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Charles Town has more than just slots and horses

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- Mention Charles Town, W.Va., to the average Maryland resident, and most probably a picture slot machines and horse racing comes to mind.

But the glitter and excitement of gambling shouldn't overshadow this small city's storied history.

Part of Virginia until well after the Civil War began, Charles Town was surveyed by George Washington when he was still in his teens. Washington bought a farm in the area, but it was his brother Charles who founded Charles Town in 1786.

Six former Washington estates still stand in and around Charles Town. And there are thought to be more Washingtons buried here than anywhere else in the United States.

The Washingtons aren't Charles Town's only famous former residents, however. Martin Delany -- the highest-ranking black officer in the Civil War, a doctor and an author -- was born here in 1812. In 1859, abolitionist John Brown resided temporarily at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Charles Town (which was and remains the county seat). Incensed by slavery even before the Civil War broke out, Brown raided and seized the federal armory in nearby Harpers Ferry. Captured by Col. Robert E. Lee, Brown was put on trial on charges of murder and treason in the courthouse.

Charles Town was also on the route for the first rural free delivery, begun by the local postmaster in 1896.

A present-day visit to Charles Town demands a stop at its landmarks as well as a try at activities including water sports, biking and even gambling.

Where to visit

Jefferson County Courthouse (Washington and George streets, 304-728-7713): Well after John Brown was tried, two more treason trials were held after coal miners 250 miles away were involved in extended fighting and killing with mine owners in 1922.

Jefferson County Museum (200 E. Washington St., 304-725-8628): Highlights include the wagon that carried John Brown to his execution, other artifacts from the famous trial and White House memorabilia from President James Buchanan's term. Don't overlook the display on the remaining six Washington estates in the area -- reception desk volunteers can tell you how to get to the homes. Most are private but can be seen from the road. A walking-tour brochure is also available. The museum is closed Sundays, Mondays and Dec. 1-March 31.

Zion Episcopal Church and Graveyard (Mildred and Church streets): More than 80 Washingtons are buried here.

The Old Opera House (204 N. George St., 304-725-4420): Nonprofit theater company operates out of restored, circa 1910 opera house.

Blue Ridge Outfitters (Route 340, 304-725-3444): Whitewater rafting in Class III rapids, canoeing on the Shenandoah River and more.

Charles Town Races and Slots (Route 340, 800-795-7001): More than 3,500 slot machines costing between a nickel and $5 to play. Live horse racing and daily simulcasts of horse and dog races around the nation. Free entertainment, restaurants and a club that allows gamblers to redeem earned gambling points for merchandise.

Summit Point Motor Sports Park (Summit Point Road, Summit Point, 304-725-8444): Motorcycles and sports cars race on a challenging circuit track with 10 turns in two miles. Driving courses offered for everyone from police to drivers who want to learn to really take their sport utility vehicles off-road.

River and Trail Outfitters (Valley Road off Route 340, Knoxville, Md., 888-I-GO-PLAY): Whitewater rafting, canoe and kayak rentals (including a guided canoe trip to a nearby winery), lessons and tubing. Bike rentals and hikes for the landlubbers.

Where to shop

Stuck & Alger Pharmacy Inc. (114 W. Washington St., 304-725-2621): An honest-to-goodness lunch counter; watercolor-tinted souvenir postcards and a "Wate and Fate" scale that tells your weight and fortune for just a penny. This is the drugstore every town had before the big chains took over.

Barsandbooths.com Inc. (200 W. Washington St., 800-507-7632): Get lost in the Fifties amid these restored soda fountains, diner booths, pinball machines, jukeboxes and even a few one-armed bandits

The Wooden Shoe (222 W. Washington St., 304-725-1673): Not a shoe in sight, the walls are filled with kerosene lamps, lanterns and other light fixtures.

Where to eat

Needful Things "Eat and Browse" (218 W. Washington St., 304-725-6351): You might not need a used computer, Avon collectible or a piece of 1980s furniture. But there's a great cafe amid this collection of marked-down flotsam and jetsam.

Charles Washington Inn (210 W. Liberty St., 304-725-4020): Despite the name, Charles Washington never lived in this restored historic home, which dates to 1788. The inn features American cuisine.

Hillbrook Inn (Route 13 (Summit Point Road), 800-304-4223): A country house hotel with European style. The Dinner at Eight restaurant is known for its sumptuous seven-course meals. Three-course lunch and five-course high tea also served. Reservations a must, though the tavern is always open for drinks.

The Rib Room at the Turf Motel (608 E. Washington St., 800-422-TURF): That's rib as in prime. The rest of the menu has an Italian flair with pasta entrees and sides.

Coming events

MountainStage NewSong Festival: Aug. 20-22 at Claymont Court, a national landmark and the former estate of Bushrod Washington, George's nephew. Visit www.newsongfestival.com.

Jefferson County Fair: Aug. 22-28 at the fairgrounds west of Charles Town on Old Leetown Pike (Secondary Route 15). More than 35,000 people turn out annually for the event. Visit www.jeffersoncountyfairwv.org

Mountain Heritage Arts and Crafts Festival: Sept. 24-26, just off Route 340. Call 800-624-0577.

Getting there

Take Interstate 70 west toward Frederick. Follow to Route 340 west toward Charles Town. 340 becomes West Washington Street, the main street through Charles Town.

More information

Contact the Jefferson County Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-848-TOUR or www.jeffer soncountycvb.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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