"The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature. You stand on a very high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain a hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain.... This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic."
Thomas Jefferson about Harpers Ferry, 1783
The picturesque landscape of Harpers Ferry still looks much as it did in Thomas Jefferson's time. The historic town is framed by the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, its buildings tumbling down steep hillsides that flatten and jut into the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.
First settled in 1733, the hamlet received its official name nearly 30 years later, when Pennsylvanian Robert Harper began a ferry service across the Potomac in 1761. In the ensuing decades, Harpers Ferry became a prism for some of our nation's most dramatic history. Meriwether Lewis visited in 1803 to buy rifles and tomahawks for his expedition west. By the mid-1830s, the conduits of commerce known as the C&O; Canal and B&O; Railroad both passed through the town.
Strategically located on the border between Maryland and Virginia (the western part of Virginia joined the Union in 1863), the area continually attracted Union and Confederate armies, whose occupation of Harpers Ferry and surrounding mountain peaks during the Civil War reduced it from a bustling 3,000 residents in 1861 to a ghost town of less than 300 four years later. During the war, Harpers Ferry changed hands eight times.
A catalyst for the Civil War occurred in this quiet hamlet. In the darkness of Oct. 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown and 18 followers attacked the federal armory's two arsenal buildings, planning to arm slaves and free blacks they were sure would rush to join their messianic assault on slavery. After a two-day battle that claimed 11 lives -- including a free black man killed by Brown's men -- the raiders were captured by U.S. Marines led by Col. Robert E. Lee and Lt. Jeb Stuart. Even as Brown and six of his men were swinging from a gallows in nearby Charles Town, their stillborn slave insurrection was stoking passions North and South.
Today in the well-preserved town of 300 residents, six themes illustrate Harpers Ferry's complex past: industry, transportation, environment, John Brown, Civil War and African-American history. Each can be explored through interpretive exhibits.
Start your visit at the National Park Service Visitor Center on U.S. Route 340 just west of town. Parking is difficult in Harpers Ferry, so leave your car at the Visitor Center, ride the free shuttle bus and see it on foot. Once there, visit the Park Service information center on Shenandoah Street, aptly located in the master armorer's house, where knowledgeable rangers provide maps and an overview.
History buffs can inspect 18th- and 19th-century buildings that include replicas of clothing, dry goods, watch-repair and confectionery shops along the restored Shenandoah Street and at the foot of High Street. The Provost Marshal's Office, Industry Museum and an exhibit on the excavation of historic buildings complement the lower-town shop restorations.
The fire-engine/guard house in which Brown and his band barricaded themselves before being captured is now known as John Brown's Fort. It is the only surviving building in the federal armory complex begun in 1799 along the banks of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.
Also worth a look are the Harpers Ferry History Museum and its touch-sensitive computers with color graphics. The kid-friendly Wetlands Exhibit shows the evolution of the area's river terrain.
A complete walking tour of the lower town requires about three hours and can be done in two segments. The level portion is bounded on the south side of town by the blacksmith shop and armorer's house, and on the north by the Point, where the rivers come together. A highlight amid the period shops and dwellings along Shenandoah Street (whose restoration was completed in 1997) is the Industry Museum and its operating examples of 19th-century armory machinery. Two doors down is the National Park Bookshop and its excellent collection of Civil War and 19th-century history books for all ages.
Just south of the Point is Arsenal Square and John Brown's Fort, where park rangers clad in period garb enthrall visitors with a detailed account of the raid and how it hastened the Civil War. West of the Point, along the Potomac, lies the site of the old armory, which in 1810 manufactured more than 10,000 arms. Its 22 buildings were torched on April 18, 1861, by U.S. troops
worried that the 15,000 guns it housed would fall into the hands of Virginians who that day had seceded from the Union.
Parallel to Shenandoah Street lies Virginius Island, once home to factories, mills, the Hall rifle works and nearly 200 residents. It, too, was occupied by Union troops for much of the Civil War. A walking tour (about two hours round-trip) that starts along Shenandoah Street reveals Civil War sites and the remains of various buildings; impressive are the turbine shafts of the flour mill. Repairs and excavation of tunnels will be under way at least through 1998.
