Harpers Ferry West Virginia
“Bordered by the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers”
Town of Harpers Ferry WV
The town of Harpers Ferry is located in Jefferson County West Virginia at the fork of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers where Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia meet. The architecture of the houses and shops reflect the town’s history and why it is designated a National Historic District by the National Register. Harpers Ferry is full of history but also offers outdoor adventure including white water rafting, fishing, mountain biking, tubing, canoeing, hiking, zip lining, and rock climbing. The Appalachian Trail passes directly through town and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters is located here as well. The Harpers Ferry National Historic Park offers museums, events, and tours. There are many types of lodging in Harpers Ferry and in the surrounding towns of Charles Town and Shepherdstown.
Walk historic downtown Harpers Ferry to browse distinctive shops and enjoy a meal at one of the many inviting cafés. Then, check in with the folks at O’ Be Joyfull. Their Songs & Stories shows make you feel as though you’ve gathered around the piano in someone’s living room – a century-and-a-half ago! And their ghost tour, steeped in Harpers Ferry history, is positively thrilling.
History of Harpers Ferry WV
Harpers Ferry is best known for John Brown’s raid on the Armory in 1859 and its role in the American Civil War with its strategic location.
In 1733, Peter Stephens, a squatter, had settled on land near “The Point” where the two rivers meet, and established a ferry from Virginia to Maryland, across the Potomac River. In 1747, while traveling from Maryland to Virginia, Robert Harper passed through the area and recognized the potential for industry, given the power the two rivers could generate, and the traffic he could ferry across the Potomac River. Harper paid Stephens 30 British guinea for what was essentially Stephens’ squatting rights, since the land belonged to Lord Fairfax. In April 1751, Harper purchased 126 acres of land from Lord Fairfax. Ten years later in 1761, the Virginia General Assembly granted Harper the right to establish and maintain a ferry across the Potomac River. In 1763, the Virginia General Assembly established the town of Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harpers Ferry.
George Washington, as president of the Potomac Company (which was formed to complete river improvements on the Potomac and its tributaries), traveled to Harpers Ferry during the summer of 1785 to determine the need for bypass canals. In 1794, Washington’s proposed the site for a new United States armory and arsenal. Some of Washington’s family moved to the area; his great-great-nephew, Colonel Lewis Washington, was held hostage during John Brown’s raid in 1859, and George’s brother Charles Washington founded the nearby Jefferson County town of Charles Town. In 1796, the federal government purchased a 125-acre parcel of land from the heirs of Robert Harper. Construction began on the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1799. This was one of only two such facilities in the U.S., the other being Springfield, Massachusetts. Together they produced most of the small arms for the U.S. Army.
Industrialization reached Harpers Ferry in 1833 when the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, linked up with Washington, D.C. A year later, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad began service through the town.
On October 16, 1859, the abolitionist John Brown led a group of 21 men in a raid on the arsenal. Brown attacked and captured several buildings; he hoped to use the captured weapons to initiate a slave uprising throughout the South. The secretary of war asked for the assistance of the Navy Department for a unit of United States Marines, the nearest troops. Lieutenant Israel Greene was ordered to take a force of 86 Marines to the town. In need of an officer to lead the expedition, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee was found on leave nearby and was assigned as commander along with Lt. J. E. B. Stuart as his aide-de-camp. The whole contingent arrived by train on October 18, and after negotiation failed they stormed the fire house and captured most of the raiders. Brown was tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, convicted and hanged in nearby Charles Town. John Brown captured the attention of the nation like no other abolitionist or slave owner before.
The Civil War was disastrous for Harpers Ferry, which changed hands eight times between 1861 and 1865. Because of the town’s strategic location on the railroad and at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, both Union and Confederate troops moved through Harpers Ferry frequently. The town’s garrison of 14,000 Federal troops played a key role in the Confederate invasion of Maryland in September 1862. Gen. Robert E. Lee did not want to continue on to Maryland without capturing the town. It was on his supply line and could control one of his possible routes of retreat if the invasion did not go well.
Dividing his army of approximately 40,000 into four sections, Lee used the cover of the mountains to send three columns under Stonewall Jackson to surround and capture the town. The Battle of Harpers Ferry started with light fighting September 13 as the Confederates tried to capture the Maryland Heights to the northeast, while John Walker moved back over the Potomac to capture Loudoun Heights south of town. After a Confederate artillery bombardment on September 14 and 15, the Federal garrison surrendered. With 12,419 Federal troops captured by Jackson, the surrender at Harpers Ferry was the largest surrender of U.S. military personnel until the Battle of Bataan in World War II.
Because of the delay in capturing Harpers Ferry and the movement of Federal forces to the west, Lee was forced to regroup at the town of Sharpsburg. Two days later he commanded troops in the Battle of Antietam, which had the highest number of deaths among troops of any single day in United States military history.
- John Brown’s Fort
- John Brown Wax museum
- White Hall Tavern
- John Brown Museum
- Industry Museum
- Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
- Jefferson Rock
- Maryland Heights
- St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church
- Virginius Island
- Loudon Heights
- Weverton Cliffs
- B & O Railroad Potomac River
- Shenandoah Canal
- Meriwether Lewis Exhibit
- C&O Canal Lock 33
- US Armory Site
- Appalachian Trail
- Appalachian Trail Conservancy HQ
- Lockwood House
- Split Rock