Harpers Ferry: Home to history, hiking and more
Editor’s note: This is the 14th installment in a regular series on travel.?This installment, we visit Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
HARPERS FERRY, West Virginia – In “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Thomas Jefferson wrote about his beliefs on personal liberty, separation of church and state and other ideals that he later wove into the country’s founding documents.
Published in Paris in 1785, the book also discussed the beauty of this land at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers where they slice through the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic,” Jefferson wrote.
It certainly is worth the 130-mile trip from Altoona.
The rock that Jefferson stood on to capture his view is still here, along with a number of remnants and reminders of all that this town bore witness to before and since it became part of the new state of West Virginia in 1863.
The Harpers Ferry National Historical Park makes it easy to enjoy a lot of history, from the launch of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the John Brown Raid and more. You could do a quick walk-through in a day, but there also are miles of scenic trails in the area for hiking, biking, kayaking, whitewater rafting and more. Plus, Antietam National Battlefield is less than 20 miles away, making an easy side trip for Civil War buffs.
Start at the visitors center here off U.S. Route 340, which charges $10 for private vehicles or $5 a head if you’re biking or hiking through, as many folks do, considering that the Appalachian Trail runs through the park. It is open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. year-round except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day, and there is plenty of parking.
A road leads downhill two miles to Lower Town, but parking is almost non-existent there. It’s also not an easy walk, especially on the uphill return trip. Every day the park is open, a shuttle continuously runs starting at 9 a.m. from the visitor center to the quaint little village with cobblestone streets, museums, shops and historical sites.
A daily ranger-guided tour starts at 2 p.m. The topic changes daily and typically will be about one of the following topics: John Brown’s Raid; the Civil War; or an overview of Harpers Ferry’s history.
“Sometimes the topic might be more specific,” said Autumn Cook, a media specialist for the park. “We call it ‘Ranger’s Choice.'”
Call ahead if the topic is important, she said. And if you want a broader choice of tours, come during the summer when seasonal staff and college interns are available, she said.
A big deal
You will learn that the single most significant event to have occurred here wasn’t one of the Civil War battles, or even John Brown’s uprising to fight slavery in 1859 or even Meriwether Lewis coming here in 1803 to stock up for the famous foray with his partner, William Clark.
It was George Washington’s decision to install the second national armory here in 1796, the first being in Springfield, Mass.
“The armory was a big deal,” said park ranger David Fox. “Without it, John Brown would have started his war somewhere else in Virginia. The Civil War in Virginia wouldn’t have started here. Meriwether Lewis would never have come here.”
If you get the chance, take the infrequent “From the Top Down” tour, in which a shuttle takes visitors to the top of Camp Hill. From there, it’s a 90-minute, 1.5 mile downhill hike through a diverse lesson in history. Moderate with uneven stone steps and not handicapped accessible, it ends up at Lower Town.
But there is so much in-between.
Soldiers from many battles camped out on Camp Hill, where grand houses originally were built for armory officers.
The Brackett House, built in the 1850s, today houses the National Park Service offices and is not open to the public.
Downhill from it is Lockwood House, originally the home of the armory paymaster and a hospital for wounded Union soldiers during the Battle of Harpers Ferry in September 1862. It was renamed after a Union general whose unit occupied the area after the Gettysburg Campaign in 1863.
The house is only accessible during the “Top Down” tour, and it is undergoing renovation – conservationists have found and are preserving Civil War era graffiti scribbled on the plaster walls. One day this summer, at least three dozen members of Fox’s tour crowded quietly inside the dusty walls to hear how escaped slaves hid out during the war, and how missionaries came after its end to help teach the thousands of newly freed slaves in the region.
“Can you remember when you first wrote your name?” Fox asked. “Imagine being an adult and being here when you did that.”
He described the hardships that teachers endured, including Sarah Jane Foster, who taught for a year before being transferred to South Carolina where she contracted yellow fever and later died at 28. Nathan Brackett was the first superintendent of the school that became Storer College.
The Niagara Movement held its first open and public meeting in the United States on the Storer campus in 1906. Organized a year earlier in Canada by W.E.B. Du Bois, the movement became the cornerstone of the modern civil rights movement and was the forerunner to today’s NAACP, according to a nearby historic marker.
The college became victim to public funding cutbacks, ironically, after the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education ended legal segregation in public schools. Its assets were transferred to the national park system.
In the front yard of Lockwood House is a cemetery, the eternal home to many notables, including Robert Harper, who founded the town in 1761. Yes, he operated a ferry.
Down the trail is Jefferson Rock, where you can see three states – Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia – and the vista Jefferson captured on his visit in 1783.
