Taking a tour of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia is an interesting journey into the past. A place that has seen many events over the centuries, today it stands as a tribute to its rich history and is a national park.  Through its heyday, Harpers Ferry experienced the growth of industrialism and witnessed war-time. With much occurring in between.  

Today Harper’s Ferry is part of the National Park Service (NPS) and visitors are able to take a walk through this history and get a fuller perspective on the events that transpired at this beautiful place. 

18th Century Harpers Ferry

Harpers Ferry sits at a point where the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers meet.  Back in the 18th century this fact made it very appealing to a man named Robert Harper. Harper had first stumbled across the site when traveling between Maryland and Virginia as he was building a meeting-house in Winchester, Va. Seeing potential, he purchased the property in 1747 from the current owner at that time, Peter Stephens, and took over the ferry operation that had been previously established.

Strategically speaking, it was an ideal place for both industry and travel. At the time of his purchase, there was just a cabin and the ferry outfit. In 1751 Harper applied for, and was granted, a patent for 124 acres. One of the town's earlier names was "Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harper's Ferry” (the name was dubbed in 1763 by the Virginia General Assembly).

Over time, it became simply known as “Harpers Ferry”. At the time of Harper's death in 1782, the property had the ferry business, three houses and several miscellaneous buildings.  As the settlement grew, it became a town. By 1820, 1,400 people lived at Harpers Ferry. [3] And in the following decades, the town would continue to boom.

View of Harpers Ferry's Lower Town
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

Looking west towards Lower Town in Harpers Ferry  (2013). I was standing just off a footbridge that leads across the Potomac River into Maryland when I took this photo.

Harper’s heirs, the Wager family, maintained the ferry service until 1824 when they built a covered bridge across the Potomac. That venture was relatively short-lived as the railroad was emerging as a strong force during this time and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B & O rail) had constructed its own bridge in 1837. The two bridges co-existed for a couple of years, but B & O eventually bought crossing rights and bridge from the Wagers in 1839. [4]

Notable Events in Harpers Ferry

Many notable events have occurred in Harpers Ferry. According to the National Park Service (NPS), these events include:

  • First successful application of interchangeable manufacture
  • Saw the arrival of the first successful railroad in the United States
  • Largest surrender of the Federal Army during the Civil War
  • Built one of the earliest integrated schools in the United States where former slaves were educated after the Civil War
  • The U.S. Armory and Arsenal was constructed in 1799 and would operate here until Civil War broke out and the Federal Army destroyed it to keep it out of the hands of the Confederate Army.

Over the decades industry continued to grow at Harpers Ferry. By the late 1850s, more than three dozen buildings had been constructed in town which included various merchants, the town's Provost Marshal and a boarding house, to name a few. Over the years, the town was unofficially divided into two sections, “Lower Town” and “Upper Town”. 

Railroad at Harpers Ferry
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

Railroad bridge at Harpers Ferry in modern day, located in "Lower Town". I was standing in West Virginia looking to Maryland when I took this shot.

More Fun Facts About Harpers Ferry

In addition to being tightly linked with historical events, several U.S. historical figures made their way through the town including stops by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis and Frederick Douglass.  Mark Twain, Alexander Graham Bell and Woodrow Wilson are also said to have spent time in the town.

Thomas Jefferson wrote about his experience in his “Notes on the State of Virginia in 1785”. There is shale rock referred to as “Jefferson’s Rock” that visitors can see today. This is the location where Jefferson stood on Oct. 25, 1873 while traveling through Harpers Ferry with his daughter, Patsy.

Jefferson's Rock
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

The scenic spot known as "Jefferson's Rock" that overlooks the Shenandoah River.

Harpers Ferry was a part of Virginia until 1863 when West Virginia split itself away from the commonwealth during the Civil War.

St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church overlooks Lower Town. Built in the early 1830s, this church is still an active parish today. It survived the Civil War as it flew the Union Jack flag as a symbol of neutrality. Since its remodel in the 1890s, the church has retained this design. Several other churches were in existence over the years, just beyond St. Peter's are the remains of another church, St. John's Episcopal Church.

The heart of Harper’s Ferry where industry boomed was in the lower section and many businesses operated here over the years. Today visitors can see the remains of an abandoned pulp mill, a former canal system, general stores, provost and many more. Additionally, part of the Appalachian Trail runs through the once bustling industrial town.

Lower Town
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

A section of the main roadway that passes through the heart of Harpers Ferrry, the rivers would be off the right (along with Virginia) and the Maryland border is striaght ahead.

Many of Lower Town’s buildings still exist and visitors are free to wander in and out of the many buildings. One of the buildings has not been restored at all and it is set up as a museum where you can view this structure from an archaeological perspective, it’s pretty interesting.

The federal armory and arsenal also once stood along the river, but those buildings are long gone, with one exception.  John Brown’s raid took place at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. This building, the Armory’s fire engine and guard-house, served as Brown’s headquarters and is the only original building that remains that belonged to the federal army. 

The building was once disassembled and moved to Chicago, but was eventually returned to Harper’s Ferry in 1910. There are two bricks inside of the structure that mark the 1895 recovery of the building and the 1910 rebuild. Today this historic building stands 150 feet from its original location.

John Brown's headquarters at Harpers Ferry
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

Signage in front of the original (reconstructed) building

Standing in Harper’s Ferry, you can see how close Maryland and Virginia are to this corner of West Virginia, just across the two rivers.

Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers meet at Harpers Ferry
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

The Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers meet at Harpers Ferry. In this photo you can see remnants from structures from a highly industrial age in this section of the United States. There are many scenes like this to be seen, remains from an age gone by.

Today Harpers Ferry is primarily a historic site run and maintained by NPS. I've been to this town a few times now, but hope to make another trip sometime in 2016 - there is just so much there to explore.

Harper's Ferry is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The park is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day.

Get Directions
Lower Town, Harpers Ferry, WV 25425, USA