For a small town, Harpers Ferry has a long history with an important place today. It would take you more than a day to appreciate all there is at Harpers Ferry. And that doesn’t include the 20 miles of trail.
Today, the town is known for John Brown’s Raid in 1859. This is where John Brown aided by a few slaves, tried to seize rifles and ammunition stored in the armory. His plans were to create an insurrection and end slavery. It didn’t end well for him and he was hung. But he will be forever remembered by this song:
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave
His soul’s marching on!
It may sound like I’m dismissing him too quickly but there’s so much more to Harpers Ferry. First, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. I parked at the visitor center and chatted with the ranger and volunteer at the desk. The park started out as a monument in 1944 to protect the buildings and the history and became a historical park in 1963. About 500,000 visitors come here each year.
Most visitors take a shuttle bus to Lower Town, the heart of the historical park but I walked the 1.6- mile trail. Harpers Ferry is wedged in between the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. George Washington understood its protected position and established a federal armory there.
In 1803, Meriwether Lewis came here before his expedition out west with Clark to get his rifles, knives and other supplies from the armory. John Brown’s raid helped to bring about the Civil War and there’s a museum devoted to his every move.
The war itself devastated the town. Both sides captured the town and residents had to deal with constant change of occupiers.
The town’s history didn’t end with the Civil War. A film in one of the buildings explains that it became a tourist town complete with an amusement park. But the depression and several bad floods almost wiped out the town and the residents appealed to the Federal Government. When things are bad, everyone wants the government to help. And they did.
Now, we have the historical park, offices of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the National Park printing office. The latter may not be exactly the correct name. The pamphlets that are given out in every national park are designed and printed in Harpers Ferry. The Harpers Ferry Historical Association manages the bookstore.
And if you need more stuff to do, there’s always Antietam Battlefield, where I’m going tomorrow.