Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
Whatever History Interests You, Harpers Ferry has It
Buoys and Byways / By Joanna Boettinger - Bay Journal
It was a crisp, cloudy December day with snow in the forecast. Standing atop a hill in Harpers Ferry, WV, I looked at the mountains surrounding me and at the two rivers meeting below. Although the day was dreary, and the water looked cold and rough as it tumbled over the rocks that broke its path, I felt overwhelmed with the beauty of the place and was immediately intrigued by the town below.
Harpers Ferry is a quaint town nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains - a place thick with reminders of the Civil War. It is a National Historical Park, but the abundance of natural beauty found in the mountains and rivers makes Harpers Ferry far more than just a place to go to recount the past.
Harpers Ferry is connected to the Chesapeake Bay through its location at the confluence of two of the Bay's major tributaries, the Shenandoah and the Potomac rivers. Throughout history, these rivers have provided a means of travel and transportation between the Bay region and the mountains to the west, and continue to serve as a link between the Bay and the communities that exist upstream. Harpers Ferry sits at the lowest point in the state of West Virginia and is located about 60 miles from Washington, DC.
The most visible connection between the Bay and Harpers Ferry is the park's new Wonders of the Harpers Ferry Wetlands exhibit. Located at the foot of High Street in town, the exhibit is based on the park's wetland, which can be seen on the shuttle bus ride into town from the park's visitor center.
Park rangers offer a Marsh Walk to explore the wetland, making reference to the Chesapeake along the tour. The wetland is located upstream from the Lower Town on the Shenandoah River.
It is believed that the wetland was created when the Patowmack Canal that once existed along the Shenandoah flooded. The wetland now provides habitat for many wildlife species including at least one huge great blue heron.
The link between the Chesapeake and Harpers Ferry can be traced back to a time long before the flooding of the Patowmack Canal, though. Archeologists in Harpers Ferry recently discovered pottery that was common to Native Americans living in Tidewater Virginia. According to officials at the park, this was the westernmost discovery of this type of pottery. It is obvious that the Native Americans traveled along, traded on and depended on the Potomac River for their livelihood. It is likely that they followed migratory fish up the river as well.
This trading network was further developed by George Washington through the creation of the Patowmack Canal, the first canal in the country. This "interstate highway" further connected the Chesapeake Bay with interior lands. Iron, lumber, flour and grain were produced in Harpers Ferry, shipped down the Potomac to the Chesapeake, and on to markets in the Caribbean and Europe.
Harpers Ferry has carved a niche for itself in almost every corner of U.S. history. In the late 1700s, Thomas Jeffer-son passed through the area and wrote these words about the place where Harpers Ferry is now located: "The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue ridge (sic) is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature. You can stand on a very high point of land.
On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain an hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approached the Patowmac, in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder, and pass off to the sea."
George Washington established a Federal armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1794. In 1803, Meriwether Lewis came to Harpers Ferry to obtain supplies for his westward trek.
The natural location of Harpers Ferry - on the border between North and South, close to rivers for quick transportation, and at the Blue Ridge Mountain water gap - created an ideal setting for the African American's fight for freedom and equality.
In 1859, Harpers Ferry was the site of abolitionist John Brown's raid against slavery, which helped to spark the Civil War. Giving a speech in Harpers Ferry after the war, former slave and prominent orator Frederick Douglass said that John Brown's "zeal in the cause of my race was greater than mine."
Harpers Ferry, because of its location, was right in the middle of the Civil War. The town would change hands eight times before the war's end. It also served as a hiding place for escaped slaves during the war because of its proximity to Pennsylvania - a free state just 40 miles away. In 1867, Storer College was established in Harpers Ferry to educate former slaves. It was one of the earliest integrated schools in the United States.
Harpers Ferry was emerging as a town rich in the history of the struggle of African Americans to gain freedom and equality, when in 1906, it served as the site of the second meeting of the Niagara Movement, a black civil rights organization - out of which grew the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The Lower Town - where the Wetland exhibit is located - is filled with exhibits centered on six themes: African American History, Environment, Industry, John Brown, Civil War and Transportation. The exhibits on African American History are a must see - they include audio presentations recounting the experiences of African Americans who played an integral role in the fight for freedom. An entire exhibit is devoted to the history of Storer College.
After you've explored the museums in the Lower Town, be sure to take some time to enjoy the many outdoor recreational activities the area has to offer. Harpers Ferry is an ideal stop off the Appalachian Trail and is a stop along the 180-mile C&O Canal Towpath for hikers and bicyclists.
If you are up for a hike, Maryland Heights is guaranteed to provide the best views of the Potomac River and Harpers Ferry from a height of 1,448 feet. And, if you're a Civil War buff, you'll appreciate the infantry trenches, ammunition pits and remains of military camps found along the way. The hike begins at the Point in the Lower Town where the rivers meet.
You can opt for a four-mile round trip which will take you to Overlook Cliffs or if you are feeling a little more adventurous, a six-mile roundtrip to Stone Fort. The trail is steep and strenuous but well worth it for the spectacular views and a glimpse of military history.
Park Service experts say that you can't talk about a battle without talking about the natural environment and resources that existed at the time. The rivers, the mountains, the valley, all played a role in the outcome of battles and even provide a reason for why they were fought in the first place.
Harpers Ferry is a perfect example of a place where cultural and natural resources can be enjoyed at the same time.
Things to Know in Case You Go
How to Get There From Washington D.C., take Route 270 North to Frederick. Take Route 70 West to Route 340 West toward Charlestown. The main parking lot for Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is located about one mile west of the Shenandoah River bridge off Route 340. The park is a little more than an hour from Washington D.C. and Baltimore.
Where to Eat The Garden of Food Restaurant is your best bet for homemade soups, salads and sandwiches. Or, satisfy your sweet tooth with a hot cinnamon roll and apple cider at Yesterday's. Both are located on High Street, which runs straight through Lower Town.
Information The park entrance fee - good for seven days - is $5 per vehicle or $3 per person (cyclists and walk-ins.)* Park Service shuttle buses transport visitors to the Lower Town Historic District. Check out the park's web site at www.nps.gov/hafe. To contact the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Information Center, call 304-535-6029.
For travel and tourism information, call Jefferson County Visitor Bureau at: 1-800-848-8687.
Joanna Boettinger is with the Chesapeake Bay Program's Communications Office.
*Harpers Ferry National Historical Park entrance fee has now increased by $1 - Eastern Shore Magazine update 2/1/2011
Whatever History Interests You, Harpers Ferry has It
Article - Bay Journal
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