Harpers Ferry has been on my wish list of places to visit since I was a kid in school. Although it lies at the junction of Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia its not really easy to get to, so I was glad that our campsite was relatively close. It was overcast when we set out, but I was excited to be able to do some exploring. I took a vacation day, so we went on a Friday and even though we got there very early it was surprisingly crowded. It was also somewhat confusing because the Visitors Center and shuttle buses are pretty far from the town itself. It costs $20 to enter for the day or is free with the America the Beautiful pass so we paid the $80 to renew our annual membership. We always get our money’s worth!
The visitors center was closed but the shuttle buses were running, and if you parked in the lot you could take them down. Unfortunately we took Jack with us because I read how dog friendly it was, but they aren’t allowed on the shuttle buses. We could have parked at the top and walked the mile and a half down to the town but instead we decided to take the rangers advice and see if there were any spots in the train lot. His directions and the map was pretty confusing but ultimately we found it using GPS and got a killer parking spot on the corner.
Learning about the railroad started what turned into an interesting day. When I think of Harpers Ferry I think about John Brown (more on that later), but it was also an important historical site in the civil war, part of the Appalachian Trail, and Lewis and Clark tested boats here. They did a nice job of dealing with the various historical contexts as we wandered the various sites although it definitely adjusted my thinking about why Harpers Ferry is significant.
The main historical sites were actually the old armory. Guns were made in Harpers Ferry and it changed hands eight times during the civil war. Most of those buildings were burned down but they did a nice job of showing where they existed.
(It cannot be stressed enough what a big deal this was. The Federal armories at Harpers Ferry were among the very first machine operated industries in the United States. The use of time and labor saving machines to make locks, stocks, and barrels was a game changer. Prior to this it took a gun specialist to repair any gun, because EVERY part was made by hand and parts were not interchangeable because every part on every gun was unique to THAT gun. After the advent of machines, parts were interchangeable and ANY gun could be repaired by almost anyone. In addition, the rifling machine also significantly improved the guns. A spiral groove was carved into the interior of the barrel, giving the musket ball a spin, allowing it travel much more accurately over much greater distance. – Lee)
The story of John Brown is a complicated one. He was an abolitionist who raided Harpers Ferry in 1859 with the intention of arming enslaved people. The raid failed with most men killed or captured by the US marines and Brown was tried and executed. During that time period he was considered a domestic terrorist by many and a hero by some. Now of course he is on the right side of history and although we may not approve of his methods few could take issue with his motives. He certainly earned his place in history as this even was one of the most pivotal that sparked the Civil War.
One positive thing that did happen was Storer College was founded in the town. It had the goal of educating all people regardless of sex or color and there was a wonderful exhibit inside. Frederick Douglas was one of its trustees and the college helped many people leave a life of poverty.
After touring the museum we walked over to see the water and discovered a piece of the Appalachian Trail. The bridge was really cool and allowed closer views of the train tunnel and we really enjoyed walking on that piece of history. Now we can say we walked the Appalachian Trail we just don’t have to say how much of it 🙂
After we walked on the trail we went over to the historic part of town. These buildings have been turned into mini-museums and you could peek in and see how things used to look. The shuttle stop was also over in that area and they had a tent for the park service to hand out information.
Lee is always looking for the thing around the corner and saw some more stairs. I was a bit winded from the last set, but off we went and I was glad we did. First we saw the ruins of another church. It was used as a hospital and command center and the Civil War cannon fire destroyed it. The Catholic Church was spared this fate by flying the Union Jack flag…their way of staying neutral.
The views from the top were gorgeous but there was more to see. Up more stairs and around the corner was Jefferson Rock. Thomas Jefferson toured the town and stated this view was one of the most beautiful he had ever seen. I agree, although my pictures do not do the view justice.
After we visited the rock we ate at the Rabbit Hole on their patio on the way down. It was OK, but my favorite thing was the old fashioned candy store. They had candy from all different ages and we treated ourselves to a few items including potato candy which neither of us had ever had.
I will say the potato candy was so sweet that we tried one piece and then threw the rest away. Glad I tried it though.
All in all it was a great day. I would definitely recommend coming during the week if you can, and also bringing bug spray. The gnats were pretty aggressive near the water and I heard its worse in the spring. Next up Washington D.C. and another new experience for us.
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