JOHN BROWN FORT AND MUSEUM
John Brown’s story can be seen in detail at the John Brown Museum. The building was originally built in 1846 as a store with a boarding house above. The museum is just across the street form what is popularly known as John Brown’s Fort. The Fort served as both fire engine and guard house for the Armory and was built in 1848. The original site of the Fort was on the north side of Potomac Street near the train tracks, maybe some 30 meters west of the present site. The Fort was dismantled and put on display for a World’s Fair in Chicago after which it was taken apart again and left on a vacant lot for a few years. Rediscovered, the Fort was moved to a farm a few miles south of Harpers Ferry until Storer College bought the building and moved it to the College’s campus. After the school shut its doors, in 1955, the Fort, along with the other buildings of the College, was purchased by the National Park Service. The Fort was moved to its present location in 1968. You can see with the high windows that John Brown might have picked a better building to barricade himself up in.
- 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
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).
C & O Canal
On the Maryland side of the Potomac River, is the 160 mile plus Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath. More details on my 'Cheseapeake & Ohio National Park' page within Maryland.
Here's a view from across the river in Harper's Ferry, somewhere near the Hilltop Hotel.
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.
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.
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.'"
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
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.
Make sure to go up to Harper...
Make sure to go up to Harper House and beyound. There is a neat cemetary along the way to Jeffersons Rock. This is a rock formation that hovers out over the town below. If you are a photography buff this view is spectacular. Also make sure you walk across the bridge that spans the Potomac River. You also get a great view of where three states meet.
The town is filled with history and fun. If you are not a Civil War buff this is still a interesting town. Of couse the history starting with John Brown and talking of the various floods is most enlightening.
Visit Nearby Winchester, more options & character
We stopped in to Winchester one evening on a whim after a day at Harpers Ferry. I was aware of some of the Civil War history surrounding the town, but I did not expect Winchester to offer so much for such a small town. Besides the amazing amount of Civil War history, the town was home to George Washington and other Revolutionary War heroes. During our visit we saw a few of these historic sites, but we really enjoyed the old downtown area, especially the Loudoun Street pedestrian mall. We stayed at the Washington Hotel, ate at Brewbakers Restaurant and the Piccadilly Grill, and had drinks at the V2 Piano Bar.
The Winchester area was first explored by the French in the mid-1600s and was first settled in 1729 by British Citizens then later German settlers. In 1738 Winchester was founded under the name Fredericks Town, and the town was used by General Braddock's army in the French and Indian War. Later the town provided numerous troops to General Washington's Army in the Revolution. By the time of the Civil War the town had grown as a major regional transportation hub, and hence it became the site of five major battles and numerous others.
Today the town has just 25,000 people in a thriving community that has maintained its history and continued to develop. Since 1924 the town has been known as one of America's largest apple growing regions, and it hold and annual Apple Blossom Festival.
You must go on the ghost walk. This is just pure fun. A lady (when I went, it was always the same old lady, but I hear that it's changed now) in period costume leads a tour around the old town and talks about all of the ghosts that are known to inhabit it. With the Civil War and John Brown's raid leading to all kinds of violent death in the town's history, you know that it's going to be cram packed with ghosts. My personal favorite stories deal with Screaming Jenny, the Catholic church, and an improvised game of football played by some of the local kids one day.
The tour starts at 8:00pm every evening, and it's so popular in October that you need reservations (and I was certain that you would never need reservations for anything in west Virginia). I can't remeber the address of the place where it starts, but you can probably find information on it at the National Park visitors center.
Walking Tour - Photo ops
Where the Shenendoah River empties into the Potomac River is very scenic with an overlook and several places to access both rivers for photos. At this point there is a Railroad bridge over the Shenandoah River and a tunnel on the other side. The railroad is still operating. Much more.
- Historical Travel
- Family Travel
- Hiking and Walking
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.
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