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 in this 19th-century village at the borders of West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia.
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, father of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. A major in the Revolutionary War, Henry Lee earned the nickname due to his horsemanship.
Originally part of the state of Virginia, Harpers Ferry played pivotal roles in American history during the 1700s and 1800s. President George 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 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 guardhouse 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 population is fewer 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’s 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, are the Ghost Tours of Harpers Ferry. The nearly two-hour tours ($14 per person; $10 for ages 8-12) begin nightly at 8 in the piazza of St. Peter’s 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 many boutiques, restaurants, ice cream and candy shops, and the John Brown Wax Museum. We went 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.
If you go
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, 767 Shenandoah St., Harpers Ferry, W.Va. 25425; 304-535-6029. https://www.nps.gov/hafe/index.htm
Visitors are encouraged to park at the main Visitor Center at 171 Shoreline Drive and ride the shuttle bus into Lower Town. There is parking at the Harpers Ferry Train Station, but space is limited.
Accommodations: Light Horse Inn, three bedrooms; guests have use of the dining room, living room, and kitchen. Hearty hot breakfast is served at 9 each morning. It’s an easy three-quarter-mile walk to Lower Town, although it’s a steady climb going back. You can park your bikes in the basement. ($170/night) 1084 Washington St., Bolivar, W.Va. 25425; 1-877-468-4236.
Behind the inn, the Barn is open 4 to 11 p.m. Thursday through Sunday and for special events. Offers craft beers and full bar.
Restaurants: Bisou Bistro is one of the best restaurants here, in a charming 1790s stone house that has served as a military hospital, military barracks, antiques store, stained-glass studio, boardinghouse, and Montessori school. It serves New Orleans Cajun and Creole French cuisine. Each patron can choose a book to take home from one of its three bookcases. (I got a $50 photo book on the national parks). 1226 W. Washington St., Harpers Ferry, W.Va. 25425; thebisoubistro.com
The Anvil, a full restaurant and bar. This is just a few steps from Bisou Bistro. 1290 W. Washington St., Harpers Ferry, W. Va. 25424. 304-535-2582; www.anvilrestaurant.com/
Though 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 to 5 hours; and several easy, moderate hikes.