The other segment of the lower-town tour is a 1.5-mile walk, most of which lies on the Appalachian Trail. Climbing the stone steps near the foot of High Street takes you to the 1782 Harper House, the oldest surviving building in Harpers Ferry and now restored as an 1855 working-class home. Though Harper died before it was finished, its illustrious guest list includes George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Carved into the cool, shale cliff behind it are a springhouse and root cellar. Perched farther up the hill are two churches: the 1833 St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church, which advertised its neutrality during the Civil War by flying the British Union Jack (and came through unscathed), and the ruins of St. John's Episcopal Church, the first church in Harpers Ferry and site of a Civil War barracks and hospital.
The footpath leads along the ridge above the Shenandoah River to Jefferson Rock, an impressive mass of compressed Harpers shale at the site that so moved our third president in 1783. Climb it with care. This spot on the Appalachian Trail affords a scenic view of the town below, both rivers and the mountains beyond. Just behind Jefferson Rock is a footpath leading up to the Harpers Ferry Cemetery, whose old tombstones, leaning askew, date to the early 19th century. The cemetery's far side spills onto Fillmore Street in upper Harpers Ferry. A block north is Storer College, founded just after the Civil War to educate newly freed slaves and now a National Park Service training center. The Union encampments there, which gave the site the name Camp Hill, are documented well by interpretive signs.
Trails and Vistas
Rivers, mountains and trails beckon. On Harpers Ferry's perimeter lie the Appalachian Trail and the C&O; Canal. The trail encircles the south side of the town and crosses the Potomac on the railroad/pedestrian bridge to join the canal on the Maryland side of the river (parts of the canal were badly damaged by flooding in 1996; repairs are still under way). Half a mile west along the canal (past the remains of lock 33) is the trail head for Maryland Heights, which looms over Harpers Ferry from the north. There are two color-coded trails: The longer is six miles from the Point to the top (about three hours), where intact Civil War fortifications abound; the shorter is four miles (about three hours) and leads to the cliffs and a spectacular vista of Harpers Ferry and the valley formed by the rivers.
Ignoring the ominous buzzards circling the heights, my wife and I marveled at the sights along the trail: remains of charcoal hearths that fueled the furnaces at the Antietam Iron Works, remnants of Civil War forts and camps, rifle pits and depressions that housed artillery and powder magazines (we stood where a hapless group of Yankees tossed a live shell into a cooking fire and blew themselves up). Interpretive signs guided us the entire way. Along the trail graced by blooming dogwood, laurel and wild roses, we heard only the wind and the train whistles in the valley below. My arrival on the summit sent a wild turkey scurrying. Hikers beware: There is neither water nor rest rooms on the heights, and large snakes sunning themselves on its trails do not like to be trod upon.
Loudoun Heights, across the Shenandoah River from Harpers Ferry in Virginia, is reached by following the Appalachian Trail from the foot of Shenandoah Street across the U.S. Route 340 bridge (about three hours). The trail is an early 19th-century military road that allowed armory timber-cutters access to the trees on Loudoun Heights; it was used by both sides in the Civil War. Trenches and stone fortifications lie along the crest. The quartz cliffs at the end of the main trail face Maryland Heights across the Potomac.
Bolivar Heights rises gently behind Harpers Ferry and includes the adjacent town of Bolivar. On this high park ground, strollers and picnickers enjoy a splendid view of Harpers Ferry framed by Maryland and Loudoun Heights, with Camp Hill/Storer College in the middle. The Bolivar crest offers quarter-mile and three-quarter-mile trails with rifle pits and interpretive signs explaining the Civil War events on the heights. Here Stonewall Jackson drilled Confederate recruits into an elite brigade in 1861, and a year later on the next ridge (Schoolhouse Ridge) accepted the surrender of 12,500 Union troops -- the largest surrender of U.S. troops until Bataan in World War II.
Packing Harpers Ferry into one weekend is not easy. The browsing historian, the hiker, the biker, the whitewater rafter, the boater, the fisherman and the shopper will all enjoy this rustic town and its environs. Along Potomac and High streets are restaurants (lunch only) and shops with antiques, souvenirs and Civil War memorabilia.
