Since its Colonial-era founding, Harpers Ferry has contributed to the Industrial Revolution, been targeted by anti-slavery militants, endured military occupation during the Civil War, advanced the civil rights movement and survived a dozen devastating floods.
Today, in addition to being the a hub for history buffs who explore its architectural and natural landmarks, museums and riverside ruins, Harpers Ferry is a destination for outdoor enthusiasts who hike, bike and float the nearby trails and rivers.
“The fact that there’s so much history adds another dimension to the town,” says Steve Paradis, 49, chief operating officer of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, headquartered in Harpers Ferry.
When Susan Journell walks past the 19th-century brick buildings in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. (pop. 206), she often thinks about the town’s many incarnations since English colonist Robert Harper built a gristmill in 1747 and operated a ferry at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.
“Building in the floodplain was the cost of doing business at the time,” says Journell, 52, a volunteer at the 3,700-acre Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, which surrounds the town.
After President George Washington selected Harpers Ferry in 1794 as the site of a national armory, other industries—including a tannery, iron foundry, machine shop and sawmill—sprang up to harness the power of the rivers and to use them for transportation.
As the U.S. Armory and Arsenal and Hall’s Rifle Works—which developed interchangeable parts technology—produced firearms for the nation’s military, the arms factories attracted the attention of abolitionist John Brown, who with 18 raiders invaded Harpers Ferry in 1859 to secure weapons for a planned slave rebellion.
Following a deadly two-day standoff, U.S. Marines stormed the armory’s firehouse and captured Brown and his surviving men. Within two months, Brown was convicted of treason and hanged in nearby Charles Town. His cause and execution were immortalized in the song “John Brown’s Body,” and set the stage for outbreak of the Civil War.
When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, Federal troops set fire to armory and arsenal buildings so weapons wouldn’t fall into Confederate hands, but the Rebels salvaged the gun-making equipment and sent it south. During the war, Harpers Ferry changed hands eight times and the town, annexed in 1863 to the newly created state of West Virginia, was left in ruins by occupying forces.
“Occupation by both armies created more devastation than battle,” says Dennis Frye, 54, the park’s chief historian, explaining how soldiers dismantled homes and businesses for firewood.
After the war, Harpers Ferry was in the forefront of the civil rights movement. In 1867, Storer College opened as an integrated school to educate former slaves, and in 1906 the college hosted a gathering of black leaders, a precursor to formation of the NAACP.
“Harpers Ferry is one of the best examples in the world of domino history,” Frye says. “Each domino affects the next domino.”
Nowadays, the former industrial center and war-torn town is a charming and picturesque village with bed & breakfast inns, hostels, restaurants and souvenir shops that serve sightseers and trekkers.
While some visitors enjoy touring the industrial ruins and historical landmarks such as the 1782 Harper House and John Brown’s Fort, others prefer climbing to a scenic overlook that boasts a view extolled by Thomas Jefferson, drifting down the Shenandoah River on an inner tube, or taking a respite from hiking the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail, which courses through town.
“I hit the 1,000-mile mark today,” says hiker Gavin Jaremba, 21, of Olivet, Mich., en route to Maine’s Mount Katahdin. “Only 1,180 miles left to go!”