferry.
Another view is on the Virginia Side from Loudon Heights. Part of this trail intersects the Appalachian Trail. In fact, the Appalachian Trial Conservancy has its headquarters in Harpers Ferry and a visit to their center is warmly welcomed.
While the C & O Canal is no more, the railroad still operates. Visitors can often see several trains passing through the Park on the Winchester & Potomac Railroad tracks or on the B & O Railroad tracks, both now part of CSX. Additionally, Harpers Ferry's train station is also historic and was designed by Francis Baldwin who also designed the B & O roundhouse in Baltimore today a museum. The station is still in use today and is owned by the National Park Service who took a hand in restoring the building several years ago to its original glory.
Yes there is a lot to do in Harpers Ferry and the environs. The Civil War left its mark on the area and is also preserved in and around Harpers Ferry. Along several former battlefields in the area are Civil War Trails signs that correspond to maps available at most visitors centers free of charge.
With all the breathtaking views of Harpers Ferry and the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers one cannot miss the water sports available in the area. Tubing, rafting and kayaking are available.
With so much to do one can hardly spend just a day in Harpers Ferry. For the nearby visitor this is a good way to get to know the area choosing a different activity for each visit. However, for those a long distance from Harpers Ferry and West Virginia a 2 night stay can afford an opportunity to throughly explore the area and partake in the many activities.
- Water Sports
- National/State Park
- Hiking and Walking
Fresh Produce Around Harpers Ferry
While Harpers Ferry National Historic Park is a destination for many, the surrounding area is also worth exploring for a you-pick experience for fresh produce.
The summer of 2010 we visited Ridgefield Farm and Orchard during July to pick fresh flowers we brought back to our host's home we were staying at for a few weeks.
In August 2010 we found The Fruit & Veggie Wagon at the corner of Route 340 and Old Country Club Road as evening was setting in. We took home a nice ripe peck of peaches, which is about 10 pounds, to make peach preserves at our host's home. These were the freshest peaches ever.
This summer, 2011, we decided to explore more of the u-pick farms and farm stands while visiting the Harpers Ferry area to go tubing and rafting.
The Fruit & Veggie Wagon was right where it was last year and again we picked up a peck of peaches, several ears of corn, tomatos and zuchini. Inquiring with the proprietor as to the wide variety of vegetables and fruit, she told us it was all from her farm. We asked about her peaches and learned that she picks what is necessary so they are ripe off the tree. Again we made peach preserves for our host and these peaches were delicious.
- Food and Dining
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park occupies land in West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. The park consists of 4,000 acres and hosts over a million visitors each year. The area was designated a National Monument in 1944, and in 1963 congress named the area a National Historical Park. In 1966 the park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Park lands include a good deal of the old lower town, Virginius Island (site of several mills), Camp Hill (former location of Storer Sollege), the visitors center at Murphy Farm, the Bolivar Heights battlefield, Schoolhouse Ridge, Maryland Heights in Maryland, and Loudoun Heights in Virginia.
The vast majority of the historic sites are in the lower town along the rivers in West Virginia. These sites include the park information center, the Restoration Museum, Frankel’s Clothing Store, the Industry Museum, the park Bookshop, a Blacksmith Shop, A Place in Time Museum, the Provost Marshal Office, Stipes’ Boarding House, the Dry Goods Store, Arsenal Square, John Brown’s Fort, the Point, the John Brown Museum, the Wetlands Museum, the Storer College/Niagara Movement Museum, A. Burton Clocks and Jewelry Exhibit, the Battle of Harpers Ferry Museum, a Confectionery Exhibit, the Civil War Museum, the Black Voices Museum, White Hall Tavern, the Meriwether Lewis Exhibit, the Harper House, Jefferson Rock, and the Harper Cemetery.
While I like the history of the Old Town, the U.S. government-owned shops and building certainly lack some character. I really prefer to walk up touristy High Street or even to the Upper Town. During my last visit, I decided to drive out to Winchester where these is much more to do that is not all government owned.
