It was always on our itinerary for Road Trip 2020 — Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, that is. But when the owner of Frederick House in Staunton, VA called it a must-see, we quickly plotted a scenic route (Hwy. 11 to Winchester, VA, then VA 7 and US 15) to Harpers Ferry, a town that sits where WV, VA, and MD come together. It’s a town known for historical significance (the raid by John Brown and his followers that led to the abolition of slavery), but also a place of beauty, where historic structures and the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers add to the scenery of the area.
With closures of buildings and services managed National Park Service during this time of Covid-19 (Visitor Center, museum, train station, rest rooms, etc.), we wondered if there would be much to see in Harpers Ferry. But what we wanted to experience was there — open, well-marked and well-documented by the park service — making our stroll through the town a walk through the past.
For a while, we looked longingly at the architecture, building materials, and old paint of the buildings, easily seen on a short walk from the parking lot at the back of the town, near the train station — buildings like White Hall Tavern, the General Store, and Meriwether Lewis at Harpers Ferry. Some were open for touring, and we enjoyed the information posted inside.
But then we turned our attention to the historical significance and remnants related to John Brown. On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown, a staunch abolitionist, and his supporters descended upon the town, capturing citizens and seizing the federal armory and arsenal. But contrary to their plans, Brown and friends were captured and held by the local militia in the arsenal’s engine house (that still remains). On the afternoon of October 17, Colonel Robert E. Lee and U. S. Marines stormed the engine house, killing many of the raiders (one was John Brown’s son) and capturing Brown. A speedy trial found Brown guilty of treason, murder and slave rebellion, and he was hanged for his crimes on December 2, 1859. But his death began a series of events that ultimately led to the abolition of slavery in the United States.
The intent and not the deed is in our power; and, therefore, who dares greatly Does greatly.John Brown
Aside from the historic homes and the tributes to John Brown, we also took in the vista provided by the flowing waters of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers as they came together at Harpers Ferry. So did many others. Visitors walked the bridge, sometimes posing for pictures. Others floated under the bridge on colorful neon tubes, enjoying fallish weather, high bluffs, and the convergence of two mighty rivers.
It’s easy to like the Appalachian Trail Bridge (recently re-opened) not just for its lead-in to the tunnel, but also for the interesting photo possibilities and locks on the fences expressing love, friendship, and proof that “we were there.”
Harpers Ferry, you see, can be enjoyed on many levels. History buffs can tour the museum (when open), read markers and think through John Brown’s rebellion that eventually led to freedom for the enslaved. And those who love architecture and the details of the construction of old houses and churches will feel that they’ve truly found their place.
Others (well, maybe all of us) enjoy dining on patios covered with colorful umbrellas while gazing up at history on the hillside.
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is now in West Virginia, but it stands where three states converge: Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia, easily accessible from the scenic route we described above or, more directly, on I-81.
Harper’s Ferry — a stop on the Appalachian Trail, a place to remember John Brown, a haven for lovers of historic architecture. Or just a great place for strolling and watching the train go by.
Whatever the reason, you really must go see it for yourself.
Rusha & Bert
Reminder: Please check for closures due to Covid-19 at the website of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.
History.com, “John Brown.” November 27, 2019
Harpers Ferry Railroad Bridge by TrailLink