AN IDEAL DAY
6 a.m. (or thereabouts): Watch the sun rise over the Blue Ridge from either Hilltop House, on the Potomac side of town, or Jefferson Rock, on the Shenandoah side, just below the town cemetery. Double back to your B&B; for a well-deserved breakfast (the slugs sleeping in will begin their day a bit later).
9 a.m.: Walking tour of Harpers Ferry (if you're staying in the upper town, work your way down via Fillmore Street and the town cemetery). Bibliophiles should slip into the National Park Bookshop on Shenandoah Street (browse indefinitely without the kids). Stop at the Park Service information center and join a ranger-guided tour of sites associated with John Brown's raid. -- Take in the view from the Point -- the confluence of the two rivers.
11:30 a.m.: Enjoy a coffee or latte at one of the shops along High Street, above the Potomac, and buy a Civil War minie ball or a hand-thrown piece of pottery in the shops.
12:30 p.m.: Lunch along High Street, al fresco if the weather permits.
2 p.m.: Pack your camera and water bottle, and take the shorter hike up Maryland Heights to the scenic overlook above town. As the trail steepens, be glad you left the kids behind.
4:30 p.m.: On your way back through town, enjoy a hand-dipped ice cream or frozen custard at Hot Dog Haven on Potomac Street.
5 p.m.: Refreshments at either your B&B; (some serve) or the Anvil, about the only restaurant open after the town closes at day's end -- so stay for dinner. The Anvil features 50-cent drafts from Tuesday to Friday and a nice dinner menu. It's walking distance from most of the lodging in the upper town (1270 Washington St., 304-535-2582; reservations advised on weekends).
After dinner: You'll likely be too exhausted to care that there's not much night life in Harpers Ferry. But that's part of its charm. You can walk off your dinner by strolling through the town, watching the moon shimmer on the Shenandoah, and -- in the absence of cars and baby strollers -- relive centuries past. Do the Ghost Tour. Or just shoot the breeze in a porch rocker at your B&B.; Retire early for another adventurous day in this sapphire of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
WHEN YOU GO
Getting there: A picturesque hour's drive from Baltimore, Harpers Ferry, W.Va., is reached via Interstate 70 west and then U.S. Route 340 south toward Charles Town.
Parking: The Harpers Ferry National Historical Park provides free parking for shuttle-bus service into town (8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily).
Entrance fee: $5 per car covers all park activities and is good for three days.
Bed & Breakfast: Reasonably priced choices abound (inquire about weekday rates and multi-night discounts). Rates below are for two people unless otherwise noted.
We stayed at Angler's Inn, a pleasant Victorian B&B; run by affable innkeepers Debbie and Bryan Kelly. Mr. Kelly doubles as a fishing guide; Ms. Kelly is a cook who started our breakfast with homemade apple cobbler (304-535-1239; $85; www.theanglersinn.com).
Between the Rivers, Victorian- with art-deco-style cottage, 304-535-2768 ($85-$95, closed until fall); Briscoe House, Victorian, one room with Jacuzzi, 304-535-2416 ($75-$90); Harpers Ferry Guest House, federal-style with air conditioning, 304-535-6955 ($60-$80); Ranson-Armory House, 1830s era, 304-535-2142 ($65-$80); Sweet Dreams & Toast, two private apartments in the lower town, 304-535-2462 ($85/two, $145/four); the Last Resort, apartment with private entrance and fully stocked kitchen, 304-535-2812, ($75-$85).
Hotels: Cliffside Inn and Conference Center, 100 rooms, 12 conference rooms, pools, tennis courts, 800-782-9437 ($60-$76); Comfort Inn, 304-535-6391 or 800-228-5150 for reservations ($59/one $66/two); Historic Hilltop House & Conference Center, featuring murder-mystery weekends and a terrific view of the rivers, 800-338-8319 ($65-$150).
Camping: KOA Kampground, cabins for 4-8, showers, restrooms, pool, bike rentals, free activities, 800-KOA-9497 ($42/four-person cabin, $76/deluxe cabin).
