Harpers Ferry: Then and Now

Early on October 17, 1859, the sleeping town of Harpers Ferry became a battleground in one of the key events that marked the dawning of the Civil War. Though the war would not officially begin until April 1861 with the Battle of Fort Sumter, John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry was indicative of the tension surging within the country.

Brown, a known abolitionist with a few previous incidents already on his record, led a group of insurrectionists in a takeover of the federal armory at Harpers Ferry. Though the fighting between government forces and Brown’s group lasted only about a day, it showed the nation that compromise would no longer be possible when debating the question of slavery. Brown’s goal was to take weapons from the armory, give them to slaves, and start an uprising to rid the country of slavery. However, with limited forces, Marines and local militiamen soon captured Brown and those of his men who had not died in the fighting. On December 2, 1859, John Brown became the first person in the United States to be hanged for the charge of treason.

On the left is John Brown’s Fort, which was originally the Armory’s guard house. The building itself is original but it was moved from its location. You can read more about the building’s history on the NPS site here

Brown’s legacy is still debated today. Was he led by God or was he merely insane? Were his actions justified or merely destructive and deadly? Was he a hero or a traitor?

Brown himself believed that violence had become necessary. Sermons and speeches did nothing, and moral arguments about the injustice of slavery were pushed aside in favor of economic arguments. To Brown, and many others, it was futile to continue pursuing compromises when there were millions of enslaved people lacking freedom. Rather he believed that that most important phrase in the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal,” should be a statement of fact rather than a bit of rhetoric.

In an 1881 speech at Storer College (located in Harpers Ferry), Frederick Douglass said the following of John Brown:

“If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery. If we look over the dates, places and men for which this honor is claimed, we shall find that not Carolina, but Virginia, not Fort Sumter, but Harpers Ferry, and the arsenal, not Col. Anderson, but John Brown, began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic. Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain.”

Looking up High Street to where the old and new parts of town meet

Visiting Harpers Ferry

Harpers Ferry is a worthwhile trip for numerous reasons. In addition to being an important historical site that includes a reconstructed version of the 19th century town, it’s also known as the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and is considered the mental halfway point of the trail. And in addition to all that, it’s a great small town with good restaurants and fun local businesses! With brick sidewalks and shale buildings, the town is undeniably beautiful as it comes to its final point at the intersection of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers.

Located about an hour outside of Washington D.C. and close to numerous other National Park Sites, including Civil War battlefields like Antietam, Shiloh, and Gettysburg, Harpers Ferry is an excellent place to spend a few days while exploring the heritage of this region or as a day-trip out of D.C. or Baltimore. I’ve been here twice with my family, both times as part of a longer trip. We stopped for a couple days in the summer on our way to the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, and we also stayed for two days and one night near Christmas after spending a few days at Blackwater Falls in WV.

Lodging in Harpers Ferry is varied. For more modern hotels with more space, your best bet may be to stay a bit farther away, for example in the town of Bolivar. This will put you close to the Visitor Center and its shuttle service but a bit farther away from the actual town. If you want to stay in town, there are a few options, including the ability to stay in a historic building. Though more expensive, I loved staying at The Town’s Inn, especially when we were there at Christmas. The historic structure is beautiful and one-of-a-kind, and it was absolutely lovely to go outside and be right in the historic town with all the Christmas lights. Camping is not allowed within Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, but you do have that option in Shenandoah National Park (in Virginia) or in the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park (in Maryland). Both are walking distance from Harpers Ferry.

The National Park Service operates the lower town with the majority of the historic buildings, many of which have been converted to museums. Within the lower town, parking is really only available at the train station, which will fill up quickly in the summer. If you are unable to get there early or don’t want to deal with trying to drive on the narrow hilly streets, you have two options. There is some parking just outside the park boundary near a few trailheads, and you can walk about a half mile into town. Or, you can park at the Visitor Center and take a shuttle bus to and from the lower town; keep in mind that there may be restrictions due to COVID and you’ll need to account for the bus schedule when you want to leave.

Outside the Town’s Inn in Harpers Ferry at Christmas

Once in the lower town, take your time exploring the National Park sites and the various museum information. While there is one main museum, other buildings on Shenandoah street contain more specific information about topics like Black history in the area, the construction of buildings, and daily life in the 19th century. After stopping by the arsenal, you can continue on to where the rivers meet (the cover image for this post). Here it is also possible to walk across the bridge, which will take you into Maryland. This is actually part of the Appalachian Trail, but more on that later.

Outside of the official National Park area, Harpers Ferry has several delicious restaurants and cafes (consider this my plug for both the Almost Heaven Bar and Grill and Battle Grounds Bakery and Coffee). There are also several fun shops that you can pop into. My sister and I especially loved The Vintage Lady where she bought her first pair of earrings (besides the studs from when you get them pierced), and I got a hairpin with a flower on it (among other things). I also have to shout out True Treats Historic Candy, which is not only a fantastic concept but has excellent organization. Starting in ancient history and moving up to the 20th century, you can find candy from history that uses original recipes. You move further in time as you head back into the shop, and it’s worth just walking through and reading the descriptions even if you’re not sure what you want. I discovered that I actually love sugar plums after we bought some here!

As I mentioned, today Harpers Ferry is known for its location on the Appalachian Trail. You can stop by the trail headquarters in town or check out some of the souvenir shops for trail gear or souvenirs – including a shirt that will indicate to everyone that you walked the width of the Appalachian Trail! However, if you want to walk a bit more of the trail (say a mile or two), that’s easy to do.

The best brag is being able to say you walked from Virginia to Maryland on the AT, which will take about half an hour. You’ll start by crossing the Shenandoah on the pedestrian part of the bridge then heading onto the actual trail and up onto the ridge of the mountain here (the only hard part). This will take you to Jefferson Rock (a worthwhile hike from the main town anyway) and down into the city. You’ll then walk through the National Historical Park and across the bridge to Maryland. And that’s it! If you want to make the walk back to your car a bit easier, you can walk along the flat part of the park back to Route 340 and the bridge to Virginia. If you’d like your hiking to be a bit more difficult, there are several trails in Maryland Heights and Louden Heights that will also provide scenic overlooks of Harpers Ferry and the rivers.

Late afternoon in Harpers Ferry

Overall, I loved visiting Harpers Ferry both times I was there, and I highly recommend a visit whether you’re interested in the history, the nature, or just a cute small town with scenic views. It’s a great place to spend a few days taking it easy and enjoying the town and its natural beauty. I, for one, would love to visit again and continue enjoying this wonderful town and all it has to offer!

Source and a good place for more information: Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park

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