Potomac River - "The Nation's River"
The Potomac River runs 383 miles from the West Virginia-Maryland border to the Chesapeake Bay south of Washington DC. Some of the major cities along the river include Harper's Ferry, WV; Washington, DC; Arlington, VA; and Alexandria, VA. The river forms part of the borders between Maryland and Virginia and between Washington DC and Virginia. At the mouth of the Potomac, the river is 11 miles wide, between Point Lookout, Maryland and Smith Point, Virginia.
Numerous famous Americans were born and lived along the Potomac. Two of the most famous are George Washington and Robert E. Lee from Alexandria, VA. Of course, every President and Congressman has also resided along the river while serving in Washington DC!
Various methods have been used to navigate the river. The Patowmack Canal was envisioned and partially funded by George Washington to connect the area Georgetown with Cumberland, Maryland. Started in 1785, its five short canals were not completed until 1802, and they ceased operations in 1830. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal operated along the opposite bank of the Potomac in Maryland from 1850 to 1924 and it also connected Cumberland to Washington, D.C.
Today numerous parks line the Potomac. The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park runs is 184.5 miles along the north side of the river. Also in Maryland, south of DC, you will find Oxon Hill Farm, Fort Foot National Park, Fort Washington Park, Piscataway National Park, and Point Lookout State Park. In Washington DC you will find Georgetown Waterfront Park, Theodore Roosevelt Island, Lady Bird Johnson Park, West Potomac Park, and East Potomac Park including Hains Point. In Virginia, you'll find Harpers Ferry National Park, Balls Bluff Battlefield, Great Falls Park, Jones Point Park, Fort Hunt National Park, Mount Vernon, Leesylvania State Park, and George Washington's Birthplace National Park.
Shenandoah River and Valley
The Shenandoah River runs 150 miles through western Virginia from Port Republic into the Potomac at Harpers Ferry. The lowest 20 miles of the river are in West Virginia, while the rest of the river and its tributaries flow through Virginia. Around Front Royal, the Shenandoah is famous for Canoeing and the city of Front Royal was named by the Virginia legislature as the Canoeing Capital of Virginia.
The Shenandoah River Valley is bound to the east by the Blue Ridge Mountains, to the west by the eastern front of the Ridge-and-valley Appalachians, the town of Roanoke in the south and Harpers Ferry in the north. Some of the key cities in the valley include Staunton, Harrisonburg, Winchester, Lexington, Waynesboro, and Front Royal.
During the Civil War, the Shenandoah Valley--a key agricultural region for the Confederacy--was used as an attack route for Confederate raids on Maryland, Washington, DC and Pennsylvania; because of this strategic importance it was the scene of three major campaigns.
Over half of the land int he valley is used for farming and ranching. This is Virginia's top livestock region, as is apparent by the huge horse farms you'll see when driving through the area.
Four acres are set aside and serve as the town’s cemetery. The view to the Rivers below is sublime. Robert Harper’s grave - he had set up the first ferry here in 1747 - and some of his relatives, are buried in the lower section. One other prominent grave you might notice is that of a local kayaker, Tim Gavin. In his honor, a annual race on the River is run.
- National/State Park
- Historical Travel
Harpers Ferry National Historic Park
The National Park Service has a good web site about the Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. And here on VT, Geoff Wright's page is perfectly dandy. Leave it to a Brit to make a great page about an American historical site!
- National/State Park
- Historical Travel
John Brown's Raid
In July 1859 John Brown, two of his sons, and others met in Maryland about seven miles from Harpers Ferry to begin creating an army and drafting plans to attack Harpers Ferry. They intended to seize the 100,000 rifles at he armory, then use them to arm slaves throughout Virginia. On October 16, 1859, Brown and his 21-man "Provisional Army of the United States" took over the US Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry in an effort to create an uprising among the slaves. Militia units and federal troops responded from surrounding areas, some led by future Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee and JEB Stuart. For the next two days several of John Brown's raiders along with numerous townspeople were killed as the raiders were gradually pushed from the Armory and Arsenal into the small firehouse in the far corner of town. Finally, on the morning of October 18th, twelve US Marines broke down the door of the Armory's firehouse, capturing Brown and the remaining raiders. In all, 17 people died including 10 of Brown's men.
