The Confluence of History West Virginia: Tiny Harpers Ferry has a huge part in our national story, thanks to John Brown and the Civil War. And its natural beauty is as much a draw as its past.

July 05, 1998|By CHARLES W. MITCHELL | CHARLES W. MITCHELL,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"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.... This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic."

Thomas Jefferson about Harpers Ferry, 1783

The picturesque landscape of Harpers Ferry still looks much as it did in Thomas Jefferson's time. The historic town is framed by the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, its buildings tumbling down steep hillsides that flatten and jut into the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.

First settled in 1733, the hamlet received its official name nearly 30 years later, when Pennsylvanian Robert Harper began a ferry service across the Potomac in 1761. In the ensuing decades, Harpers Ferry became a prism for some of our nation's most dramatic history. Meriwether Lewis visited in 1803 to buy rifles and tomahawks for his expedition west. By the mid-1830s, the conduits of commerce known as the C&O Canal and B&O Railroad both passed through the town.

Strategically located on the border between Maryland and Virginia (the western part of Virginia joined the Union in 1863), the area continually attracted Union and Confederate armies, whose occupation of Harpers Ferry and surrounding mountain peaks during the Civil War reduced it from a bustling 3,000 residents in 1861 to a ghost town of less than 300 four years later. During the war, Harpers Ferry changed hands eight times.

A catalyst for the Civil War occurred in this quiet hamlet. In the darkness of Oct. 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown and 18 followers attacked the federal armory's two arsenal buildings, planning to arm slaves and free blacks they were sure would rush to join their messianic assault on slavery. After a two-day battle that claimed 11 lives -- including a free black man killed by Brown's men -- the raiders were captured by U.S. Marines led by Col. Robert E. Lee and Lt. Jeb Stuart. Even as Brown and six of his men were swinging from a gallows in nearby Charles Town, their stillborn slave insurrection was stoking passions North and South.

Today in the well-preserved town of 300 residents, six themes illustrate Harpers Ferry's complex past: industry, transportation, environment, John Brown, Civil War and African-American history. Each can be explored through interpretive exhibits.

Start your visit at the National Park Service Visitor Center on U.S. Route 340 just west of town. Parking is difficult in Harpers Ferry, so leave your car at the Visitor Center, ride the free shuttle bus and see it on foot. Once there, visit the Park Service information center on Shenandoah Street, aptly located in the master armorer's house, where knowledgeable rangers provide maps and an overview.

History buffs can inspect 18th- and 19th-century buildings that include replicas of clothing, dry goods, watch-repair and confectionery shops along the restored Shenandoah Street and at the foot of High Street. The Provost Marshal's Office, Industry Museum and an exhibit on the excavation of historic buildings complement the lower-town shop restorations.

The fire-engine/guard house in which Brown and his band barricaded themselves before being captured is now known as John Brown's Fort. It is the only surviving building in the federal armory complex begun in 1799 along the banks of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.

Also worth a look are the Harpers Ferry History Museum and its touch-sensitive computers with color graphics. The kid-friendly Wetlands Exhibit shows the evolution of the area's river terrain.

On foot

A complete walking tour of the lower town requires about three hours and can be done in two segments. The level portion is bounded on the south side of town by the blacksmith shop and armorer's house, and on the north by the Point, where the rivers come together. A highlight amid the period shops and dwellings along Shenandoah Street (whose restoration was completed in 1997) is the Industry Museum and its operating examples of 19th-century armory machinery. Two doors down is the National Park Bookshop and its excellent collection of Civil War and 19th-century history books for all ages.

Just south of the Point is Arsenal Square and John Brown's Fort, where park rangers clad in period garb enthrall visitors with a detailed account of the raid and how it hastened the Civil War. West of the Point, along the Potomac, lies the site of the old armory, which in 1810 manufactured more than 10,000 arms. Its 22 buildings were torched on April 18, 1861, by U.S. troops

worried that the 15,000 guns it housed would fall into the hands of Virginians who that day had seceded from the Union.

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