Virginia 2015: Harpers Ferry NHP

Day 2, October 5, 2015

Rarely do you get the opportunity to travel in 3 states before 1 o’clock in the afternoon! We left Gettysburg, Pennsylvania shortly after noon, and made our way to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, crossing back through Maryland along the way.

The Harpers Ferry National Historical Park was established on June 30, 1944, and there are approximately 255,348 visitors that visit the park each year.  We stopped at the Visitor’s Center to get my stamps, then rushed outside to catch the bus down to the site. Harpers Ferry operates a shuttle service because parking is limited at the site. We probably didn’t need it on a Monday in early fall – it really wasn’t that busy.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park preserves the historic town of Harpers Ferry, the site of the federal armory, and of course, the site of John Brown’s Raid. Harpers Ferry was settled in the 1700s, and Robert Harper obtained a land patent in 1751 and established a ferry to cross the river.  George Washington began construction on the federal armory there. It was an ideal location with plenty of river water for facilitating the manufacturing process. Interestingly, a large part of the weapons and hardware for the Lewis and Clark expedition were manufactured here.


The Stephenson’s Hotel in Harpers Ferry

Harpers Ferry is the site of the infamous John Brown’s Raid. In 1859, abolitionist John Brown tried to organize a slave revolt to take over the federal armory in Harpers Ferry. While a few blacks left their homes and joined the raid, John Brown did not get the large numbers of slaves that he wanted or expected to join his cause.


John Browns Fort

John Brown managed to hole himself up in what is now called John Brown’s Fort, originally a firehouse. He and his supporters waited, trapped by a hastily formed militia from the town of Harpers Ferry. A young Captain Robert E. Lee was the U.S. Army Officer charged with putting down the revolt. He arrived with his men, assessed the situation, and gave Brown a chance to surrender. When that didn’t happen, Lee’s men stormed the fort and put down the revolt. In less than three minutes…

We checked out the firehouse where John Brown sought refuge; it was fascinating to see after reading so much about John Brown’s Raid – it was much smaller than I imagined. It has been moved several times; the current site is actually its fourth location. I was able to see the original location of the Fort, and where Robert E. Lee mounted his offensive; we also saw the current location (they didn’t mark the interim locations). We also checked out the site of the armory that John Brown was trying to capture.  It is gone now, destroyed by fire later I believe, but they have the buildings outlined on the ground.


The monument marking the original location of John Brown’s Fort – with the current location in the distance.

Harpers Ferry continued its historical significance during the Civil War; it changed hands at least eight times. When Virginia seceded in 1861 (West Virginia hadn’t broken off yet), U.S. troops tried to burn the arsenal to prevent it from falling into Confederate hands; however, the townspeople saved the equipment from the buildings and it was moved closer to Richmond.

Jon and I wandered around the town and checked out the various buildings.  Jon and I both enjoyed seeing the impressive confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. They are both huge rivers, and it was neat to see where they come together.  Unfortunately for Harpers Ferry, these two powerful rivers flood – one of the buildings in the lower town has a marker showing the high water mark of several of the floods that have inundated the town.


The greener waters of the Potomac blend with the muddier waters of the Shenandoah to form an even mightier Potomac.


The flood marker is on the left side of this building. Those are some impressive floods!

Adjacent to Harpers Ferry is the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal Towpath, which follows the historic towpath where horses and oxen towed barges on the river. You can access it by taking a short footbridge across the Potomac River; we walked across the bridge and stood directly above the mighty Potomac.  The footbridge and the hiking trail at this point is part of the Appalachian Trail, the 2000 plus mile hiking trail that travels from Georgia to Maine.  It is considered to be the psychological midpoint of the trail; even though it doesn’t really mark the middle.


Me on the bridge at Harpers Ferry

Instead of taking the shuttle bus back to the Visitor’s Center, we decided to walk; the path takes you along the river, along the historic canal, and also onto Virginius Island, in the Shenandoah River. There, we saw the ruins of several structures; one interesting building was a pulp mill.  And I absolutely loved what we found in the water along the way – turtles! Painted turtles were sunning themselves all over logs and rocks poking up through the canal. We also saw one turtle that was much bigger than the rest; I’m pretty sure he was a snapping turtle. He was covered in algae, and kind of looked like an alligator the way he was mostly hidden under the water.


The remains of the Shenandoah Pulp Factory – built 1887-1888 – closed 1935 – destroyed by flood 1936.


The hike was quite enjoyable, with the last section being an uphill climb on stairs and a trail in the woods. I loved being able to compare the forest there with the forest at home – we have much more undergrowth in Northwest forests. It was a good chance to get some exercise and see a bit of scenery too!  Harpers Ferry was a wonderful place to visit!

3 thoughts on “Virginia 2015: Harpers Ferry NHP

    • It was really interesting. I really only knew about the John’s Brown Raid part of its history. I didn’t really know anything about how hotly it was contested during the Civil War, and it being a supply stop for the Lewis and Clark expedition was a total surprise! We would have loved to do more hiking there.

  1. Pingback: Ciao 2015! | Wine and History Visited

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