Harpers Ferry

We know little of the Native history of our region until the time immediately prior to the arrival of European settlers, when the Shenandoah Valley was supposedly a sort of “no-man’s land” between the Iroquoian nations to the north, and the Algonquian peoples to the south.  This may explain why the area appears to have been so “empty” when Robert Harper established his ferry here in the late 1700’s, providing yet another supply line connecting the growing Valley economy with the Eastern seaboard ports like Alexandria and Philadelphia – and through them, the world beyond.  Since then, our mountains and rivers have been a scenic backdrop for key events in American history:

Manufacturing history – Established by President George Washington, the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry (along with its sister installation in Springfield, Massachusetts), began providing arms to the U.S. Army in TK.  When Meriwether Lewis passed through here on his way to meet William Clark, he carried a letter signed by President Thomas Jefferson requisitioning arms for what became the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In addition to the government-operated facility, John Hall’s Rifle Works, a privately-owned factory, made arms for the United States.  Hall pioneered the “assembly line” system of manufacturing – making firearms with interchangeable parts – which eventually became standard at the U.S. Armory across town, and factories worldwide.  (Visit the Industry Museum at the Harpers Ferry National Historic Site).

The Fight Against Slavery – Abolitionist John Brown’s famous raid targeted the Armory, with whose rifled muskets he planned to arm a revolutionary army to liberate the enslaved and overthrow a United States government he regarded as irremediably pro-slavery.  After encountering opposition from local militias, who trapped him in a fire-engine house on the Armory grounds, a unit of the U.S. Marines arrived from Washington under the command of none other than then-Colonel Robert E. Lee (U.S.) (and his adjutant, one Jeb Stuart).  Brown’s subsequent trial and execution in nearby Charles Town both electrified and divided the nation – setting us on the path to Civil War – and forces us all to confront the question of whether (and of so, when) violence is morally acceptable as a means of political and social change.  (Visit the John Brown Museum at the Harpers Ferry NHS, as well as the John Brown Wax Museum just up High Street in Harpers Ferry, and the Jefferson County Historical Museum in Charles Town).

The Civil War – When Virginia seceded from the Union, Harpers Ferry was occupied by Virginia State militia troops under the command of Colonel Thomas (later “Stonewall”) Jackson.  When Virginia joined the Confederacy, the Confederate Army under General Joseph Johnston took over (Jackson stayed on and trained what became known as the “Stonewall” Brigade on Bolivar Heights just west of town).  Eventually, Johnston decided (not unwisely, as things turned out) that the town was indefensible, and withdrew the Confederates to a point further south, after which Harpers Ferry became an important Union Army base for most of the war.  During the war several battles were fought in and around our town, most notably in September 1862, when Jackson captured his old post for the Confederacy as part of the Antietam Campaign. 

In addition to the actions at Harpers Ferry itself, Harpers Ferry is also an hour or less from major battlefields such as Antietam, South Mountain, Gettysburg, Winchester, and Monocacy.

Education and the Struggle for Equality – After the war, Northern abolitionists from the Freewill Baptist Church founded a school that grew into Storer College, initially a “normal” school for Black teachers, later one of America’s great Historically Black Colleges and Universities.  The first national conference of the Niagara Movement (precursor to the modern NAACP) on U.S. soil took place here in 19TK.  (Visit the “Education and the Struggle for Equality” museum in the lower Harpers Ferry park as well as the historic Storer College site on Camp Hill, now a National Park Service training center.)  

From the time that the Potomac and Shenandoah valleys were home to Native peoples, to the American Revolution and the early years of our nation – and from the Civil War and the fight against slavery, to the Niagara Movement and the struggle for equality – Harpers Ferry’s mountains and rivers have served as a scenic backdrop to key events in American history.  In our own time, our area offers great recreational opportunities to the modern visitor. 

For history buffs, the Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, with sections at either end of town, is the place to begin.  Other historic sites within an hour of us are Antietam, South Mountain, Winchester, Monocacy, and Gettysburg. 

Harpers Ferry National Historic Park – https://www.nps.gov/hafe/index.htm

Antietam – https://www.nps.gov/anti/index.htm

South Mountain – https://www.battlefields.org/visit/battlefields/south-mountain-battlefield

Winchester – https://www.battlefields.org/visit/battlefields/third-winchester-battlefield

Monocacy – https://www.nps.gov/mono

Gettysburg – https://www.nps.gov/gett/index.htm

For outdoors enthusiasts, the Appalachian Trail and the (bicycle-friendly) C&O Canal Towpath both pass through here.   Entertaining river adventures can be had in season, courtesy of River Riders, River and Trail Outfitters, and the Harpers Ferry Adventure Center. 

Appalachian Trail Conservancy – https://appalachiantrail.org/our-work/about-us/contact-us/harpers-ferry-visitor-center/

C&O Canal Towpath – https://www.nps.gov/pohe/planyourvisit/c-o-canal-towpath.htm

River Riders – https://www.riverriders.com/

River & Trail Outfitters – https://www.rivertrail.com/

Harpers Ferry Adventure Center – https://harpersferryadventurecenter.com/