Attractions August 07, 2018
The Ancient Town In West Virginia That’s Loaded With Fascinating History
Buildings are more than just brick and mortar – they house history, they retain memory, they hold within them a tether to the past. Harpers Ferry has 100 historic buildings in it, each with a story to tell. Together, they tell a story that spans nearly three centuries.
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In the early 1700s, this plot of land that sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers was nothing but trees and earth. They were no bridges. They were no buildings. But its position where the two rivers converged meant that it was a plot of land waiting to become a town.
And eventually it did. But not at first.
It began with a ferry. In 1733, a squatter named Peter Stephens established a ferry to take folks across the Potomac into Maryland. In 1747, one of these folks was Robert Harper. He immediately saw the potential for industry at the location and the amount of traffic a ferry could bring into the area. At the time, the land was owned by Lord Fairfax. In 1751, Harper purchased 126 acres of land from Fairfax, and a few years later the Virginia General Assembly granted Harper the right to establish and maintain a ferry there. By 1763, a small town had sprung up in the area and Virginia General Assembly officially instituted the town of "Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harper's ferry."
At this point, the creation of towns and the exploration of lands unknown were well under way by settlers. They were branching further west every day. On October 25, 1783, Thomas Jefferson and his daughter arrived in the town on their way to Philadelphia. Jefferson stood upon a rock and looked over the rivers, which he described in his journal as "one of the most stupendous scenes in nature." It is now known as Jefferson's Rock, a historic marker that allows anyone to enjoy the same stupendous view.
In 1794, George Washington, president of the Patowmack Company (the 18th century spelling of Potomac), proposed the idea of establishing a U.S. Armory in Harpers Ferry, which was granted in 1799. Many members of Washington's family moved to the small town as well.
By the next century, widespread slavery in the U.S. had become a hotbed issue and the armory established by Washington six decades earlier became the staging ground for a famous moment in abolition history.
In 1859, abolitionist John Brown led a raid on the armory. 22 men, including Brown, broke into the armory with the intended purpose to steal arms. His notion was to lead a slave uprising and to arm those men with the armory's weapons. A firefight promptly broke out into the street between armed civilians and the local militia.
Eventually, Brown and his men (a few of whom were either freed or escaped slaves) were cornered and forced to take refuge in the engine house near the armory.
A local regiment of U.S. Marines, led by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, were brought in to defuse the situation. After negotiations fell apart, the marines raided the engine house. Most of the raiders were captured and a few were killed. Brown was arrested and stood trial. He was found guilty of treason and hanged on December 2, 1859.
A few years later, the Civil War broke out. During the course of the war, the town changed occupation between the Union and the Confederacy eight times. Harpers Ferry was an important strategic location in the region, and was in a steady tug-of-war between the North and the South.
In 1862, General Robert E. Lee wanted to use the town as a staging point for the invasion of Maryland, but first, he had to drive out the federal forces that currently occupied it. So, In September of that year, he captured the town and the 12,419 troops who defended it. The Battle of Harper's Ferry, as it became known, was the largest surrender of troops to an invading army in the history of the Civil War.
Another structure prominent in the Civil War is St. John's Episcopal Church, now in ruins. During the war, it served as both a hospital and barracks, during which time it was burnt by unknown means. It was rebuilt after the war ended, but abandoned by the turn of the century and left to crumble and decay.
Today, Harpers Ferry has a reputation as the most complete historic town in West Virginia, with about 100 structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In Harpers Ferry, the past lives and breathes through the archaic relics that still stand strong.
Harper's Ferry is located in Jefferson County in the eastern panhandle along the border of Maryland.
Have you ever visited this historic town? What other stories do you know about Harpers Ferry? Feel free to comment below and join the discussion.
To delve deeper into the history of Harpers Ferry, check out
this little known ancient ruin that is one in a million.