Harpers Ferry: Rivers converge at West Virginia town
HARPERS FERRY, W. Va. — Have you ever hiked the Appalachian Trail? At The Point in Harpers Ferry, you can say, “I hiked the Appalachian Trail,” if you walk the footbridge over the Potomac River. I did.
The footbridge leads to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (C&O) Historic National Park. The trail comes from the south in Virginia, crosses the Shenandoah River at Halls Island, goes east through the lower town of Harpers Ferry, crosses the footbridge and continues east to Weverton Cliffs, south of Hagerstown, Maryland.
Backpackers are a given sight in the streets and restaurants of the lower town.
• 1747 — Robert Harper, a builder from Philadelphia, begins a ferry service at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.
• 1796 — President George Washington visits Harpers Ferry. Because of the town’s location along two major rivers, Washington decides to build a second federal armory and arsenal there to manufacture machinery and rifles. (The first arsenal was built in Springfield, Massachusetts.)
• 1859 — Abolitionist John Brown, in order to free slaves in Virginia, raids the Harpers Ferry arsenal to equip his followers with guns. Along with about 20 men and his sons, Brown was surrounded in the arsenal by a marine troop led by Col. Robert E. Lee, who had been forewarned of John Brown’s raid. Brown was wounded and later hanged for his deeds.
• 1861 — When Virginia seceded from the Union, the armory again became a major target of acquisition. To keep the South from overtaking it, a local federal regime decided to burn it and destroy its arsenal. Lots of weapons were destroyed, but the armory was not totally demolished, and salvaged firearms were taken south.
• 1861-65 — The town of Harpers Ferry exchanges sides eight times during the Civil War, changing between supporting Union and Confederate troops.
Harpers Ferry today
The Lower Town Historic District of Harpers Ferry and areas surrounding the lower town and across the rivers in both Virginia and Maryland comprise the Harpers Ferry Historic National Park, established in 1963 in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The Potomac, running from the northwest to the east, and the Shenandoah, running southwest to the east, meet at The Point. Here three states also meet — West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia — 50 miles northwest of Washington, D.C.
The lower town has over 20 historic buildings and sites to visit. There are museums of industry, history, ferry, black voices, John Brown wax, and restoration.
The Restoration Museum along Shenandoah Street shows the architectural elements of buildings through the exposure of walls, floors and foundations from a historical preservation point of view.
• The Point: Here in this green space you get a breathtaking view of the Shenandoah flowing into the Potomac. Look northeast to see Overlook Cliff rising above the edge of the river in Maryland and forming the tunnel over the railroad tracks.
Look east and you’ll see the Potomac flow toward Washington, D.C., and the start of the White Horse Rapids. Look south across the Shenandoah to Loudoun Heights in Virginia and see the second highest mountain overlooking Harpers Ferry. The cliff has a 900-foot vertical drop.
• John Brown’s Fort: Now located near The Point. The fort has been moved several times, and this small brick building is more like a horse stable than a fort. This is where John Brown and his followers barricaded themselves during the flopped raid.
• Arsenal Square: All that is left of the arsenal are the foundations of former buildings. Floods over the years have destroyed any remains. However, many placards describe the area and there are many places to sit and contemplate this historical site.
• White Hall Tavern: As you walk along Potomac Street near the railroad station, you’ll pass the tavern. You cannot enter but you can view historic items such as bottles, jugs and a woodstove from the door and windows. The tavern was a community gathering place and a drinking house for armory employees. Be sure to observe
the north side of this old building. Stacked irregular stones show the building’s age.
• C&O National Historic Park: The C&O canal and park include areas in West Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Before the railroad, canals were built to transfer goods and supplies. Started in 1828 when John Quincy Adams was president, this canal was to stretch from D.C. to Pittsburgh to connect the Chesapeake Bay and the Ohio River. But, due to rocky river conditions, it ended in Cumberland, Maryland, after 22 years of work.
Today the National Park Service preserves the history of this 184-mile stretch of canals that pass through Harpers Ferry Historic National Park. In the long stretch of park, there are 74 lift locks and, at two places, Georgetown and Great Falls, canal boat rides are available.
Elsewhere, towpaths, bike trails and hiking paths provide recreational activities.
To enter the Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, check in at the visitors center. A $10 per car fee is assessed, or waived if you have a senior NPS pass. Park rangers can answer questions.
Take a complimentary shuttle to the historic town. On various dates and times, guided tours and reenactments take place. Enjoy your stay and don’t forget to hike the Appalachian Trail.