The 45-minute trial took place on November 2nd 1856, as Brown was charged with murder, conspiring slaves to rebel, and treason against the state of Virginia. He was sentenced to a public execution that took place on December 2nd, and was attended by Virginia Military Institute cadets led by Major Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. John Wilkes Booth also witnessed the execution.
It is said that the John Brown's failed raid raised tensions between the North and South the led to secession and the American Civil War.
Awesome Ghost Tours
I had a great time doing the Ghost Tours. The lady who was our guide dressed in a really pretty hoop skirt and carried a candle lantern while she showed us around the historical district and told us about some of the strange things that have happened there. She was a very good story teller and knew a lot about town history.
The sights are amazing, especially the Catholic church when it is all lit up at night, and the effect by the candle lantern is very cool.
- Family Travel
- Historical Travel
Harpers Ferry Battlefields & nearby Antietam
Just a year after the start of the American Civil War, Southern General Robert E. Lee began executing a plan to capture Washington and bring a quick end to the war. As Robert E. Lee's Confederate army invaded Maryland, a portion of his army under Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson surrounded the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia).
The Union outpost at Harpers Ferry consisted of 14,000 men led by Colonel Dixon S. Miles. These men, along with the town and arsenal of Harpers Ferry were located in a canyon, surrounded by the high ground of Loudoun Heights in Virginia, Maryland Heights in Maryland, and Bolivar Heights in West Virginia. Before the battle, Miles had an artillery battery on Maryland heights, and a strong presence on Bolivar Heights, but Loudoun Heights were undefended.
When Lee dispatched his army to take the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, he sent 11,500 men under Jackson, to the west of Harpers Ferry and attack it from Bolivar Heights, while 8,000 men under the command of Major General Lafayette McLaws and Brig. Gen. John G. Walker's 3,400 men, were to capture Maryland Heights and Loudoun Heights. The battle opened at Maryland Heights on September 12th, 1862 and by 3:30 the next afternoon, this dominant position was in the hands of the Confederates. Around 10am on the 13th, the Confederates also occupied all of Loudoun Heights as well as the high ground above Bolivar Heights without a struggle.
On September 14th, the 1400-man strong Union Calvary escaped the surrounded position at Harpers Ferry and were able to capture a confederate ordinance train heading to reinforce the Confederate position. The next day, September 15th, Jackson began a coordinated artillery barrage on the town from all sides, and by 8am Miles was ready to surrender the Union forces without much of a fight. All told, the Confederate forces captured the town and 12,419 men at a cost of just 286 casualties.
Jackson's men then rushed to Sharpsburg, Maryland, to rejoin Lee for the Battle of Antietam.
The Battle of Antietam on 17 September 1862 was the bloodiest single day in American history with some 22,700 casualties, though Gettysburg was a far more costly battle spread over three days. At Sharpsburg, 3,650 were confirmed dead on the battlefield, and 19,050 wounded or missing. A grand total of 7,640 are believed to have died on the battlefield, later due to injuries, or were missing and presumed dead.
Antietam began as Lee moved his army into the north to attempt to move the war into northern territory as well as draw General McClellan into a decisive battle. McClellan had the upper hand as he had a copy of Lee's secret orders for his armies' movements as well as an almost 2 to 1 advantage in number of soldiers. The battlefield stretched almost three miles along a north-south axis between the Antietam Creek and the Potomac River. The fighting early in the day took place to the north in such locations as the Cornfield, East Woods, West Woods, and Dunker Church where the majority of the casualties occurred. In the mid morning the main attacks shifted to the center of the lines focusing around an especially brutal area called Bloody Lane. Late morning and early afternoon, the battle focused on the south of the lines where General Burnside's corps attacked the rebel lines across a bridge over Antietam Creek; this area has since been known as Burnside's bridge. The next night, Lee's army retreated across the Potomac into Virginia.
