Tourists who make their way to our Eastern Panhandle community of Charles Town (not to be confused with the state capital of Charleston, thank you) are usually attracted to one of our two marvelous race tracks: horses run at the east end of town at the Charles Town Races and Slots, and automobiles race outside town to the west at Summit Point Raceway. The horse track in particular has seen many changes since its founding, but like the town itself, it officially dates back to 1786.
On key race days, long lines of cars may be seen wending their way through our small-town streets. If the event is a horse race, the cars simply queue up to wait their turn for a parking space in the new parking deck. If the event involves automobiles, the lines of traffic passing through town on the way to Summit Point may include anything from Formula One race cars pulled on flatbeds to vintage Model As and Tin Lizzies. Our streets are more colorful on those days.
The race tracks aside, our town is rich in history. For a community of our size (official population, 3,704 but growing fast), we receive more than our share of tourists seeking to touch the nation's past. Founded by Charles Washington, brother of George, our community boasts five surviving houses built by the Washington family. Here is Charles Town, several of our residents are able to say of their homes, "Washington slept here." (Be kind and don't ask which Washington.) Our association with the Washingtons is also borne out by the fact that many of our streets are named for family members. Indeed, our county courthouse is located on the corner of George and Washington streets. More Washingtons are buried in the cemetery at Zion Episcopal Church than in any other single location in the country.
Charles Town is better known, however, for its Civil War history (1861-1865). As every school child in our community knows, abolitionist martyr John Brown (1800-1859) was brought here by Federal forces after his famous raid on the Harpers Ferry arsenal. It was here that he was jailed (where our post office now stands), and it was here that he was tried, convicted, and hung - adding fuel to the building firestorm of war. The jail cot on which Brown rested and the wagon in which he rode to his execution are on display at the Jefferson County Museum.
During the Civil War itself, Charles Town (like nearby Harpers Ferry) seesawed back and forth between Federal and Confederate occupation. Several of our public buildings and churches served troops of both sides as barracks or hospitals. Until recently, a Civil War battle in which the Union was victorious was reenacted through the streets of our town. The reenactors pitched camp in tents on the green adjacent to the Charles Town race track. Throughout these reenactments, the smoke of the campfires filled the air. Moreover, the roar of cannons and the loud, sharp crack of muskets could be heard day and night. Being more southern than Yankee, our reenactors tended to favor Confederate role models. Thus it was that every year we had a horde of gray-clad soldiers surrendering to a small band of the boys in blue. Despite the lure of hundreds of visitors during those days, the town fathers felt obliged to honor the objections posed by residents who were less than pleased with the inconvenience caused by the annual "battle" in our streets, and the reenactors have been asked to relocate their camp and their artillery fire.
A walking tour of our town isn't particularly strenuous. Our main street -Washington Street, of course- is all of 10 blocks long. Informative brochures for such an activity are available at the visitor center, the court house, and the library. Graceful Federal and Georgian style houses are found throughout the town, some with fascinating histories. Hunter's Hill, for example, is a beautifully landscaped antebellum mansion. Its builder and original owner, Andrew Hunter, was the lawyer who prosecuted John Brown. During the Civil War, the house and its contents were ordered burned to the ground by General David Hunter, Andrew's Yankee cousin who didn't take kindly to his relative's Confederate loyalties. After the war, Andrew Hunter rebuilt his house on its original foundations.
Our public buildings, churches, and cemeteries all have stories of their own to tell. Dating from 1803, the Jefferson County Courthouse was the site of John Brown's trial in 1859 as well as the 1922 trial of William Blizzard, who was accused of murder and treason in association with his role as a union leader for West Virginia coal miners. The Episcopal Lecture Room on Liberty Street, built in the 1830s, hosted a series of dramatic readings by one John Wilkes Booth, who later assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.
Like other small municipalities across the nation, downtown Charles Town no longer features the small clothing shops and the five-and-dime that visitors would have found even 15 years ago. The old J.C. Penney's, for example, became a Dollar General and then a faith-based community center. Still, much of the character of the town has remained intact. Woolworth's has become an antique emporium, but the old-fashioned lunch counter remains open—which allows those of us who remember them to reminisce about the old days. The hardware store survives, despite the Wal-Mart at the edge of town. Long-established florists and a drug store of long standing are still in business. As the Jefferson County seat, we've maintained an economic base in a way that other less fortunate towns have not. Most of our shops are still open, albeit with offerings of antiques and crafts instead of sweaters, dresses, and sport coats.
In keeping with out small-town ambience, we go for lots of seasonal parades. Any good excuse will do: Easter, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and of course horses. We get fine participation and good turnout for these events. Anyone not actually walking the parade route is likely to be in a lawn chair watching from the curb. Vendors sell cotton candy and inflated toys tied to sticks. Church and local clubs offer baked goods. Children laugh and pester their parents and grandparents for one more treat. All in all, life is predictable and good.
Accommodation in our town ranges from the luxurious to the merely practical. Hillbrook Inn and the Carriage Inn, two of the region’s finest bed-and-breakfast establishments, recommend reservations well in advance. The Turf Motel, Knights Inn, and a brand new Holiday Inn Express offer no-frills accommodation near the horse track. The best place to stay, of course, is with a friend or relative who lives nearby. Old-fashioned hospitality is important in Charles Town. Dining establishments are plentiful for such a small town. We have a handful of locally owned and operated restaurants ranging from very good to passable, and we have the usual assortment of fast food chains.
Charles Town is located about 65 miles from the Nation's Capital; about 30 miles for Frederick, Maryland; and about 20 miles from Leesburg, Virginia. These days we are officially designated as part of the outer fringe of the Washington metropolitan area. But visitors will find little about us that is reminiscent of the big city. We are the quintessential small town. For us, living in the fast lane means managing to avoid being caught in the queues caused by activities at one of our local race tracks. Life retains a hint of the genteel, and working-class traditions are not forgotten. We remain, after all, West (by gawd) Virginians.