Tip: Pedestrians should watch for traffic on the narrow town streets.
Flea markets: "Yesterday's Treasures" Antique Mall and Indoor Flea Market (Halltown exit off U.S. Route 340, open year-round), 304-725-7725; Harpers Ferry Flea Market (U.S. Route 340 at Bloomery Road, open weekends March-December), 304-725-4141.
Guided river trips: Appalachian Whitewater Express, 888-434-9911; Blue Ridge Ducks, 304-725-3444; Blue Ridge Outfitters, 304-725-3444; River Riders, 800-326-7238 or 304-535-2663 (www.riverriders.com/raft); River & Trail Outfitters, 301-695-5177 (www.rivertrail.com). Several also offer separate bike trips, which can be combined with river trips.
Guided fishing services: The Angler's Inn, 304-535-1239.
Appalachian Trail: Conference headquarters at 799 Washington St. in Harpers Ferry, 304-535-6331 (open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m.).
Horseback riding: Elk Mountain Trails, Knoxville, Md. (weekends only), 301-834-8882.
* Music: Air Force Airmen of Note July 11, Navy Band & Sea Chanters Aug. 8, Quantico Marine Band Sept. 12 (all at Cavalier Heights Visitor Center at 6 p.m.).
* Festivals: Mountain Heritage Arts & Crafts Festival Sept. 25-27, between state routes 230 and 17 (Halltown exit off U.S. 340), 800-624-0577.
* Living history: The Park Service offers periodic events throughout the year. For details, call 304-535-6298.
* Tours: "Ghost Tours of Harpers Ferry," in which a lantern-swinging guide sets your hair on end, occurs weekend nights May through Nov. 8 ($2 per person; 304-725-8019).
* Re-enactment: On Oct. 10 at noon will be a Park Service portrayal of the 1860 Presidential election; political rallies, debates and speeches will relive that crucial contest in which a divided Democratic Party ensured Lincoln's win.
* Holidays: Both Park and town celebrate the Yuletide season: "Old Thyme Christmas," a Harpers Ferry December happening for more than 25 years, offers period music, shopkeepers in 19th-century garb, choral recitals, tree trimming, candle-lighting, musical programs and children's events (Dec. 5-6 and Dec. 12-13 this year). The park offering is "Keeping Christmas 1860," a living-history portrayal of a mid-19th century Christmas (Dec. 5-6).
History: Civil War Roundtable at Camp Hill Wesley Church on the second Wednesday of each month; Historic Court House walking/driving tours of Charles Town with costumed guides weekend afternoons through November, 304-728-7713 or 304-535-2627.
Reference book: "A Walker's Guide to Harpers Ferry," a great guide to the area, is available for $7.95 at the National Park Bookshop.
Nearby: The Kennedy Farm, where John Brown and his band planned their raid. Turn off U.S. Route 340 at the sign for the farm, winding around until you are on the Maryland side of the Potomac. Turn north onto Harpers Ferry Road and follow the signs that appear just as you're convinced you're lost. The house, a National Historic Landmark largely as it was in 1859 when Brown plotted inside its log walls, is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through October. Interpretive recordings are on the second floor, and a plaque sunk into a rock in the yard tells the fate of Brown's men (free; 301-432-2666 or 301-515-4890 for details, including guided tours).
* West Virginia: Charles Town, Shepherdstown, and Martinsburg.
* Maryland: Gathland and Washington Monument State Parks (for battle of South Mountain), Antietam National Battlefield and Sharpsburg.
* Virginia: Winchester and Cedar Creek Battlefield in the Shenandoah Valley.
Information: The Jefferson County Visitor & Convention Bureau, at Washington Street and U.S. Route 340 in Bolivar, has a plethora of pamphlets and information on lodging, events, activities, and sites to see (800-848-TOUR). Just across Route 340, the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park has information and brochures (304-535-6298). The Park Service town information center on Shenandoah Street has information of a historic nature (304-535-6029).
Online: Use the Web for information on park resources and activities -- www.nps.gov/hafe/hf_visit.htm
Pub Date: 7/05/98