Harpers Ferry Stories and Tips

Living History at Harpers Ferry

Billy Yank Photo, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

The small riverside town of Harpers Ferry is located a mere 6 miles down the road from my front door. In fact, I've been a frequent visitor to Harpers Ferry for a good deal longer than I've lived behind my front door. One would therefore think I'd be well qualified to write about this historic community. Indeed, the problem isn't finding something write. Rather it's a matter of deciding what to leave out.

Harpers Ferry, of course, it best known for its role in John Brown's 1859 insurrection against slavery. Brown's attention was focused on the town's armories. With a successful raid, he hoped to reap a huge amount of publicity for his cause and obtain weapons for guerrilla operations based in the Virginia mountains. As the site of the Federal Armory and Arsenal, Harpers Ferry could give Brown both the publicity he sought and the weapons he needed.

The United States established the Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1799. The armories ultimately produced more than 600,000 firearms and employed a substantial workforce, including many new immigrants. They also provided the basis for technical innovation and a diversified industrial economy. It was in Harpers Ferry, for example, that interchangeable parts were first used as a routine part of industrial production. By the 1830s, the town had a thriving and diverse economy that included cotton mills, a sawmill, a tannery, a flour mill, and an iron foundry. Serviced by two major railways and the C&O Canal, the former wilderness town became an important industrial hub in pre-Civil War America. Relics and ruins of these enterprises are still plentiful in Harpers Ferry's lower town and on nearby Virginius Island.

Nestled in the mountains at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, Harpers Ferry's natural surroundings are stunning. In the mid-18th century, Thomas Jefferson claimed that the view of the confluence of the two rivers from an outlook now known as Jefferson Rock was "worth a voyage across the Atlantic." Certainly my mother agrees with that assessment. Each time she visits, the required outing to Jefferson Rock is high on her agenda -ranking just below spoiling her great-grandchildren. Views provided from Maryland Heights (just across the Potomac from Harpers Ferry) are also spectacular. The vertical rock faces of Loudoun Heights (just across the Shenandoah) loom over a scenic segment of the Appalachian Trail. The Heights and sheer rocks along the Harpers Ferry side of the Shenandoah offer favorite destinations for local rock climbers.

With many of its buildings constructed from local stone, Harpers Ferry itself almost seems to rise from the bedrock as a natural part of the landscape. Gentled by age (and no doubt by the flood waters that periodically ravage the lower town), Harpers Ferry today has a quality that in many ways feels more European than American. Indeed, houseguests from England tell me that it reminds them of the hill districts of Derbyshire.

Of course, regardless of its other attractions, visitors typically come to Harpers Ferry because of its association with John Brown and the Civil War. To accommodate these visitors, the National Park Service has created an off-site visitor center with generous parking and a shuttle service into town. Those of us who live in the area constantly bemoan the loss of local parking, but there can be no doubt that the new arrangement is better for preserving and presenting the past. The fee to park and board the shuttle is $6 and is good for three consecutive days. The fee covers entry to Harpers Ferry and to nearly Bolivar Heights Battlefield.

When visitors arrive in Harpers Ferry's lower town, they will likely encounter docents and park employees, often dressed in period costume, who share a wealth of information about the town and its history. Those fortunate enough to arrive during one of the Civil War reenactments staged here will feel they've been transported to another era. Attractions along Shenandoah and High Streets include several museums and exhibits related to the Civil War, a natural history museum, and the Harper House complex with its tableaux of everyday life during times past. These attractions are all designed to function on a self-service basis. (Information centers at the off-site parking facility, the park bookstore in Harpers Ferry, and the Master Armorer's House can be checked for the schedule of daily events.)

By continuing along High Street to the upper town, visitors can browse at several small shops featuring food, handcrafts, and antiques as well as the usual souvenirs associated with historic sites. To enjoy the view so praised by Jefferson, one can take the stone stairs near the intersection of Shenandoah and High, climbing up past Harper House and the picturesque St. Peter's Church to Jefferson Rock. Those curious about the view from the Maryland side of the Potomac can cross the river using the pedestrian walk on the old Winchester and Potomac Railroad bridge. Other attractions include the old Harper cemetery and remnants of the Storer College campus, one of the freedmen's institutions that helped African Americans break the bonds of slavery in post-Civil War America.

It’s important for visitors to remember that Harpers Ferry is not just a national park. It is also a living, breathing community where people live, work, and play. While the park is a vital element of the town’s identity and its economy, it’s not the whole story. Parishioners still attend services at St. Peter’s. Residents (many of whom are commuters to Washington offices) use the newly refurbished Amtrak station to connect to the larger world. Children are tended at the local daycare. And in keeping with their West Virginian sense of community, folks from Harpers Ferry itself and other nearby towns are likely to be found supporting the town’s businesses. All this means that visitors seeking to experience Harpers Ferry’s past have the opportunity to simultaneously experience its present.

Accommodations in this area are plentiful and varied. A Comfort Inn is located on Highway 340 just across from the off-site visitor center. In Harpers Ferry's upper town, the 1888-vintage Hilltop House Hotel boasts a magnificent view of the Potomac. Hilltop House is ideal for those who love old hotels, terrific scenery, and the convenience of lodging within the town itself. Nearby Charles Town and Shepherdstown offer a number of additional motel, hotel, and bed-and-breakfast options - from luxurious and expensive to basic and thrifty. Whatever your taste and pocketbook, you should be able to find suitable quarters.

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