Location: Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Website: National Park Service
General Description: Beginning in 1747 when Robert Harper began a ferry service across the Potomac River, Harpers Ferry had been the entry point for settlers and commerce to the western territory of Ohio and the Shenandoah Valley to the South until the Civil War. This is the location where the Potomac River cuts through the Blue Ridge providing access to the west and it is where the Shenandoah River joins the Potomac from the South. The C&O Canal provided water access for travel and commerce from Washington D.C. to Ohio and the B&O Railroad provided high speed access as well. In 1794 President Washington selected Harpers Ferry for the location of a National Armory for the mass production of military arms. Under government contract in 1803, Meriwether Lewis procured most of the weaponry for the expedition with Clark. While there he developed a collapsible boat to take on the expedition, which was abandoned during the trip because it leaked. Leading up to the Civil War, John Brown led a raid on the armory in October of 1859 to seize weapons to spark a rebellion of enslave people. The raid failed and John Brown was captured by a detachment of US Marines led by Colonel Robert E. Lee. The fire engine house they held out in for (known as “John Brown’s Fort”) led an interesting life being moved to World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1891 as a tourist attraction. It was brought back to Harpers Ferry in 1895, but to Murphy’s Farm, again as a tourist attraction. In 1909 it was purchased by Storer College and moved to their campus in Harpers Ferry. Finally in 1968 it was purchased by NPS and moved back to a location close to the original spot which was now covered by a railroad embankment. Harpers Ferry was also the site of the 1862 Civil War Battle when General “Stonewall” Jackson forced the surrender of US troops by surrounding the town on three sides with artillery commanding the heights. These locations are now part of the NPS. The importance of Harpers Ferry to the struggle for freedom and education of former and freed slaves extends far beyond John Brown’s raid. It is also the location of Storer College founded by Baptist missionaries after the Civil War. With the destruction of the Armory during the Civil War, Harpers Ferry struggled to recover from the war and much of the “Lower Town” along the rivers was abandoned due to severe flooding.
1) Harpers Ferry is much more extensive then we had at first thought or remembered from our visit 10 years ago. There are a number of museums including John Brown’s museum and Storer College exhibit that we did not have time to see. I would also have been interested in seeing the Murphy Chambers Farm and the overlooks used by Jackson to force the surrender of the Union forces. Except for Lower Town where there is no parking and I would recommend taking the shuttle bus, you can visit the other locations without paying the admission to the National Park. I would plan on spending an entire day in Harpers Ferry, not just the couple of hours we had.
2) The worn stone steps leading up the hillside were a surprise. A sign stated they date from before the Revolutionary War, making them over 200 years old.
3) It is unfortunate that none of the Armory remains since it was destroyed during the Civil War and subsequently covered up with a railroad embankment to get the railroad off the river. You can see a few of the “drains” the empty into the river, but nothing else remains above ground, although they have located the major buildings from archeological evidence.
4) I found the history of “John Brown’s Fort” to be fascinating and highlights the importance this incidence had both during and after the Civil War. Certainly my knowledge of the song John Brown’s Body still reflects this as well.
4) The small shops and museums in Lower Town made for an enjoyable afternoon, although the big gnats along the river were a surprise so early in the spring.
5) The small museum detailing the Harpers Ferry battle was surprising well done giving a good account of the battle and the state of the town’s defenses at the time. The relatively green Union troops were certainly not prepared for the brilliant strategy employed by General Jackson in forcing the surrender.
6) With all the recent rains the rivers were running high although they did not appear to have caused any flooding and the views of the both rivers were impressive.