Further along the trail are picturesque ruins of the St. John Episcopal Church, originally built in 1852 and rebuilt after being damaged in the Civil War, and later abandoned.
Down to the right is the still-functioning St. Peter’s Catholic Church, the only church unscathed by the war. Originally built in 1833, it was altered to a neo-gothic style in 1896 as seen today.
A few more steps take you to the Harper House, which was Harper’s “dream house,” but he died in 1782 before it was finished, Fox said. It is the oldest intact building in the lower part of the park, and it later served as an inn where Washington and Jefferson reportedly stayed.
It isn’t open to the public, but there is plenty else to see in Lower Town, the most visited area of the park, Cook said. Historic buildings housing museums, exhibits, information, a bookshop and more line Shenandoah, High and Potomac streets.
The building called John Brown’s Fort – now located several hundred feet from its original site – was built in 1848 as the armory’s fire engine house. It is where Brown and his men held off local militia and the U.S. Marines for three days in October 1859 in an attempt to start a war to end slavery and an event that many believe made the Civil War inevitable.
Other sites in Lower Town, as described by park officials, include:
n 1862 Battle of Harpers Ferry Museum. Find out how the largest surrender of U.S. troops in the Civil War set the stage for the Battle of Antietam.
n African American History Museum. From enslavement to the civil rights movement, the African American story in Harpers Ferry is diverse and complex.
n The Civil War Museum. Learn how the town changed possession eight times during four years of war.
n Industry Museum. In the 1800s, Harpers Ferry was an industrial town with gun factories, cotton mills, saw mills and more. Check out the examples of armory machinery in this museum.
n Meriwether Lewis Museum. Discover how the Lewis & Clark Expedition was supplied for survival.
“To get the most out of the park, I would recommend folks who are interested in history to take half a day to a day just to explore on their own all of our museums in Lower Town,” said Cook. “For folks who like the outdoors, I’d say to hike one or more of the trails in a day. And for those who like immersive experiences, plan to visit during an living history event weekend, which will make them feel like they’ve stepped completely back into history.”
Living history events this fall are scheduled for Sept. 17 and 18, Oct. 15 and 16, Oct. 22 and 23, Oct. 29 and 30 and Dec. 3 and 4 and will cover topics including how the U.S. Marines responded to the John Brown Raid; how the raid affected the 1860 election; and how escaped slaves, called “contraband,” lived in fear here during the Civil War.
The park has about 20 miles of hiking trails in its 4,000 acres, from easy strolls to eight-mile mountain treks, and some that meander through the scenic Murphy-Chambers Farm not far from the upland visitor center and cotton mill ruins on the Shenandoah.
The park is the midpoint for the 2,178-mile Appalachian Trail. And, visitors can cross the scenic footbridge over the Potomac and walk the 185-mile trail of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, which overlays the old Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal, all the way to Pittsburgh.
Cook said the area is home to great fall leaf peaking in October and into November, depending on temperatures and rainfall. Ranger-led Fall Foliage Walks are scheduled at 2 p.m. on Oct. 17, 24 and 31, she said.
There’s also a self-guided driving tour of five battlefield sites across U.S. Route 340 from the visitors center.
From there, it’s an easy, five-mile drive over to Charles Town where John Brown met his ultimate fate by hanging. It took a little luck to find the spot – after circling the town’s huge Hollywood Casino complex several times – because the site is privately owned.
A marker that reads “John Brown Hanging Site: Creation of a Martyr” is just outside a wrought-iron fence at 515 S. Samuel St. It describes his last ride, his last words and how his body was ultimately returned to his home in North Elba, N.Y., for burial.
Among those present were 800 militiamen under the command of Col. John T. Gibson to ensure there was no escape. Gibson later built the Victorian-style mansion that stands next door today. The Gibson-Todd House is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is not open to the public – unless you get real lucky and resident David Wilson happens outside to play with his two Dobermans and lets you peek inside.
There were three other curious spectators at the scaffolding that day in 1859: Edmund Ruffin, who fired one of the first shots at Fort Sumter, S.C., to start the Civil War; Thomas J. Jackson, an instructor at the time at Virginia Military Institute who went on to become a Confederate general and earn the nickname “Stonewall;” and John Wilkes Booth.
Whether you believe Brown was a martyr or a terrorist, that could not have been a pretty sight in this region known for its beautiful scenery.
For information on lodging, from campgrounds to hotels to historic bed and breakfasts, and more on the region, visit www.DiscoverItAllWV.com.
For more information on Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, visit www.NPS.gov/hafe/ or call (304) 535-6029.
Mirror Life Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.