A June 2003 trip
to Harpers Ferry by Idler
Quote: The Shenandoah River meets the Potomac at historic Harpers Ferry, one of the most scenic and geologically interesting places in West Virginia. Nearby, Antietam Battlefield, the Appalachian Trail, the C&O Canal, Shepherdstown, and Charles Town attract an eclectic mix of Civil War buffs, hikers, cyclists, paddlers, gamblers, and antique hounds.
If you plan to stay in the Harpers Ferry area, you basically have three options: camping, B&B’s, and chain motels. We’ve both camped and stayed in motels – neither experience was particularly memorable. Alas, this area is not noted for its charming hotels or fine dining. Restaurants such as Denny’s and Ruby Tuesday’s are the norm. If you dislike chain restaurants and motels, you might consider camping in one of the nearby state parks such as Washington Monument or going a little further afield to find a B&B to your liking. In either case, bringing along a well-stocked cooler will deliver you from Burger King and KFC.
Harpers Ferry hosts frequent Civil War reenactments and special events focusing on its historical importance. Check the National Park Service’s website for details on scheduled events.
Using the "two-car approach" is the best way to organize a biking, hiking, or canoeing trip, i.e., dropping off one car at the finishing point and then using the other car to go back to the starting point. We’ve felt relatively comfortable leaving our cars at various parking lots along the canal, though it wouldn’t be wise to tempt fate and leave valuables in a car parked in an isolated spot.
Attraction | "Take me to the river: Tubing on the Shenandoah"
The only good thing about the D.C. area’s notorious summer heat and humidity is that it forces us to adopt a slower pace. In the dog days of summer, many people brave the lanes of traffic heading for the ocean, but a less frenetic exodus involves going to inland waterways. During an especially tedious stretch of 90+ degree days last August, we put on our swimsuits and drove to Harpers Ferry, only an hour’s drive away. Our object? To do very little that day other than float down a cool, quiet river.
Several river outfitters in Harpers Ferry offer river tubing packages, but we picked River and Trail Outfitters, a family-run operation that’s been in business for several decades. They offer two tubing trips: an escorted trip on Antietam Creek that includes some minor rapids, and a "flat water" unescorted trip on a quiet stretch of the Shenandoah. The Shenandoah float sounded more our speed, more laid-back and private than a group trip, plus it was remarkably affordable at $18, which included equipment rental and transportation.
After only a few minutes’ preparation, we were soon in the company shuttle van headed for the drop-off point. Along the way, we chatted with the amiable driver, a free-spirited fellow who was spending the summer camped near the drop-off point, running the shuttle and supervising operations from the banks of the Shenandoah. Not a bad way to spend a summer, I reflected. He showed us where the take-out point was and gave us a few pointers on how to recognize it from the river, then drove us several miles upstream . We each donned a life vest and were issued an enormous green tube. The tubes were a pleasant surprise, as they had plastic bottoms, making it easier to get in and out and protecting our bottoms from rocks.
Soon we drifting lazily down the Shenandoah, which was remarkably clear and clean smelling. As there hadn’t been much rain, the current was gentle; at times it seemed that we were scarcely moving. The initial temptation was to paddle with feet and hands, but this was generally an unproductive exercise, producing little forward motion. And what, I mused, was the point of going faster?There is no hurrying a river. It goes at its own pace, a pace older than the surrounding mountains.
The next few hours stand out in my mind as a crystallization of all that is best on a river. The sun shone benignly, dappling the water with pools of gold through the canopy of trees. Bird song punctuated the rich murmur of the Shenandoah. A heron accompanied us a good way downstream, while fat fish swam insolently nearby. Feathery water plants tickled our feet. Our worries floated off behind us. Life was good.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on June 17, 2003
Tubing on the Shenandoah
River Trail & Outfitters
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Attraction | "They'rrrrre Off! Charles Town Races"
I’ve been to many tracks, each with its own atmosphere. On my first visit to Charles Town Races, about fifteen years ago, I was not favorably impressed. The track had clearly seen better days and was gracelessly sliding into bankruptcy. A few years later it reopened with a new casino featuring 2,600 blinking, cacophonous slot machines.
