A Strategic Place in American History

Harpers Ferry Travel Blog

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entrance sign

In January I set the goal of visiting at least 5 new National Park sites in 2009, so I have spent some time browsing their website on and off throughout the year.  In June I discovered that they were having three different free fee weekends in the summer where about a third of their sites were waiving entrance fees for the weekend.  While most entrance fees are pretty low, the complete lack of a fee is even more incentive to go check a place out right?

I had already missed the June weekend (I had just come back from a week in Florida) but July beckoned.  After weighing my options for a day trip, I decided that wandering a battlefield was not high on my list of priorities and chose to drive over to Harpers Ferry in WV instead of down to Petersburg VA.

I remembered Harpers Ferry from American History class as the place where abolitionist John Brown staged a raid on a US armory two years before the Civil War broke out.  That was the only historical significance I put on this little town sandwhiched between the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers.  I was about to learn that Harpers Ferry had a history spanning the years before and after that raid.

After arriving at the Visitor's Center, I hopped on a shuttle down to Lower Town which is set up to resemble Harpers Ferry in the 1800's.  I soon noticed several re-enactors in place for the weekend.  As I walked around the restored buildings, I noticed a large measuring stick (although without numbers) on the side of one building.  Lines on the stick indicated the flood levels over the past decades.

  I couldn't believe how high the water had reached on the sides of the building.  The most recent flood marked was in 1996.  A short journey through the Master Armorer's House filled in some history of the town, a history that would be elaborated as I walked around.  Interesting fact: the man living in the Master Armorer's house at the time of John Brown's raid was not in fact the master armorer (he had wanted his family living farther from the unhealthy river air).  Past this house was the foundations of the armory, burned in 1861 to prevent Southern troops from using the weapons.  Unfortunately for the Union, the machinery to make weapons was not destroyed and the Confederate army would ship those machines farther south.

Beyond the armory ruins was a rather small building which at one time was the armory fire enginehouse.

St. Peter's Catholic Church
  However, in October 1859, it became the shelter of John Brown as he made his last stand against US Marines.  John Brown's life ended within two months of his capture; however, the Fort--as the enginehouse came to be known--has had a much longer lifespan, surviving the Civil War, being dismantled and shipped to the Chicago Exposition, gaining a new home at nearby Storer College, and finally returning to within a half a football field of its original location.

Standing inside John Brown's Fort, it was interesting to begin considering how his raid on the armory was only a hint at the coming bloodshed.  Because Harpers Ferry was located on the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, it was vital to transportation (which I will discuss more later).

re-enactor
  Therefore, it was a highly desired location by both the Union and the Confederacy.  During the War Between the States, Harpers Ferry would change hands eight times, leaving a devastating effect on the town.

While museums around town explained more about the Civil War era, to gain a better perspective of where the soldiers had been at times, I had to cross the Potomac River and climb Maryland Heights.  Here is where Harpers Ferry's importance to transportation became evident.  Not far from the armory was a small vantage point that gave a great view of the two rivers joining.  I could see the abandoned buttresses of an older bridge as well as funseekers allowing the current to roll their tubes downriver. 

Standing near the armory, I had heard a train whistle and the rumbling of cars, but the tracks visible to me had remained empty.

flood lines
  I headed up a short path to the footbridge across the river and discovered another bridge, this one for the trains.  As I headed across the sturdy bridge (although I was still nervous, I just don't like being on the outside edge of high bridges), another train whistled its way over the water.  In the early 1800's, Harpers Ferry greeted two major railroad lines: Baltimore & Ohio and Winchester & Potomac.  Today it is still used for shipping and passengers; in fact, Amtrak makes a stop here on its route between Chicago and DC while MARC trains provide commuter options.

Once back safely on the ground, I headed to my right and became a participant on the Appalachian trail as it joined with the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath for a short bit.

  I always find canals interesting since many years ago my small hometown decided the canal was the way to go as opposed to the iron horse (ok, so we were a little off on our transportation plans).  Although most canals now are little more than grass-filled ditches with crumbling stone walls, I still like looking at them.  I found the walk very pleasant.  The soft emerald lining of the abandoned canal provided a quiet contrast to the colorful tubes rafting down the rushing river on the opposite side of the path.  Although overall calm, the river had ripples of energy around grey rocks in the water.  However, since I didn't feel like walking 1,013 miles to Georgia, I had to turn around and had back.

