Sunday, September 19, 2021
My only other visit to Harpers Ferry was eight years ago, with my father and brother. That particular trip was the impetus to start this blog, and I have truly enjoyed the experience of writing about my experiences.
This part of the country is full of history, and any traveler to the area should add a few days to explore sites related to the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the French and Indian War as well as the Civil War. That’s a lot of warfare is less than 100 years.
West Virginia is our 50th state! Prior to 1863, it was part of the state of Virginia, and commonly called Trans-Allegheny Virginia. When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, many of the delegates in the northwestern corner of the state were opposed to secession. Representatives from that area advocated for separate statehood. An election was held on October 24, 1861, with overwhelming support for the formation of a new state and constitution. A new state government was formed the following year, and the state petitioned for admission to the United States. President Lincoln stipulated that admission be predicated on the gradual abolition of slavery, and West Virginia was admitted as a state on June 20, 1863. That status was confirmed by the Supreme Court in two different cases.
The town of Harpers Ferry sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. At the easternmost point, you can view three states, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.
You can follow the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath on the Maryland side of the Potomac. Canal Lock 33 was on the Maryland side of the Potomac, less than a mile from Harpers Ferry. The 184.5 mile canal operated between Washington, DC and Cumberland, MD, handling freight that the often shallow Potomac could not. Built in stages between 1828 and 1850, it operated almost 100 years before being shut down in 1924.
Hikers can connect to either of the Appalachian and the Potomac Heritage Trails here in Harpers Ferry. The headquarters for the Appalachian Trail is located in Harpers Ferry, and the Potomac Heritage follows the C & O Canal Towpath.
Harpers Ferry was home to a US Armory and Arsenal, and Meriwether Lewis came here in March, 1803 to procure guns and hardware for his and William Clark’s upcoming exploration of the newly acquired land covered by the Louisiana Purchase. While waiting for the materials, he oversaw the construction of a collapsible iron boat frame that he designed. The frame, which could come apart in sections, was covered in hide, and sealed with pine tar. It was designed to be light (176 pounds) but sturdy enough to carry a load of up to 4 tons. We saw a model of this boat when we were in Great Falls, Montana. The boat was abandoned near there because there were no pine trees in the area, and substitutes for pine tar proved to be leaky.
Harpers Ferry is best known for John Brown’s Raid. Brown and his sons fought for abolition, often violently, throughout the Kansas Territory. They rented a farmouse near Harpers Ferry in 1859 to launch a war against slavery. His plan was to assist slaves in their escape from the South, via the Appalachian mountains. He hoped that a mass migration would so damage the slave economy that it would fall apart. The first, and ultimately fatal step for Brown, was to capture Harpers Ferry. Things did not go according to plan, the local Jefferson Guards were notified, and were able to seal any escape routes. Brown was captured, most of his men and both of his sons were shot. Brown, himself, was tried for murder, treason and inciting slave rebellion. Found guilty, he was hanged six weeks later.
If you decide to visit, plan on parking at the Visitor Center located outside of town, and taking the shuttle to the site. There just aren’t enough parking spaces to accommodate all of the tourists. Take some time to enjoy the lovely neighborhoods as well as the boutiques downtown. We enjoyed a stop at “True Treats,” a shop that specializes in historic candies, made with recipes dating from the 1500s into the late 1900s. We managed to control ourselves and only buy a few items, including molasses hard candies popular in the 1800s – yummy!
It’s a charming town. I was delighted to come across a ”Blessing Box” outside of an Episcopal Church, shaped like a Little Free Library. However, instead of books, it had snacks, waters, even dog treats for those who pass by.