What the slots lack in aesthetic appeal, however, they compensate for in profitability. Because the casino turns over part of its profits, the track has been able to afford renovations as well as offer larger purses, ensuring a higher standard of racing. Happily, the track retains its family-friendly, low-key charm and has not been overwhelmed by the casino glitz. The trick is to bypass the casino altogether and concentrate on the racing.
If you’ve never been to a race track, here are a few pointers. First, there are several places to observe the race – from the grandstand, the clubhouse, and an open area alongside the track. Personally, I love standing at the rail near the action.
Don’t let the jargon surrounding the sport intimidate you. Each time I go to the races, I meet people attending their first race. They always seem to be having a perfectly good time despite their lack of expertise. In fact, they may very well be having the best time, for they''ve just discovered that watching a race on television, even the Kentucky Derby, pales alongside the excitement of watching one at the track.
To follow the action, it helps to buy a program. This is the only expense you’ll incur at Charles Town (other than betting), as admission is free. There’s a helpful page in the program explaining how to decipher it. The systematic types pore over this information and make painstaking calculations, while the sentimentalists base selections on names, numbers and racing stable colors. My own modestly successful system involves briefly perusing the program then walking over to the saddling enclosure to watch the horses being saddled. Making an educated but fundamentally intuitive wager is all part of the fun for me. The half hour between races passes quickly, with much speculative banter among the patrons, and culminates in the frenzied two minutes of the race itself.
Placing a bet is a relatively simple matter. Bring cash or an ATM card, for most tracks don’t accept credit cards. There’s a minimum $2 bet, well worth the enjoyment that you get from becoming a partisan rather than a mere observer. Win or lose, the thrill of race never diminishes.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on June 16, 2003
Charles Town Races & Slots
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia 25414
On a recent visit to Harpers Ferry, we passed by the flea market held each weekend at the junction of Rt. 340 and Bloomery Road. Naturally, we were lured in by the prospect of finding some overlooked treasure, some West Virginian relic that we cannily would snag at a fraction of its true value.
Spread out over what used to be a drive-in movie lot, the flea market sprawled higgledy-piggledy over several acres. The range of merchandise was almost daunting: piles of stuffed animals, broken alarm clocks, farm implements, crossbows and bowie knives, Confederate and American flags, eight-track tapes, wrought iron trellises, old pieces of stained glass, bead curtains, paper parasols, electronic toys, artificial flowers, pellet guns, velvet paintings (alas, no Elvis), Betty Crocker cookbooks, cut glass tumblers, baby clothes…on and on it stretched, the seemingly endless detritus of small-town America.
We found ourselves more drawn to the nostalgic than the genuinely useful. Alas, I had to acknowledge that I had no real place for a pair of brass bookends in the shape of mallard ducks or a large troll doll very much like one that I had when I was twelve. I picked up item after item, in wonderment. Surely my grandmother had had one of these. And my mother still has one of those. Oh, for heaven’s sake… here was something I hadn’t seen in years!
However, somewhat depressingly, our purchases were mostly utilitarian: some AA batteries, a set of small screwdrivers, a 12-pack of travel-sized Kleenex. Our son cajoled us into buying an unopened Battlebot toy construction kit, and my husband pondered long and hard before plunking down $4 for a new snorkel tube.
I surreptitiously eyed my fellow bargain hunters, speculating upon their decorating schemes based on the items they clutched. Away they trundled, toting brass lamps, quilted pillows, bamboo plant stands, and, yes, a few of those velvet paintings.
