Civil War history is close at hand in Harpers Ferry Recreation: Harpers Ferry National Historical Park encompasses more than 2,300 acres in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland.


HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - Some historians view John Brown as a terrorist and a murderer. When he was a Kansas militiaman, he participated in the massacre of five members of a pro-slavery family.

With only 21 men, including three of his sons and five free blacks, Brown moved on Harpers Ferry on Oct. 16, 1859.

His plan was to capture weapons, liberate slaves, then flee into the mountains to lead an army of free blacks in guerrilla warfare against the South.

At the time, about 10 percent of Harpers Ferry's residents were black, half of them slaves.

Brown had wanted black abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass to join him. But Douglass declined, warning him that Harpers Ferry was "a perfect steel trap."

Brown and his men captured the lightly guarded U.S. Armory, where weapons were made, and the U.S. Arsenal, which held 100,000 new weapons.

Ironically, the first person killed by Brown's raiders was Hayward Shepherd, a former black slave who worked for the railroad.

The town's mayor also was among four civilian fatalities in Brown's raid.

For some reason, possibly because he met more resistance than he anticipated from townsfolk and the local militia, Brown took hostages (including the great grand-nephew of George Washington) and remained in Harpers Ferry rather than gathering weapons and fleeing into the mountains.

No one's sure why he did not flee. Some suggest he intentionally sought martyrdom.

State and federal officials soon learned of his raid. A contingent of 90 Marines, led by Robert E. Lee, was dispatched from Washington.

Thirty-six hours after the raid began, Brown was captured in the firehouse. Most of his men had been killed or wounded.

Brown was swiftly tried in Jefferson County Courthouse in nearby Charles Town. Found guilty of murder, treason and inciting slaves to rebellion, he was hanged on Dec. 2, 1859.

More than John Brown

But the story of Harpers Ferry is about much more than John Brown. Thomas Jefferson praised the beauty of this spot, and George Washington arranged the construction of its armory and arsenal.

The heart of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is an attractive 19th-century community with a fascinating history in a stunning location, tucked between rugged mountain ridges where two rivers and three states meet.

Active rail lines flank two sides of the village, as do the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. There are bridges, a tunnel, rocky cliffs on steep, tree-covered slopes and a church high on a hill. Many of the hillside community's tall stone and brick houses have balconies and dormers.

Harpers Ferry has national significance primarily because of Brown's raid on its federal armory, the first and only move in his unsuccessful attempt to start a slave rebellion in the South.

The park's historical displays make a persuasive case that Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry really did increase polarization between North and South that led to the Civil War.

Visitors also can learn something about Civil War history, industrial history and black history in Harpers Ferry from park displays:

For example, the largest surrender of U.S. troops during the Civil War took place at Harpers Ferry on Sept. 15, 1862, when 12,500 Union soldiers surrendered to Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson. It was the largest surrender of American forces until the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines during World War II.

Other displays show that some free blacks owned black slaves in the South before the Civil War and that Northern textile mills profited from Southern slavery; that even though Southerners considered slavery a vital economic necessity, a majority of them were not slave owners; and that Brown's was not the first attempt to initiate a slave rebellion in the United States.

Many people who come to Harpers Ferry are pleasantly surprised, said Kelly Todd of the Jefferson County Visitor and Convention Bureau. "They don't realize the town is the national park. They think a national park will be trees and woods, that kind of thing.

"And when they get down there, they are surprised at how pretty it is."

"Most people come in the morning and stay most of the day," said park ranger Toni Hicks.

The lower end of Harpers Ferry is the most popular area, said Todd Bolton, chief of visitors services, but that's only a very small portion of the entire park.

2,300-acre park

The park encompasses more than 2,300 acres in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland. It includes hiking trails to scenic overlooks and areas such as the once-industrialized Virginius Island and Bolivar Heights, where the Yankees were defeated.

Eight years ago, a new park visitors center and a 1,000-car parking lot opened more than two miles from the heart of the village. Buses provide free transportation between the visitors center and the town.

Before the new lot and visitors center opened, traffic congestion was severe in what is called the Lower Town.

The most famous building in Harpers Ferry is the old armory's firehouse, which became Brown's fort and is where he was captured.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the small building became an international symbol of the struggle for human freedom. Blacks made pilgrimages to the firehouse. The structure has been moved several times. It was in Chicago for the 1891 Chicago Exposition. Now it is about 150 feet away from its original location, which was buried when a 14-foot railroad embankment was built late in the 19th century. A small gray obelisk stands atop the original site.

What became Harpers Ferry began in 1733, when a Pennsylvania Dutchman named Peter Stephens settled here and established a ferry service. In 1747, Stephens' ferry business was purchased by Robert Harper of Philadelphia, for whom the town was named.

High above the rivers in Harpers Ferry is Jefferson Rock, where Thomas Jefferson stopped in 1783, on his way to Philadelphia. He later declared the view "perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature" and "worth a voyage across the Atlantic."

In 1794, President Washington asked Congress to establish a federal armory and arsenal in Harpers Ferry. At its peak of operation, the U.S. Armory consisted of 20 buildings, stretching for 600 yards along the south bank of the Potomac.

That complex is gone, as are the two U.S. arsenal buildings where new weapons were stored. The Arsenal was burned by fleeing federal troops immediately after Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, at the start of the Civil War. At that time, Harpers Ferry was part of Virginia. West Virginia broke away from Virginia and became a pro-Union state in 1863.

Before 1861, about 3,000 people lived in Harpers Ferry. The population dropped to less than 100 during the war.

Today more than 300 people live here. Plenty of small shops and restaurants are in town, just outside the park's boundaries. Only rangers and other park staff members live in the park section of town, said Bolton.

Water-powered mills and factories once lined both rivers. Water power built this community and the power of water eventually destroyed it, explain signs in Harpers Ferry. Every attempt to make an industrial comeback after the Civil War was destroyed by floods. A 1942 flood destroyed a bottling works, Harpers Ferry's last industry.

The town was flooded twice in 1996. Fortunately, no buildings were destroyed, but mud and water filled the first floors of many park buildings along Shenandoah Street.

A 900-foot pedestrian walkway now is attached to the railroad trestle over the Potomac. It is used by Appalachian Trail hikers and by visitors who want to see the remains of the C&O; Canal on the other side of the river or who want to hike up to Maryland Heights to look down on Harpers Ferry from old Civil War artillery positions. (You also can hike up Loudoun Heights across the Shenandoah.)

Stone piers from long-gone bridges still stand in the two rivers, some with trees growing out of them and geese resting on top.

Nearly 20 small museums are in the Lower Town. The best is easily overlooked, because it has a sign hanging above its door that states "John Brown." It's almost directly across the street from Brown's "fort."

Inside the museum is a sledgehammer used by Marines to try to break down the firehouse door (they ultimately had to use a heavy ladder), some pikes Brown had made for freed slaves and pieces of the gallows on which he was hanged.

Brown's attack, his trial and execution dramatically increased tensions between North and South - especially when it was learned he had financial backing from Northern abolitionists.

The museum reports that Brown's last written words were prophetic: "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood."

According to the park service, Brown's actions "significantly contributed to the disintegration of the Union and the outbreak of Civil War" less than two years later.

Pub Date: 6/18/98

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