Exploring The Parks: Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Harpers Ferry is set at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. NPS photo.

Standing above the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, Harpers Ferry holds a pivotal vantage point in the country's history, one with surprisingly deep roots.

For more than 200 years this small, once-sleepy West Virginia town has served as a backdrop to U.S. history. Once home to the United States Armory, established here in the 1790s, Harpers Ferry has been a key location for weapons, wars, and the battle for the emancipation of slaves.

Today this history is explained at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, which dominates much of the town, from buildings and bridges to canals as well as key Civil War battlegrounds. (The park is particularly noteworthy these days, as the sesquicentennial of the Civil War is being commemorated through 2015)

Harpers Ferry was first established by Robert Harper in 1763, a dozen years after Harper was attracted by the powerful waterways of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. Today you can enjoy the view he enjoyed from his home, as the "Harper House," "Building 25" in the park, overlooks the Lower Town. While construction on this building, the oldest surviving structure in Harpers Ferry, got under way in 1775, it wasn't finished until 1782, the same year that Harper died, and he never occupied his own home.

Washington, Lewis, and Brown

But the town that Harper launched proved lasting, and it went on to become an inspiration to such powerful American figures such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. When Washington visited Harpers Ferry in 1785, he inspected the rivers and found them a suitable location for the federal armory 9 years later. Even Lewis and Clark can be traced through Harpers Ferry: You can walk the steps that Meriwether Lewis took through the town to obtain goods for his cross-country expedition in the Spring of 1803.

The U.S. Armory was a resourceful stop for Lewis to pick up weapons and hardware. During that stop he collected more than a dozen rifles and ammunition, two dozen tomahawks, and even the frame for a collapsible boat. While the armory is no longer in existence, you can see markers of where the buildings once stood near the current rail station, and even find a museum on Meriwether Lewis.

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Today you can watch artillery demonstrations at the historical park. NPS photo.

Several decades after Lewis passed through Harpers Ferry, on October 16-18, 1859, John Brown arrived with intentions to free the slaves. In mid-October 1859 Brown and his supporters took over the armory and tried to fortify the town, but they were ill-prepared for the retaliation from local forces. Not only did Brown fail, but he was eventually tried for "conspiring with slaves to commit treason and murder" and hanged on December 2, 1859.

There is a museum dedicated entirely to John Brown’s abolitionist efforts, in "Building 15" located at the corner of Shenandoah and Potomac streets. A short distance away stands the railway where one of Brown’s men shot a black railroad worker during the struggle to take over Harpers Ferry.

Tracking The Civil War

Harpers Ferry is rich in Civil War history. It was here in April 1861, just 10 days after Virginia seceded from the United States, that Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson assumed his first command for the Confederate army. He would later return to the town, in September of 1862, to maneuver his forces to capture key points surrounding the town, places such as Maryland Heights, Loudoun Heights and School House Ridge. That strategy paid off for Gen. Jackson, as the Confederates surrounded the town and forced the surrender of 12,500 Union troops -- the largest Union surrender in the entire Civil War.

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Rick Garland leads walking tours of historic Harpers Ferry and regales visitors with history of the town. Brenda Boitson photo.

Signs of the Civil War are all over Harpers Ferry. "Building 19" details the 1862 Battle of Harpers Ferry and is located on High Street in the heart of the town.

Visitors can also ride the bio-diesel powered NPS buses to Bolivar Heights or can hike and meander to other Civil War stopping points along the way such as Murphy Farm and Schoolhouse Ridge.

For more ambitious visitors, you may climb to the overlook at Maryland Heights, or you can hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail through Loudoun Heights.

Some of the buildings and the railroad, significant to Brown’s invasion, are part of Rick Garland’s ‘O Be Joyfull’ historical town tours, as is the Harper House. Mr. Garland leads historic walking tours, as well as ghost tours with a combination of folklore and history.

During a recent visit he led our large group on a walking tour up and down the town's steep cobblestone streets, inviting our imaginations to explore the stories and folklore and Harpers Ferry’s past. We visited homes and significant structures such as Harpers House and some buildings involving Civil War folklore and heard stories of residents of the town and soldiers’ stories.

A Long Trail Passes Through Harpers Ferry

If you're more interested in hiking than in Civil War history, consider stopping by the home offices of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which preserves and protects the Appalachian Trail. The 2,184-mile path runs directly through Harpers Ferry, which is considered the “psychological halfway point” for AT thru-hikes.

Just a quarter-mile off the trail hikers can stop by the Conservancy's Visitors Center to explore the history of the trail, purchase AT memorabilia, and take advantage of hiker services, such as a lounge and Internet and phone access.

When visiting Harpers Ferry, there are many options for where you can stay. There are accommodations within Harpers Ferry including several historical bed & breakfasts such as the Angler’s Inn, Jackson Rose, Camp Hill and Cantuta Inn, all on Washington St and several other B&Bs scattered inside the town limits. Some of these buildings are of great historical significance to the town. Visitors can also stay at the KOA Kampground that is within a very short distance of the main NPS visitors center.

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Civil War cannons are set on the fields at Murphy Farm. Brenda Boitson photo.

In Rohrersville, Maryland, at Maple Tree Campground about 15 minutes from the park, one can stay in unique treehouse cabins. The drive to that campground will take you past some of the many river outfitters in the area to assist with kayaking and canoe service, rental, and river transportation.

Fall is a popular time of year to explore Harpers Ferry due to the beautiful colors of Autumn and the cooler weather. Visitors can park at the main visitors center, which is just a short distance from the lower town. You can then explore park after paying the $10 entrance fee and take the shuttle buses to the lower town where the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers meet.

The shuttle also drops visitors off at the various battle ridges surrounding the town. Maps provided at the main visitors center highlight trails and suggested walking paths throughout the area. Lower town is filled with museums, effectively transforming Harpers Ferry into a living historical site. Many of the 19th-century buildings have been restored and now showcase exhibits, living history and ranger-conducted programs. Visitors can learn about industry, war, civil rights, wars, restoration, and even see how the people of the town lived during the prime years of Harpers Ferry.

The NPS suggests that visiting the lower town might take between 3-6 hours. Besides the NPS-controlled buildings, visitors will find a variety of dainty shops and restaurants. Harpers Ferry is a beautiful example of 19th century living, and is a significant point in American history for battles, transportation, weaponry, and African-American emancipation.

A visit in the Fall is an ideal time to explore with warm days, cool nights, and beautifully colored trees reflecting off the shining waters of the Potomac and Shenandoah.