There are a few spots on Planet Earth where I have left thinking I had just experienced a superior place. A place that is visually stunning, awe-inspiring, and tranquilizing, yet full of special historical and cultural significance that engages the mind as well as the senses. One such place is Hawaii. Another is Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
Most people know Harpers Ferry because of John Brown’s notorious raid on the Federal Arsenal in 1859. A self-styled Old Testament prophet and avenger, Brown conceived his daring plan as a way to seize massive quantities of weapons and spark a slave uprising that would end the barbaric institution of slavery forever. I am fascinated by Brown, and you can view an excellent movie and exhibits on John Brown and his raid and visit the old fire engine house (known as John Brown’s Fort) where he held out against the siege of U.S. Army troops after the raid’s failure.
Harpers Ferry got its name from a ferry run by one Robert Harper, who began in the 1760s to serve travelers wanting to cross the Potomac to settle in the Shenandoah Valley. Situated at the confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah Rivers, the spot was a natural for commerce in the age of river travel and for industry in the age of water mills. In 1783, Thomas Jefferson visited the town and climbed to an observation point now known as Jefferson’s Rock. The rave review he gave in his book Notes on the State of Virginia would put Harpers Ferry on the map:
The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature. You stand on a very high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain a hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder and pass off to the sea. …
But the distant finishing which nature has given the picture is of a very different character. It is a true contrast to the former. It is as placid and delightful as that is wild and tremendous. For the mountains being cloven asunder, she presents to your eye, through the cleft, a small catch of smooth blue horizon, at an infinite distance in that plain country, inviting you, as it were, from the riot and tumult roaring around to pass through the breach and participate in the calm below. Here the eye ultimately composes itself; and that way, too, the road happens actually to lead. You cross the Patowmac above the junction, pass along its side through the base of the mountain for three miles, the terrible precipice hanging in fragments over you, and within about 20 miles reach Frederictown and the fine country around that. This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.
Talk about a five-star review on Tripadvisor! You reach Jefferson Rock by climbing a steep set of hand-carved stone steps that are themselves a historic landmark dating back to the early 19th century. Along the way, a worthwhile stop is St. Peter’s Catholic Church, constructed in the 1830s.
The entire town of Harpers Ferry is carved out of a steep hillside and has winding streets that must give natives the calves and thighs one associates with San Francisco pedestrians. You can find a good exhibit on Meriwether Lewis’s time in the town in the old armory building. George Washington had designated Harpers Ferry as a federal armory in 1794, and mass production of military weapons had begun shortly thereafter. Lewis arrived in March 1803 and began working with superintendent Joseph Perkins on the guns, powder horns, bullet molds, tomahawks, knives, and other weapons the Expedition would need to make it across the continent, as well as his personally designed iron boat, a project he called “my favorite boat.”
Other historic buildings house special exhibits on the Civil War, the role of the rivers in manufacturing, and the fascinating history of Storer College. Founded in 1865 to educate newly freed slaves, Storer operated primarily as a teacher’s college, a vital service that is easy to underappreciate today. Though the education offered at Storer was basic by today’s standards, it was a lifeline for the African-American community of the whole region, who desperately needed teachers to provide children and adults with the basic tools to survive.
I was shocked to learn of the opposition to Storer from the white community in Harpers Ferry. Harassment and vandalism were commonplace. It is difficult to imagine the kind of racism that would compel someone to try to turn young people away from a chance to better themselves. In 1906, Storer hosted an historic conference of the Niagara Movement, a group started by educator W.E.B. Dubois to push for full civil rights for African-Americans. The group met with strong opposition even among some blacks, but eventually helped give rise to the NAACP. Spitefully, the state of West Virginia withdrew all support from Storer after being forced to integrate state colleges in the wake of the landmark Brown decision, and the college closed its doors in 1955.
There isn’t much in the way of dining in Harpers Ferry, but we got a great lunch at the Cannonball Deli. Many of the historic buildings host adorable shops, so the non-history buff in your family will have plenty to see and enjoy while you are trekking up hill and dale taking in all of the wonderful historic character of this beautiful spot.
We wanted to get a little more up-close and personal with the river, so while staying in Harpers Ferry we also went on an amazing raft ride on the Shenandoah River. It was beautiful, and we had the chance to see old ruins of mills that once used the river’s power to ply their trade, as well as ruins of a bridge destroyed by the Confederates. The river was alive with damsel flies (similar to dragonflies) and we spotted lots of herons and Canada geese.
River and Trail Outfitters did a great job, and our guide, a big crazy guy reminiscent of Seth Rogen, couldn’t have been nicer. We even got to swim in the river. I will say that because of water levels the paddling seemed harder and more strenuous than I expected for a beginner-level ride. Our raft was hung up on rocks several times and I got a little scared in the strong current. Something to keep in mind if you want to go.
On our way out of Harpers Ferry we stopped and toured the small but interesting Civil War site known as Bolivar Heights. This peaceful spot was once the scene of horror and despair for over 12,000 Union troops trapped here by Stonewall Jackson’s forces in 1862. The debacle was compounded by the fact that many of the troops died of disease in Confederate prisons. The loss for the Union was not considered fully avenged until Gettysburg a year later.
I highly recommend Harpers Ferry to the Lewis & Clark buff or anyone who enjoys beauty and history. It is truly one of the most special places I have visited. And one last plug: we adored the Jackson Rose Inn, a beautiful and peaceful bed and breakfast on a quiet street. Stonewall Jackson used this house as his headquarters during the battle and apparently we stayed in his room. I hope he found a little peace here too.
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