For some reason, it all brought back memories of the house of a high-school friend whose parents had decorated their tiny suburban house in a grand, almost Baroque manner. Entering the front door, the eye was assaulted by a glittering silver and turquoise color scheme. A black baby grand piano vied with a crystal chandelier for pride of place, while mirrored wall tiles floor to ceiling reflected tasseled cushions, brocaded chairs, oriental vases, and exotic knickknacks. It was unquestionably one of the more unique – and unapologetically flamboyant – houses I’d ever been in.
Years later, I revisited my friend’s house. Much to my chagrin, the entire silver and turquoise extravaganza had been ruthlessly eradicated and in its place was an entertainment area decorated in a soulless casual style. Gone were the mirrors and chandelier; in their place was no end of cunning track lighting, gleaming Scandinavian wood surfaces, suspended wine glass racks, and ingenious hidden cupboards that swung out from unexpected places. And what, I wondered, had become of the crystal lamps, the Chinese ceramic dogs, and the bejeweled cushions? Were they sent packing to the Land of Yard Sales, the great Flea Market in the sky?
A stroll through the Harpers Ferry Flea Market testified to the fact that one can simply never predict which objects will become prematurely outmoded, an absolute embarrassment to have in the house. Will my tower-shaped CD-storage unit become a humorous relic to my grandchildren? Already my LP’s are a source of wonderment for my thirteen-year-old son, who has difficulty believing that I grew up without a VCR or personal computer. What an odd thing style is. Even the defiantly retro or style resistant are drawn into its vortex, each item purchased seemingly date-stamped for planned obsolescence.
And then, one day, the outmoded suddenly becomes a valued find, a treasure. It becomes new again. Bellbottoms reappear on slump-shouldered teenagers, hair hangs lank and long once again, and even avocado green makes a reappearance.
A pity, though, that no gloriously impractical object of desire beckoned that day at the flea market. I did look, long and hard, as I’ve been planning on redoing the living room. Let’s see… I’d like lots of silk brocade. Turkish vases. Tinkling glass pendants. Mirrored wall tiles; that’s the ticket. Turquoise and silver . . .
The year I was born – 1954 – was the year that Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas (no relation, much as I’d like to claim him) penned a famous letter challenging the editor of the Washington Post to walk the length of the 184.5-mile-long canal with him. Douglas was championing the preservation of canal, which had been slated for conversion into a roadway. In Douglas’ letter, he presented a lyrical case for the preservation of the canal and towpath:
"It is a place for boys and girls, men and women. One can hike 15 or 20 miles on a Sunday afternoon, or sleep on high dry ground in the quiet of a forest, or just go and sit with no sound except water lapping at one's feet. It is a sanctuary for everyone who loves woods, a sanctuary that would be utterly destroyed by a fine two-lane highway…
One who walked the canal its full length could plead that cause with the eloquence of a John Muir. He would get to know muskrats, badgers, and fox; he would hear the roar of wind in thickets; he would see strange islands and promontories through the fantasy of fog; he would discover the glory there is in the first flower of spring, the glory there is even in a blade of grass; the whistling wings of ducks would make silence have new values for him. Certain it is that he could never acquire that understanding going 60, or even 25, miles an hour."
When his letter was printed in the Post, the walk that Douglas proposed became something of a cause célèbre, with dozens of people, including noted conservationists, participating. Douglas went on to chair the C&O Canal Association, which worked to preserve and adapt the canal for recreational use. In 1971, the C&O Canal was made a National Historic Park, with its headquarters established in Sharpsburg, only a few miles from Harpers Ferry.
The C&O has a fascinating history, beginning with George Washington’s proposal to create a "Potowmack Canal," up through the long digging of the Canal from 1828 to 1850 – 22 arduous years of back-breaking hand labor by as many as 4,000 men at the peak years of construction. The inherent challenges of the project were compounded by difficult terrain, labor disputes, disease, and legal battles over land rights. Worse, by the time the canal barges were up and running, they proved no match for a newer form of transportation – the railroads. The canal was finally closed in 1924, when it was severely damaged by a flood, but it was competition from the B&O Railway that truly brought about its end.