The end of the Battle of Antietam was a turning point of the early stages of the Civil War as it ended Lee's attempt at an early victory. The battle also caused Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation a few months later, ending slavery in the southern states (though it was legally allowed to continue in the border states supporting the north).
Harpers Ferry Historic District
While the National Historical Park includes most of the industrial areas and the old armory, the Harpers Ferry Historic District includes about 100 buildings of the Upper Town. Most of the these structures were built by the federal government from 1800 to 1837 as residences for the armory workers. In the late 1800s number of Victorian mansions were also constructed in the town. The Hilltop Hotel is one of the most famous places in the Upper Town; it occupies a ridge overlooking the Potomac, and it was visited by Mark Twain, Alexander Graham Bell and Woodrow Wilson among others. This area was also home to Storer College, one of the first accredited black universities in America.
We visited the national park first, and were somewhat unimpressed with the sterile environment that government ownership tends to create. Just walking up high street out of the park, you see capitalism flourish as local business owners set up cute little shops to draw in tourists. The top of the hill is often lacking tourists in the numbers you find below, but the town is worth visiting for its charm, as well as to see some of the old architecture. Unfortunately the Hilltop Hotel has seen its better days; the back side of the structure has some major structural damage and looks ready to crumble even more.
St. Peter's Catholic Church
St. Peters Catholic Church was built in 1833 and was the town's only church in town to survive the Civil War intact. St. Peters was heavily modified and expanded in 1896, leaving the structure as it stands today. Regular services at St. Peter's were curtailed in 1995, as part of a reorganization plan of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
The church provides a scenic vista across the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. From here it is a short walk to the ruins of St. Johns Episcopal Church and a bit further to Jefferson's Rock.
Today the church is adjacent to, but not part of both the Harpers Ferry National Historic Park and the Harpers Ferry Historic District. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Ruins of St. Johns Episcopal Church
St. John's Episcopal Church was built in 1852. It was used as a barracks and a hospital during the Civil War, where it sustained heavy damage. It was rebuilt, but later abandoned when a new Episcopal Church opened in 1895. The 1895 church still stands on Washington Street in the upper town.
The walls of the church have been preserved and from this vantage point you have some great views over the town. There is a fence along the trail obstructing entrance to the ruins, but from the road on the other side, there are trails to the interior of the structure. The ruins have been shored up and all debris removed from the interior, so it seems very safe.
Moderate to strenuous 30-minute hike along 0.8-mile trail to Jefferson's Rock. From High Street, climb the stone steps on the left. Follow the trail to the church ruins on the right.
Jefferson Rock is in Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. It consists of several large chunks of shale rock resting one upon the other. From the rocks visitors have a great view overlooking the Shenandoah River just prior to its confluence with the Potomac River. The name of this landmark derives from Thomas Jefferson, who visited this spot on October 25, 1783.
The uppermost slab of Jefferson Rock originally rested on a natural stone foundation. Because this natural foundation had "dwindled to very unsafe dimensions by the action of the weather, and still more, by the devastations of tourists and curiosity-hunters," four stone pillars were placed under each corner of the uppermost slab sometime between 1855 and 1860.
Jefferson Rock Trail is considered of moderate difficulty and is about 0.8 miles from the lower town.
The interpretive sign near the rock reads:
"'On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain a hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac [Potomac], in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder, and pass off to the sea....This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.'
This is how Thomas Jefferson described the view from here during a visit to Harpers Ferry in 1783. Around 1860, the U.S. armory superintendent ordered red sandstone supports placed under 'Jefferson Rock' because it was 'endangering the lives and properties of the villagers below.'"
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