‘...Worth a voyage across the At­lantic’

Harpers Ferry, W.Va., draws visi­tors from near and far

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Magazine - By Vir­ginia Linn Vir­ginia Linn: vlinn@post-gazette.com.

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — “The pas­sage of the Pa­tow­mac through the Blue Ridge is per­haps one of the most stu­pen­dous scenes in Na­ture,” Thomas Jef­fer­son wrote of the con­flu­ence of the Po­tomac and Shenan­doah rivers in 1783.

“This scene is worth a voyage across the At­lantic.”

Many ap­pear to have heeded his rec­om­men­da­tion. On a re­cent week­end, you could hear Hindi, Chi­nese, French, Span­ish, Ger­man and Ara­bic spo­ken by visi­tors in and around Harpers Ferry Na­tional His­tor­i­cal Park.

They came to learn about the town’s his­tory, hike the trails, ob­serve the views (es­pe­cially in the fall), bike the C&O Canal Tow­path and kayak or raft down the rivers. There is plenty to do and see over a week­end in this 19th-cen­tury vil­lage at the borders of West Vir­ginia, Mary­land the Vir­ginia. Ge­o­graph­i­cally, the tri­an­gu­lar town is sim­i­lar to Pitts­burgh, with its very own “Point” where the rivers con­verge.

A young cou­ple stay­ing at the Light Horse Inn drove eight hours from Ann Ar­bor, Mich., just to ex­plore the lo­cal his­tor­i­cal sites over a week­end. Con­ve­niently, they started at the inn, which at one time was owned by Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, the father of Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Robert E. Lee. A ma­jor in the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War, Henry Lee earned the nick­name on the strength of his horse­man­ship.

Orig­i­nally part of the state of Vir­ginia, Harpers Ferry played piv­otal roles in Amer­i­can his­tory dur­ing the 1700s and 1800s. Pres­i­dent Wash­ing­ton chose it as the site for one of two U.S. ar­mories in part be­cause it’s at the con­flu­ence of two rivers. By 1810, Harpers Ferry was pro­duc­ing 10,000 mus­kets, ri­fles and pis­tols a year. The town’s pop­u­la­tion climbed to 3,000 by the mid-1800s.

In 1859, the ar­mory be­came the tar­get of an ill-fated raid by Kansas abo­li­tion­ist John Brown. With 21 men, he stormed the city in hopes of free­ing slaves at lo­cal farms. Although the group took the ar­mory with lit­tle re­sis­tance, troops un­der the com­mand of then-Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee quickly cap­tured Brown and the oth­ers. He was sen­tenced for trea­son and hanged.

The in­ci­dent spread anger among South­ern­ers who feared slave in­sur­rec­tion, in­creas­ing the ten­sion be­tween the North and South. Many his­to­ri­ans be­lieve it has­tened the be­gin­ning of the Civil War.

Harpers Ferry changed hands eight times dur­ing the war and many of the town’s churches and larger homes served as hos­pi­tals for in­jured troops. There was so much de­struc­tion that by war’s end, the only ar­mory build­ing stand­ing was John Brown’s Fort, the fire en­gine and guard house where the abo­li­tion­ist and his men bar­ri­caded them­selves be­fore cap­ture.

“No spot in the United States ex­pe­ri­enced more of the hor­rors of war,” said lo­cal his­to­rian Joseph Barry.

To­day, the town’s pop­u­la­tion is less than 300. Bo­li­var, a mostly bed­room com­mu­nity next door, has 1,100 peo­ple. Tourism is clearly the eco­nomic en­gine.

A large por­tion of Harpers Ferry Lower Town is a na­tional his­tor­i­cal park with mu­se­ums on John Brown, Black Voices, Meri­wether Lewis and the Civil War. There are also ranger-guided tours, a self-guided bat­tle­field driv­ing tour, a black­smith shop, a dry goods store staffed with reen­ac­tors and a book­store. The pre­sen­ta­tions are well done and de­pend­ing upon your level of in­ter­est could take a day or more to fully ex­plore.

Build­ing on this in­trigue, of course, is the Ghost Tours of Harpers Ferry. The al­most two-hour tours ($14 per per­son; $10 for kids ages 8-12) be­gin nightly at 8 in the pi­azza of St. Peter Catholic Church. “Liv­ing his­to­rian” Rick Gar­land guides groups through 14 blocks of Lower Town. Though un­able to coax out ghosts for visi­tors, he proved to be a skilled sto­ry­teller.

Sev­eral pro­pri­etors, how­ever, re­galed guests with sto­ries about their own res­i­dent ghosts. Chef Kevin Plun­kett and fel­low work­ers at Bisou Bistro, a New Or­leans-style Ca­jun and Cre­ole restau­rant in Bo­li­var, avoid the base­ment of the 1790s stone build­ing on Wash­ing­ton Street. It served as a mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal and the dead were of­ten left in the cool cel­lar await­ing burial. The town changed hands so of­ten that Union or Con­fed­er­ate troops would sim­ply cover the bod­ies with dirt in the base­ment and pre­pare for the next wave of dead sol­diers.

Lower Town con­tains bou­tiques, restau­rants, ice cream and candy shops and the John Brown Wax Mu­seum. We came also for the out­door recre­ation and spent Sun­day rid­ing 12 miles west on the C&O Canal Tow­path to the charm­ing town of Shep­herd­stown, W.Va.

While it’s a lit­tle tricky walk­ing your bike down the metal spi­ral stair­case from the foot­bridge to the tow­path, there’s an easy ramp that takes you to the Shep­herd­stown Bridge that crosses the Po­tomac into town. The tow­path is not as well groomed as the Great Al­legheny Pas­sage, but it’s a beau­ti­ful ride along the river. In Shep­herd­stown, you’ll find plenty of kayak­ing, tub­ing and raft­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties as well as great restau­rants and shops on Ger­man Street.

The Ap­palachian Trail cuts right through down­town Harpers Ferry. Those who start the 2,190-mile route in Georgia reach Harpers Ferry at mile marker 1013.4 — about the half­way point. The Ap­palachian Trail Con­ser­vancy’s na­tional head­quar­ters is on Wash­ing­ton Street.

There are many other hik­ing routes in the area — Mary­land Heights, steep and rocky in places, 4.5 or 6.5 miles round trip, 3-4 hours; Loudoun Heights, dif­fi­cult, steep and rocky in places, 7.5 miles round trip, 4-5 hours; and sev­eral easy hikes.

Even though we got rain from Hur­ri­cane Har­vey on our first day in Harpers Ferry, there was plenty to see and do and it’s worth a re­turn visit.

Vir­ginia Linn/Post-Gazette pho­tos

Raft­ing and tub­ing en­thu­si­asts on the Po­tomac River head­ing to­ward Harpers Ferry and the Shenan­doah River.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.