HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — “The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature,” Thomas Jefferson wrote of the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers in 1783.
“This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”
Many appear to have heeded his recommendation. On a recent weekend, you could hear Hindi, Chinese, French, Spanish, German and Arabic spoken by visitors in and around Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.
They came to learn about the town’s history, hike the trails, observe the views (especially in the fall), bike the C&O Canal Towpath and kayak or raft down the rivers. There is plenty to do and see in this 19th century village at the borders of West Virginia, Maryland the Virginia.
A young couple staying at the Light Horse Inn drove eight hours from Ann Arbor, Mich., just to explore the local historical sites over a weekend. Conveniently, they started at the inn, which at one time was owned by Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, the father of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. A major in the Revolutionary War, Henry Lee earned the nickname due to his horsemanship.
Originally part of the state of Virginia, Harpers Ferry played pivotal roles in American history during the 1700s and 1800s. President George Washington chose it as the site for one of two U.S. armories in part because it’s at the confluence of two rivers. By 1810, Harpers Ferry was producing 10,000 muskets, rifles and pistols a year. The town’s population climbed to 3,000 by the mid-1800s.
In 1859, the armory became the target of an ill-fated raid by Kansas abolitionist John Brown. With 21 men, he stormed the city in hopes of freeing slaves at local farms. Although the group took the armory with little resistance, troops under the command of then-Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee quickly captured Brown and the others. He was sentenced for treason and hanged.
The incident spread anger among Southerners who feared slave insurrection, increasing the tension between the North and South. Many historians believe it hastened the beginning of the Civil War.
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Harpers Ferry changed hands eight times during the war and many of the town’s churches and larger homes served as hospitals for injured troops. There was so much destruction that by war’s end, the only armory building standing was John Brown’s Fort, the fire engine and guard house where the abolitionist and his men barricaded themselves before capture.
“No spot in the United States experienced more of the horrors of war,” said local historian Joseph Barry.
Today, the town’s population is less than 300. Bolivar, a mostly bedroom community next door, has 1,100 people. Tourism is clearly the economic engine.
A large portion of Harpers Ferry’s Lower Town is a national historical park with museums on John Brown, Black Voices, Meriwether Lewis and the Civil War. There are also ranger-guided tours, a self-guided battlefield driving tour, a blacksmith shop, a dry goods store staffed with re-enactors and a bookstore. The presentations are well done and depending upon your level of interest could take a day or more to fully explore.
Building on this intrigue, of course, is the Ghost Tours of Harpers Ferry. The almost two-hour tours ($14 per person; $10 for kids ages 8-12) begin nightly at 8 in the piazza of St. Peter’s Catholic Church. “Living historian” Rick Garland guides groups through 14 blocks of Lower Town. Though unable to coax out ghosts for visitors, he proved to be a skilled storyteller.
Several proprietors, however, regaled guests with stories about their own resident ghosts. Chef Kevin Plunkett and fellow workers at Bisou Bistro, a New Orleans-style Cajun and Creole restaurant in Bolivar, avoid the basement of the 1790s stone building on Washington Street. It served as a military hospital and the dead were often left in the cool cellar awaiting burial. The town changed hands so often that Union or Confederate troops would simply cover the bodies with dirt in the basement and prepare for the next wave of dead soldiers.
Lower Town contains many boutiques, restaurants, ice cream and candy shops and the John Brown Wax Museum. We came also for the outdoor recreation and spent Sunday riding 12 miles west on the C&O Canal Towpath to the charming town of Shepherdstown, W.Va.