Earlier this month, V and I went back to West Virginia for the long Veterans Day weekend, but this time to Harpers Ferry and the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The town is probably best known for John Brown’s 1859 abolitionist raid on the Federal Armory, which ultimately was put down by U.S. Marines. John Brown had been hoping to incite a large-scale armed slave insurrection, but instead the government executed him and the members of his band who survived the fighting for treason – two years before the American Civil War began and only a handful of years before emancipation became the law of the land anyway.
Harpers Ferry sits in a flood plain where Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia meet at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers.
The town was founded in the 1740s by Robert Harper, a Pennsylvania architect. Harper did not have any children, but left his property and money to his niece, who passed it to her own granddaughter and some of their descendants still live in the area.
Harpers Ferry is only about 70 minutes from DC depending on traffic, so easily doable as a day trip.
There is not a lot of accommodation in the historic area, and after a couple of failed attempts of finding every hotel and B&B full in September and October, I tried November dates and was finally able to get something really nice – a reservation at The Angler’s Inn, which I do recommend.
During our time in Harpers Ferry, we ate some delicious local food, went for walks around the hilly Historic District and its museums and old sites, hiked portions of the Appalachian and Potomac River Trails, and visited several museums.
One thing I loved was all the little shops along the main street that have been restored and are available to just pop into and peek at.
There is also an old boarding house which was run by a Civil War widow and her daughters to make ends meet. I had the eeriest feeling when I walked to the base of the stairs, and I could imagine the women tired, scrubbing the floors through their tears almost as clearly as if they were still there. You can also see an outdoor display of how high the river waters have flooded the town in the past.
I was a little surprised I had never visited Harpers Ferry before, despite its proximity and my having lived in this area for almost nine years before going overseas with the State Department. I guess it just wasn’t on my radar somehow.
In my opinion, the legacy of 400 years of slavery in this country flies in the face of the ideals of the “American experiment.” For this native Californian, it has been a culture shock for me to contend with throughout my life that there were ever laws in this country allowing people to buy other people based on the color of their skin, and deprive them of their liberty and dignity as human beings. It is not the America I know and love, and yet here we are.
I have been to many a Civil War battlefield during my years in Virginia. I have read the stories of soldiers in my adopted home state, fighting for the “right” to own slaves. It offends me deeply. When I realized that only an hour from here, a group of people made a doomed stand against slavery in what was then the northernmost point of Confederate territory before the Civil War got underway, I really wanted to see it for myself.
As distasteful as parts of our national history are, there isn’t any reason to not confront them directly. No one should avert their eyes or fail to consider how this legacy still harms our society today.
Revisiting the historical polarizations in our history and culture also feels like part of my “reacquainting” after living outside the U.S. for more than four years. It hurts, but it is an honest look. Like, “Right, what role do I have as a citizen to make sure we keep moving farther away from this shameful past? And that we don’t repeat our old mistakes?” What is the law during one period looks in retrospect inhumane and horrifying, and we’ve seen this again and again.
Understanding and being sensitive to the legacy of slavery is only one aspect of the broader social constructs of that day and historical interest of visiting Harpers Ferry, but an important one to be sure. There is a lot of other Civil War history, glimpses of how life used to be more than 200 years ago, and information about the competition between the shipping and railroad industries to be first to move goods along the eastern seaboard and beyond.
I neglected to take any pictures at the John Brown Wax Museum, but it brought the battle to life in a really cool way. Seeing John Brown with his head held high at the gallows and his weeping wife in the background made me feel proud of his sacrifice, and the way he stood up for what he believed in, even though it cost him his life and the lives of numerous relatives.
I wasn’t fully ready for all the hills in this town – we climbed the equivalent of hundreds of stairs to get to the cemetery, but it was definitely worth it. What a view!
The people of Harpers Ferry are friendly and generous of time and spirit to what must be a place easily overwhelmed by tourism. On our first evening in town, we witnessed a hit and run on a parked vehicle, and by knocking on doors and asking around we were able to determine who the owner was (local) and give her the license plate number of the out-of-state driver who damaged her car. I left my name and number as a witness, but never heard anything back. I think I was more upset about it than she was!
I would definitely recommend visiting Harpers Ferry if you’re looking for a family trip to spark some meaningful conversations about our cultural identity, for summer swimming and fishing, outdoor recreation and climbing, or even for a cool weather romantic getaway among the proud and welcoming residents of this small town. Harpers Ferry lost its shipping and railroad industries, its armory, and even its most recent industry – bottling, which closed in 1942. And yet it remains, laying claim to arguably the first shots fired on the long road to equality: Harpers Ferry, a small Confederate town that fought to be on the right side of history.