I passed underneath the railroad bridge and continued northward on the towpath to find the trailhead up to Maryland Heights.

  I had two choices on this path: one would show me how troops had been stationed on the hill above the town and the other would take me to an overlook view of the valley.  I opted for the shorter choice of 4.2 miles roundtrip: the overlook (besides which, getting a birds-eye view of the town had been my goal in the first place).  The sign indicated that the trail would be a "very steep hike along rocky dirt trail."  It was right.  I was definitely sweating before reaching the top.  I went up and up and up but before breaking out from between the trees onto a ledge with a view, I started back down again.  While I appreciated the easier path, in the back of my head, I was grumbling about needing to go uphill again to get back to the bottom of the trail.
re-enactors
  However, once I made it to the overlook, my grumblings ceased.  I sat on a rock for a bit, just taking in the scene and appreciating God's design.

The return journey to civilization was easier although I could feel my muscles protesting gravity's pull.  Once across the bridge I went up the first side street to get something to drink.  The lemonade from Swiss Miss completely hit the spot.  My slow meanderings took me past a mix of modern businesses and restored buildings that stepped back into a past century.  I enjoyed browsing a basement bookstore, reading about Lewis's experiments with a boat for his journey West, and learning about the confectionary shop run by a German family.

My last climb of the day was up the Stone Steps which led to St.

remains of the armory
Peter's Catholic Church.  On the way up I took two short detours to see more restored buildings.  The church was so beautiful with its vaulted ceilings.  I especially loved the stained glass.  I continued up the hill past the church and found another church (a Protestant denomination, I believe), this one in ruins, the congregation having moved to a newer building years ago.  I followed the path only a little farther to Jefferson Rock, named in honor of our third President who once said of the valley "worth a voyage across the Atlantic."  The rock balanced a bit precariously--with warnings to stay OFF.  I followed the worn steps back down to the main street.  Here I slipped back into the Visitor Center to look for a C & O Canal stamp to add to my passport book (no such luck, I had to use the stamps back up at the Visitor Center by the parking lot), looked at a display on archeological work, and browsed the bookstore to finish off my visit.
John Brown's "fort"

vulindlela says:
Nice pictures, Meredith!
Posted on: Oct 17, 2009
vances says:
A truly inviting write-up...thanks!
Posted on: Oct 16, 2009
Travelbuddys says:
Love these old towns!!
Posted on: Aug 22, 2009
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entrance sign
entrance sign
St. Peters Catholic Church
St. Peter's Catholic Church
re-enactor
re-enactor
flood lines
flood lines
re-enactors
re-enactors
remains of the armory
remains of the armory
John Browns fort
John Brown's "fort"
inside John Browns fort
inside John Brown's "fort"
remains of the canal
remains of the canal
a flume along the canal ruins
a flume along the canal ruins
across the river
across the river
self-photography
self-photography
part of the trail
part of the trail
me at the top
me at the top
Harpers Ferry
Harpers Ferry
on top of Maryland Heights
on top of Maryland Heights
St. Peters Catholic Church from M…
St. Peter's Catholic Church from …
looking up at Maryland Heights
looking up at Maryland Heights
railroad tunnel
railroad tunnel
tavern restoration
tavern restoration
barrel out back
barrel out back
inside St. Peters Catholic Church
inside St. Peter's Catholic Church
stained glass in St. Peters Catho…
stained glass in St. Peter's Cath…
church ruins on way to Jefferson R…
church ruins on way to Jefferson …
Jefferson Rock
Jefferson Rock
on the side of St. Peters Catholi…
on the side of St. Peter's Cathol…
steps over a century old
steps over a century old
Restoration Museum
Restoration Museum
Harpers Ferry Sights & Attractions review
History and Nature
If you're interested in history and nature, Harpers Ferry is a great place to spend a day. Displays spread throughout the town provide historical inf… read entire review
Harpers Ferry
photo by: diisha392