Wild and Wonderful: Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

I know West Virginia is the red-headed stepchild of, well, the country, but it gets such an unfair shake. West Virginia is flat-out gorgeous and I get a kick out of the state slogan, “Wild and Wonderful.” West Virginia is just gonna let you know right up front they’re here for a good time. Compare that to Indiana’s slogan- “Honest to Goodness Indiana.” Or Nevada- “Wide Open.” That sounds… fun. Give me the West Virginia rabble-rousers any day.

Harpers Ferry is just over the state line from Virginia, an easy drive from NoVa along beautiful route 9. We went to Harpers Ferry recently to pick flowers at Ridgefield Farm, but this trip was to visit the historic town of Harpers Ferry located in Harpers Ferry National Park.

Harpers Ferry sits at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers and is the sight of John Brown’s raid, an event that essentially precipitated and kicked off the Civil War. We’re going to get into that some more in a bit.

To get to the town of Harpers Ferry, you enter the national park itself (physical address is 171 Shoreline Dr., Harpers Ferry, WV) and ride a shuttle bus from the parking lot down to the Lower Town (with a stop in Bolivar Heights for a Civil War walk if you so choose but it was 95 degrees on Sunday so nobody on my shuttle bus chose). Parking is $10 a day per car and the shuttle is included in this price. The shuttles do not run precisely on a schedule but I’ve never waited more than 10 minutes for one; they run constantly starting at 9 am going until the last shuttle that leaves Lower Town at 6:45 pm.

The shuttle bus deposits you directly on the bank of the Shenandoah River, and it’s essential that you dip beneath the railroad trestle and walk down to the edge of the river. Is there a finer river than the Shenandoah? It’s so peaceful, so languorous. It’s technically a tributary to the Potomac, but if you’re asking me, the Shenandoah is the superior river.

We spent some time on the bank of the Shenandoah, selecting shells to add to our seashell collection and teaching the girls to skip rocks. The river is so placid and shallow at this point that it’s possible to walk out to larger rocks in the middle of the river and wade around. Several people had their small children and dogs playing in the water. 

When you’re done fiddle faddling around in the Shenandoah, head up into the Lower Town and take a look around. The main attraction is the bridge that crosses the rivers at the confluence and ends in Maryland Heights with a 300 foot cliff overlooking the water and city. It is, in a word, scenic. Don’t even take my word for it; Thomas Jefferson famously stood on a rock in what is now Lower Town and, upon viewing the scene below, declared it NOT ONLY “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature” but “worth a voyage across the Atlantic.” So yes, you should definitely make the trip from DC/Maryland/Virginia to take in this sight. You may have to grapple with 495/66/267 but it’s at least not a voyage across the Atlantic.

Looking out at the Potomac from the bridge you can see people engaging in various water activities, which is one of the most popular things to do in Harpers Ferry. Harpers Ferry Adventure Center offers kayaking and tubing and my husband has gone river rafting with the River Riders and had a great time.

I sort of mused aloud that wouldn’t it be fun to be doing the tubing and maybe we should go down there and do it right now! My 6 year old kind of wigged out at the idea. I say “my” 6 year old but honestly, if she doesn’t think sitting in a tube and floating down a river with a tube cooler filled with tasty cold beverages floating alongside sounds like the best thing ever, the amount of genetic material we have in common is in question.

Harpers Ferry also happens to be the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (which you can visit daily from 9 am- 5 pm) and Harpers Ferry is one of the few places on the trail where the trail actually runs through a town.

You can technically say, if you walk through Harpers Ferry, that you have hiked the Appalachian Trail. Hey, I’m not going to argue with you. At this point, you are very nearly at the halfway point of the trail (actual halfway point is at Pine Grove Furnace in Cumberland County, PA). This marks our second time in a week being on the Appalachian Trail- just call me Bill Bryson.

Located in Lower Town are several options for lunch (or dinner). Although I’m normally a champion for packing a picnic lunch and bringing it along, and you could absolutely do that, I advise against it only because with so much walking, and being a shuttle ride away from your car, it’s unlikely you’re going to want to tote around a picnic blanket and/or picnic bag while you explore the town. We ate lunch at The Coffee Mill and got soft serve ice cream next door at Swiss Miss (which used to serve incredible frozen custard but evidently switched at some point to ice cream).

Just around the corner from these spots is a plain building with a sign on it that says JOHN BROWN. This is a small museum that tells the story of John Brown, a man you really just need to get to know. Here’s what you’re greeted with when you walk into the museum:

So there’s John Brown. This is who we’re working with here.

