My boyfriend Roy and I recently visited Harpers Ferry and, while I assume I visited the historic town as a child with its relative proximity to my hometown of Wilmington, DE, I don’t have any memory of the place. I was struck by how this small little town with a population of less than 300 people had such a vital role in our nation’s history. From its role in the Civil War, to transportation, to small arms producer, to arming the Lewis and Clark expedition, this tiny spot at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers is the intersection of an abundance of American History.
We arrived there in June of COVID-19. Most of the town was shut down and all the National Historic museums (bathrooms!) and parking were limited. There were signs throughout the town discouraging tourists. I was shocked by the number of tourists milling around. The one or two ice cream shops as well as the restaurants appeared to be booming in business. It’s an unusual place in that there are all these historic buildings and plaques sitting right next to an ice cream shop or across the street from John Brown’s Fort. The most stunning place is a church atop what looks like 300 steps that one must climb to get to its front door. A woman made the comment to me: “Well, you had to be a believer to trek up all those steps.”
Here are some things I learned about Harpers Ferry:
Harpers Ferry is a natural transportation intersection with both the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. Robert Harper established the first ferry to cross the Potomac River in the 1733. The ferry continued to run until 1824 when a covered bridge was built. This established Harpers Ferry as a transportation hub. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C&O Canal) was built and operated from 1831 to 1924 to run alongside the Potomac to bring coal from the Allegheny Mountains and to make shipping easier. The C&O Canal ran into trouble with floods as well as trying to extend its length into the surrounding mountainous areas. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) (thank you Monopoly) won a bid to build and operate a railroad through this strategic point in 1839. At the time it was the first and only rail crossing the Potomac. This strategic transportation point was the predecessor to many historic events. It’s remarkable how this tiny historic town with antebellum brick homes could bear witness to pivotal events in history.
In 1794, President George Washington selected Harpers Ferry, Virginia (later West Virginia) as the location of a National Armory. Its proximity to water tributaries was advantageous to create water turbines in the manufacture of muskets, rifles and pistols. Between 1821 and 1830 the armory produced 11,855 arms. It relied on the river to run the machinery to produce the arms. The armory was renovated and expanded from 1845-1854. In 1859, there were 400 workers at the armory. This made the armory a strategic resource for the brewing conflict between the North and South, just miles below the Mason-Dixon line.
In 1803, Meriwether Lewis arrived in Harpers Ferry to arm his team for their transcontinental expedition. What is remarkable is that besides the 15 rifles, 15 powder horns, 30 bullet molds, 30 ball screws and 24 large knives, Lewis decided to have manufactured a collapsible metal boat frame of his design. I was struck by the pictures of an iron framed boat skeleton that Lewis imagined on his famous journey to the Pacific. The boat was to be collapsible into parts and then reassembled once they arrived at the Missouri River and covered with hides. While on the actual expedition, the guns worked well, the collapsible canoe, failed. When put into water on July 9th, it “floated like a cork” until it began to leak. Lewis’ experiment was left behind on July 10th next to the Missouri River.
John Brown, the abolitionist, found Harpers Ferry to be positioned strategically for his needs. It was home to perhaps 100,000 weapons and was the United States arsenal. It was surrounded by slave holders in what was at the time, Virginia. Brown’s plan was to take over the armory and he assumed that the slaves in the region would come to bear arms against their masters and ignite a national uprising. John Brown’s Raid occurred from October 16-18, 1859. They failed to take the armory which was, ironically defended by Robert E. Lee and the United States Marines. By December 2, Brown was tried for treason and executed for his under-manned, failed attempt. All of this was a precursor to the Civil War. John Brown is memorialized in Harpers Ferry from plaques to historical markers to John Browns Fort.
Again, Harpers Ferry strategic position came into play. After Fort Sumter was bombarded on April 12th by the confederates, Lincoln called for 75,000 recruits on April 15th. On April 18th, the Virginia Militia marched on Harpers Ferry and the Federal troops torched the US Armory and Arsenal destroying over 15,000 weapons. On April 28th, Stonewall Jackson occupied his first command of the war and spent the next seven weeks removing machinery and tools and shipping it to Richmond. Between 1861 and 1865, Harpers Ferry changed hands fourteen times. Despite its strategic importance, Harpers Ferry was an indefensible military position. It was a strategic nightmare in that it sat at the base of steep rises of the Appalachian Mountains, making it easy to attack and nearly impossible to defend.
Harpers Ferry sits at the confluence of two mighty rivers – the Shenandoah and Potomac, cornered between steep mountain sides and three modern day states – West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland. How remarkable that something so sought after is barely inhabited now, except by tourists like me to take in its history. But that’s also part of its present-day charm.