Today, walking along the canal with no sounds other than the rustle of squirrels among the leaves, the what cheer! what cheer! call of cardinals, and the murmur of the nearby Potomac river, it’s easy to imagine what the canal was like in the mid-19th century. Many of the canal’s 74 locks and lock houses are still standing. I like to imagine the lives of the men, women, and children who worked on the canal during its heyday, towing coal on narrow barges pulled by mules, sleeping in cramped quarters on their barges, and making the 7-day trip from one end of the canal to the other, usually working 18 hours or more a day.
Being, for the most, part level and straight, the canal is an easy place to bike or hike, but it’s also a great place for bird-watchers and nature lovers of every stripe. One of our favorite times to walk is after dark on the night of a full moon. We almost always hear owls hooting as we share the trail with nocturnal creatures such as possums and deer. (Alas, in recent years, the Park Service has put up signs indicating the canal is closed after dark, though there’s no practicable way they can "close" the 184.5-mile-long towpath.)
Some sections of the canal are dry, while others contain water, and the latter sections are popular with canoeists and kayakers. Sometimes, too, when the Potomac floods, it carries water, and countless hapless fish, over into the canal. One memorable afternoon, we found dozens of huge carp thrashing about in the canal, in water only inches deep. They’d gotten trapped there after the Potomac overflowed its banks and then receded.
On that occasion, my husband Jack, a friend, and I spent several hours catching slimy carp by hand and then lugging them across the stretch of woods, separating the canal and the river. A number of fish expired, however, which led to a frenzied round of fish-gutting, cleaning, and filleting that evening, an operation I insisted take place outdoors. Curious passers-by stopped to gawk at the monstrous fish laid out like battle fatalities on our front lawn. With more fish than we knew what to do with, we began giving them away, though not one of the recipients – or ourselves, for that matter - had any real notion of how to best cook the beasts.
I have a favorite stretch of the canal not far from where the Potomac joins the Monocacy River. I make a special effort to go there early each spring to view the wildflowers. The best time for this is in late March or early April, when jack-in-the-pulpit, Dutchman’s breeches, trout lilies, trillium, spring beauties, Virginia bluebells, and a host of other flowers carpet the forest floor.
At Harpers Ferry, the canal’s Civil War history comes to the fore, and Civil War buffs are richly rewarded by walking along the canal here. One of John Brown’s men, John Cook, posed as a lock tender as he worked as a spy, gathering information prior to Brown’s abolitionist uprising. When the rebellion failed, Cook and three other conspirators were hung for treason.
Since the Potomac River constituted a physical barrier between the north and south and the C&O Canal and B&O Railroad were the major supply arteries to the capitol, the entire region became the target of Confederate raids. John Singleton Mosby, Elijah V. White, Jubal Early, Jesse McNeill, and others waged guerilla warfare along this border region. You can’t travel far on the C&O without running into a reminder of these times, whether it be at White’s Ferry just outside Poolesville, where I live, or at Sharpsburg, which saw the bloodiest day of the Civil War on September 17, 1862, at the Battle of Antietam.
There are thousands of stories and hundreds of historical events associated with the canal and nearby Potomac River. But the beauty of the canal’s towpath is what draws most modern visitors. The Park Service does an admirable job of keeping the towpath free of obstruction and in good repair, while the surrounding green corridor of parkland assures plentiful wildlife to observe. Near Harpers Ferry, the Appalachian Trail crosses the C&O towpath, the two much-beloved long-distance walking routes briefly bisecting.
There are dozens of places to access the C&O Canal, but the Park Headquarters in Sharpsburg is as good a starting point as any, perhaps better, as you can get a good historical overview. All you need are sturdy shoes and perhaps some bug spray to enjoy one of the best walking/biking trails this side of the Continental Divide.