Rivers and humans carved Harpers Ferry’s story
Few people walk the foot-bridge across the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry, WV, without stopping midway, entranced by the view.
Even historian Dennis Frye, who has spent more than 30 years working at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, is no exception. It’s one of his favorite views.
Here, looking downstream, the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers collide in rocky swirls, with steep, forested slopes on either side. To the east, the face of Maryland Heights looms over the bridge as a wall of gray rock. At its base is the arched black mouth of a railway tunnel, built through the mountain in the 1890s. To the west, a cluster of historic buildings — the oldest preserved portion of the town — is perched on the hillside.
But when Frye takes in the view, he finds great meaning in what most people miss: the inverted triangle of space, where the mountains give way to the river. It’s called the water gap.
“That gap through the Blue Ridge is the key to much of Harpers Ferry’s renown,” Frye said.
Water forged the gap ages ago and from it, Frye said, everything followed.
The passage it created through difficult terrain drew American Indians as early as 10,000 years ago and later made Harpers Ferry the site of a canal, railroad, national armory and Civil War conflicts.
“It was an avenue of least resistance through the mountains, and it’s been attracting humankind for thousands of years,” Frye said.
The name of Harpers Ferry reflects its importance as a site of passage. Robert Harper, a Quaker from Pennsylvania, was sent to erect a mission house in the Shenandoah Valley and recognized the value of the site for water power and transportation. He established a mill and began operating a ferry across the Potomac in 1747 at “the point” of land where the rivers meet. The house Harper completed in 1782 is now the oldest surviving building in the lower town.
The gap drove the town’s growth for the next century. Because the rivers are rocky and relatively shallow, they weren’t suitable for major commerce, but the current, amplified by the gap, drove water-powered industry.
“The gap is like a funnel,” Frye said. “The rivers unite and rush through.”
Shortly after the American Revolution, President George Washington selected Harpers Ferry for the location of a national armory. “Here, he determined, we would manufacture homegrown weapons to defend America,” Frye said. “And Harpers Ferry was catapulted onto the national stage.”
Driven by jobs at the armory and its strategic location for westward passage, Harpers Ferry boomed. Around 40 private businesses sprang up on the Shenandoah shore, on Virginius Island, but the federal government owned most of the land at the point and built a large complex for the armory.
German and Scot-Irish immigrants flocked to Harpers Ferry and points beyond, especially the Shenandoah Valley, with the gap serving one of the busiest wagon routes west from Philadelphia. By 1860, about 300 people of African descent also lived in Harpers Ferry, half of them free and half enslaved.
“You would have heard all kinds of different languages and accents here,” Frye said.
In the 1830s and ’40s, the B&O Railroad and the C&O Canal raced for a westward passage and the best route through the Blue Ridge was the Potomac gap. “That made Harpers Ferry a target, a literal bull’s-eye, for them both,” Frye said.
The work drew a wave of Irish laborers, who established one of the area’s earliest Catholic churches.
The turmoil of industry and migration then gave way to the turmoil of war. In 1859, a radical anti-slavery activist named John Brown led a raid on the federal armory that became the most famous event in Harpers Ferry history.
Brown and 21 men, both white and black, attempted to seize weapons from the armory’s warehouse. They were quickly trapped inside a small brick engine house. Ten of Brown’s men were killed. Brown and several others were captured, and Brown was executed.
The raid drew public attention and controversy, and stoked the tension between North and South. “Many maintain that the first real spark to ignite the war was lit by Brown and after that, war was inevitable,” Frye said.
The town suffered greatly during the Civil War. The blessings the water gap bestowed of location, industry and access to the Shenandoah Valley became a curse.
Harpers Ferry was located in Virginia until West Virginia was formed in 1863. In 1861, when Virginia succeeded from the United States, the arsenal was a Union weapons complex in a Confederate state and an immediate concern for both North and South. Retreating Union soldiers largely destroyed the armory within 24 hours of Virginia’s succession, and Confederates soon destroyed the rest.
As a gateway to the Shenandoah Valley, Harpers Ferry was contested territory throughout the war. It changed hands many times. The railroad bridge was repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt. Most civilians evacuated, reducing the residential population from about 3,000 to 100 people. Soldiers (and horses) occupied their abandoned buildings.
After the war, Harpers Ferry was nearly a ghost town, scarred with destroyed and damaged buildings. Relief was not to come.
Upstream, thousands of soldiers had moved through the landscape, trampling the ground and felling countless trees. Robbed of a natural buffer, stormwater and snowmelt surged toward the rivers — and Harpers Ferry.
“Harpers Ferry saw fast, ferocious floods for nearly 80 years after the war,” Frye said. “What the war didn’t destroy, the floods did.”