John Brown was a radical abolitionist who had the idea he could incite a great slave rebellion, starting by commandeering the Federal Arsenal in Harpers Ferry, taking control of all the weapons and ammunition within, then moving south attracting slaves to his army as he went. Here’s how that went down:

John Brown: Okay men. We’re going to break into this armory and seize all the weapons. Once we do, you go out to neighboring farms and plantations and tell the slaves we’re gonna take care of things from now on and they can come join us so we can free all of them! We’ll raid the WHOLE SOUTH!
John Brown’s men: Sounds good.
[Takeover of armory is successful]
John Brown: Well that was easy. Now, go tell the slaves we’ve engineered their escape and to come join us!! I’ll wait here.
John Brown’s men: Slaves, gather round. John Brown has secured the path to your escape. Join us as we march through the south freeing slaves far and wide. Trust us, this can’t go wrong.
Slaves: How’s he going to get out of the town? Does he have a plan? How’s he going to make it all the way down south with people after him for this?
John Brown’s men: Yeah, that’s what you guys are for. He’s gonna give you guns and spears and have you fight people off! The rest he’ll figure out later.
Slaves: We’re just gonna stay here then, thanks.

Although he had a vision, John Brown lacked planning and foresight (and possibly sanity) and the whole endeavor fell apart rather quickly. He was put on trial and hanged after being found guilty of treason. However, this did serve to deepen the divide between North and South as the North cheered the actions of John Brown and the South decried them as the workings of a madman. The rift between North and South eventually culminated in the Civil War beginning in 1861. I am from Georgia and my senior year of high school we took a seminar class called History of the South (because if there’s one thing Southerners never tire of talking about, it’s the South and being from it) and John Brown and his raid were perhaps the highlight of the course for my classmates and me, who found him highly entertaining.

While we were in the John Brown museum, a woman who was there asked us about our visit to Harpers Ferry and the museum. It turns out her great-grandfather was Alexander Murphy, owner of Murphy Farm, which abuts Harpers Ferry and housed the engine-house (pictured above) that served as John Brown’s fort during his failed raid. W.E.B DuBois and the group he formed that later became the NAACP made a barefoot pilgrimage to the Murphy Farm in 1906 to visit the engine-house that held the sparks of the abolitionist movement.The Murphy family had sought for years to get Congress to purchase the farm land so that it could be preserved as part of Harpers Ferry National Park but not until the early 2000s did Congress approve $2 million to purchase the land from the Murphy family for preservation. Before that it was very nearly turned into a housing subdivision! Two gates are on display within the museum, and these gates were located at the armory that John Brown raided in 1859; the woman I spoke with said her great-grandfather, Alexander Murphy, hid and preserved those gates on his farm in order to donate them to the United States. She was very, very proud of her family’s history and their role in Harpers Ferry. More than once she told me her great-grandfather was a visionary. She took great umbrage with the placement of a placard detailing her forebear’s contribution to Harpers Ferry history and she seemed quite a spitfire (she claimed “I’m not done with them yet”) so if I one day return to the John Brown Museum and see the Alexander Murphy placard has been moved from beside a window to beside the gate he donated, I will know she finally got her way.

There is also a John Brown Wax Museum in Lower Town which tells the story of John Brown in wax figures but John Brown is a little intense even in the form of a painting so a freaky-deaky wax figurine of a maniacal abolitionist may not be the most fun thing for small kids to see. I’ve never made it that to museum but if you do, let me know how it is!

Lower Town is built into hills and there are steep walkways and stairways leading up to the “higher” level of Lower Town.

On this next level of Lower Town is the historic St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, the only church in Harpers Ferry to make it intact through the Civil War. Mass is still held there today! Sitting high atop a hill, the church offers sweeping views of the town and rivers below. Visitors are welcome to go inside and take a look around.

Handy tips:

-Wear good walking shoes. You will do LOT of walking at Harpers Ferry, and many of the stairways in the town are simply carved out of the existing rock. The stairs can consequently be uneven and require careful navigation. When you’re not on stairs, you’re still on hills- so come prepared.

-Think twice about bringing strollers. While you can navigate parts of Harpers Ferry with a stroller, many parts will be very difficult- the stairs and paths leading between the two levels of Lower Town would be tough to go up or down with a stroller, and the town sidewalks can be very narrow. Shops and restaurants tend to be quite small. If at all possible, consider leaving the stroller behind to make getting around a bit easier.

-Make time to stop at a winery on the way home! There’s so many gorgeous vineyards located along route 9 and any of them would be a good choice. I’ve written a post about Maggie Malick Wine Caves, but along that road are also local favorites Hillsborough Vineyards, 8 Chains North, and Sunset Hills Vineyards.

Harpers Ferry is the perfect spot for nature lovers and history lovers, a beautiful little gateway town tucked into the foothills of West Virginia. It is absolutely a must-see for anyone in this area and a great destination for kids and adults. Dip your hands in the Shenandoah, take in the view that Thomas Jefferson declared one of the most stupendous in nature, and absorb the history all around you in this wild and wonderful little town.

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