When I was traveling to West Virginia during my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states, I knew the top thing that I had to visit in the Mountain State of West Virginia was definitely Harpers Ferry. If you are looking for an old town full of history, Harpers Ferry is the place to visit.
Where is Harpers Ferry?
Harpers Ferry is located in the northeastern corner of West Virginia near the Maryland border. The Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet in Harpers Ferry. These two rivers are part of how Harpers Ferry got it’s name. In the mid 1700s, Robert Harper was passing thru the area and saw the two rivers as a way to generate industry. He purchased the land and started a ferry across the Potomac River. The town was eventually named Harpers Ferry.
History of Harpers Ferry
Harpers Ferry is full of history dating back to the 1700s. In 1796, the first President of the United States, George Washington purchased land in Harpers Ferry as a site of a US armory and arsenal. This was one of only two facilities of it’s type in the United States and in the 60 years the armory was in operation it produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles and pistols.
Probably the most well known event in history that Harpers Ferry is known for is John Brown’s raid that essentially led to the Civil War. John Brown was an abolitionist known for his aggressive action towards slave owners. In October of 1859, with the help of fellow abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, John Brown planned a raid on the armory in Harpers Ferry. On October 16th, John Brown and 22 freed slaves raided the armory at Harpers Ferry.
After taking over the armory, locals from Harpers Ferry fought back, resulting in casualties on both sides. John Brown and his remaining men, barricaded themselves in the armory’s engine house, which became known as John Brown’s Fort. On October 18th, Robert E. Lee tried to get Brown to surrender and when Brown refused they stormed the fort and arrested John Brown. Less than two months later on December 2, 1859 was hanged after being found guilty of treason.
John Brown’s raid may not have ended slavery, but it definitely started a more aggressive approach to trying to end slavery. This more aggressive approach led to the Civil War which eventually ended slavery in 1865.
Harpers Ferry was a very strategic location during the Civil War and played a key role in many battles, most notably the Battle of Harpers Ferry in 1862. During the battle, Confederate General Robert E. Lee invaded the town and with the help of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson forced the war’s largest surrender. Even though the Confederates took control of the town after this battle, the town went from confederate and union control a total of 8 times during the war.
Visiting Harpers Ferry
The town of Harpers Ferry is part of the National Park Service and is known as the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The museums and visitor centers are open daily (except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years) from 9am to 5pm.
Parking in Harpers Ferry is minimal, therefore its best to park at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Visitor Center just a few miles outside of town. The cost to park here is $20 per car, annual passes are available for $35 per year and the America the Beautiful Annual National Park Pass is also accepted. There is a shuttle bus that runs regularly from the visitor center to town throughout the day.
What to do in Harpers Ferry
With all this history, what is there to do in Harpers Ferry? The answer is quite a lot, it’s a great place to spend the day. Here is a list of the top things to do in the Historic Lower Town of Harpers Ferry:
- John Brown’s Fort and Monument – This is definitely the top thing to see in Harpers Ferry. The fort has moved quite a bit since John Brown and his men barricaded themselves there in October of 1859. In 1891, it was dismantled and transported to Chicago for a few years, then it was returned to Harpers Ferry and was located at a couple of different locations before it was ultimately purchased by the National Park Service and moved to it’s current location in 1968 which is 150 feet east of the original location. There is a monument that marks the original location of the fort.
- U.S. Armory Site – Located next to the original site of John Brown’s Fort is the US Armory site. At this location, they have signs set up throughout the site with historical information on the Armory.
- Arsenal Square – Located behind John Brown’s Fort is Arsenal Square. This is where the Arsenal which held the weapons made at the Armory was located. It once held about 100,000 weapons at this site.
- Museums and Period Exhibits – There are multiple museums and exhibits to check out both at the visitors center and in lower town. Unfortunately at this time a lot of the museums are closed but some of the period exhibits are availabe to see. And just walking thru town seeing the outsides of the buildings makes you feel like you have stepped back in time. They have done a very good job of keeping the old facades of the buildings.
- The Point – Just past John Brown’s Fort is The Point. This is where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet. When standing at the Point, you can see the three states of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.
- St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church – Up a hill above Harpers Ferry is the only church that survived the Civil War without any destruction, St. Peter’s. The views from the church are stunning and definitely a must see.
- Ruins of St. John’s Episcopal Church – Continuing up the hill past St. Peter’s you will come upon the ruins of St. John’s Episcopal Church. This church served as a hospital and was damaged during the Civil War. The ruins were very interesting to see.
- Jefferson Rock – Continuing up the path past the ruins, you will eventually reach the top of the hill. This is where Jefferson Rock is located. This rock is named after the third President of the United States, Thomas Jeffereson. In the 1780s, Jeffereson wrote of the view from this point. It’s definitely quite the view to take in!
- Unofficial Midpoint of the Appalachian Trail – The path up to Jefferson Rock is part of the famous Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail is a 2,200 mile trail that stretches from Georgia to Maine. Many people set out to hike the entire trail each year. Although it’s not exactly the midpoint of the trail, Harpers Ferry has been known as the mental midpoint and is also where the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters is located. The headquarters offers many hiker services as well as has exhibits and a gift shop. If you like to hike, why not take a shorter hike along the Appalachian Trail while in Harpers Ferry.
- Self Guided Battlefield Driving Tour – Outside of Lower Town of Harpers Ferry, you can take a self guided driving tour of the Battlefields from the Civil War. Along the driving tour, there are signs giving information about the Civil War battles.
Harpers Ferry definitely has a lot to offer and is a great place to spend the day. It’s a wonderful trip for a family, so you can bring the history books alive for your kids.