As a result, Harpers Ferry never recovered its pre-war population or industry. However, it did retain a large number of historic buildings grouped along two streets and on the hill above the flood line. Many resisted the floods because they were built from the hefty gray phyllite — known locally as Harpers Ferry shale — that surrounds the town and contributes to its dramatic character.
Preservationists and history enthusiasts drove the formation of a national park here in the 1940s. The combination of history, scenery and outdoor fun has made both the town and park a beloved destination for visitors from across the nation.
The park consists of riverside land and historic buildings in the lower town, as well as nearly 4,000 acres of woodlands and 20 miles of trails. Three long trails pass through town, too: the Appalachian Trail (the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s headquarters and visitors center are here); the towpath of the C&O Canal, managed by the National Park Service; and the Potomac Heritage Trail, a developing trail from western Pennsylvania to the Chesapeake Bay.
The rivers themselves are another draw, and many people opt to ride the river by raft, kayak or tube. Despite the rocks, the trip is not treacherous. “It’s considered family fun for the majority of the year,” said Nora Slick, who calls herself the “fun engineer” for River and Trail Outfitters.
There are lots of options for water tours, some with special themes including food and drink, and others that highlight history, the ecosystem or fall foliage. Bald eagles and great blue heron are common.
Slick said people often arrive in Harpers Ferry without thinking about river recreation. When they see folks floating past the town on tubes and rafts, “they ask, ‘how do I do that?’ Which is great. Because once they get on the river, they love it. And when they love it, they take care of it.”
One of Harpers Ferry’s many charms is the unspoiled atmosphere of the 1800s. In reality, many of its buildings are gone, the open space by the shoreline was once a noisy, active place, and war damage was an integral part of the scenery. But the contemporary experience, without intrusions from modern buildings or chain stores, is captivating.
Touring Harpers Ferry is not a straightforward walk through a museum. You can — and should —climb stone steps, poke into corners and open the door to Park Service buildings in any order you choose. In some, you’ll find exhibits with artifacts and videos. In others, costumed interpreters welcome you to stores and workshops. There’s an excellent bookstore focused on regional history and natural resources. Paths from the edge of town connect with dramatic trails and overlooks.
Many people come for the day and swing through the most popular highlights in and around the lower town, including the actual engine house where John Brown and his raiders took shelter. Soaking in the atmosphere and riverside views is rewarding by itself.
But to discover the breadth of stories and landscapes that Harpers Ferry has to offer, plan to stay at least a full weekend or consider repeat visits with different themes. If you have never been to Harpers Ferry, it’s worth the trip. And if you’ve come before, it’s worth coming again.
Visitor Tips for Harpers Ferry
- Make your first stop at the National Park Service visitor center. It’s easy to find and just outside of Harpers Ferry, so you can avoid the slow-moving cars and tourists on the narrow old streets of the town itself. The staff is knowledgeable, friendly and can suggest options that make sense for your interests and timeframe. There’s plenty of parking and a quick, convenient shuttle bus to the lower town and Civil War battlefield in Bolivar. It costs $10 per vehicle and the receipt is good for up to 3 days of admission and parking.
- Wear good walking shoes and bring your camera. After parking, the town and its trails are all accessed on foot. There’s a lot to explore, including gorgeous overlooks that are not obvious from within the town itself. Ask the National Park Service about Jefferson Rock, the Murphy Farm, Maryland Heights and more. You might want to call ahead and ask how much time to allow for the walks that interest you.
- Parking in town is sparse and competitive. You can use the Park Service receipt to park at one of two lots. The lot on Shenandoah Street is about a 10-minute walk to town. You’ll pass an old canal bed, the remains of a large paper mill, Virginius Island and hulking rocks that were quarried for the town’s roads, steps and buildings. It’s pretty, but you might want to conserve your steps for the walking that lies ahead, especially if you are traveling with children or people with mobility issues. If you arrive early, you might find parking by the train station in the heart of the tourist area. Remember to display a Park Service receipt on your dashboard.
- Shops and a variety of restaurants are located in historic buildings on the same streets as those occupied by Park Service exhibits. Other good choices are located in Bolivar, a longer walk or very short drive above town. Several bed and breakfasts are located in Bolivar and Harpers Ferry, as well as a few hostels. The Econo Lodge is the closest hotel. More options are found in nearby Charles Town and Shepherdstown.
- Outfitters can get you on the river, with or without guides, for rafting, paddling and fishing. Contact the Harpers Ferry Adventure Center, 540-668-9007 or harpersferryadventurecenter.com; River Riders, 800-326-7238 or riverriders.com; The Outfitter at Harpers Ferry, 304-535-2087 or theoutfitteratharpersferry.com; White Fly Outfitters, 304-876-8030 or whiteflyoutfitters.com; The Anglers Inn, 304-535-1239 or theanglersinn.com; and River and Trail Outfitters, 301-834-9950 or rivertrail.com.
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