Harpers Ferry Has a Complex and Dizzying History

By: John Donovan  | 

Harpers Ferry
Harpers Ferry sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers and has a rich and complex history. Dean Heinrichs/Getty Images

At the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, near a spot in the water where Maryland, Virginia, and the easternmost tip of West Virginia converge, lies Harpers Ferry, a quaint, sometimes bucolic 19th-century town with a rich and dizzying history.

In the early 1800s, Harpers Ferry became a pioneer in the way goods were manufactured, beginning with munitions. Just 70 miles (112 kilometers) or so northwest of Washington, D.C., it bloomed into an American transportation hub, with railroads, bridges spanning the two rivers and boats carrying goods throughout the new country.

During the Civil War, it changed hands from Union to Confederate and back again at least eight times. Things got so confusing that the townspeople were called both rebels (when the Union army occupied) and Yankees (when the Confederates were in charge). A church in town flew a British flag, just to be safe.

But it was in 1859, a few years before the Civil War, with a bold and disastrous bid to launch a slave rebellion, that famed abolitionist John Brown truly put Harpers Ferry on the map.

"It's a very complicated place, and it's hard to tell one story of Harpers Ferry," says Paul Shackel, an archeologist and professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland. "There's a lot of different stories and a lot of different histories."

Harpers Ferry
In the mid-1800s, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, the Winchester & Potomac Railroad and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad established Harpers Ferry as a transportation powerhouse.
Library of Congress


The Start of Harpers Ferry

Harpers Ferry sits in a gap among steep, rocky ridges that rise into the rolling hills of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. The Potomac and Shenandoah rivers flow east toward the Chesapeake Bay, meeting at an area of town known as the Point.

In 1783, Thomas Jefferson proclaimed the place "worth a voyage across the Atlantic." He wrote about it in his, "Notes on the State of Virginia," in 1785. (Harpers Ferry became part of West Virginia when it joined the Union in 1863.) An excerpt:

The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature. You stand on a very high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain a hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder and pass off to the sea.

The town's setting was a natural for commerce and industry. George Washington pushed for Harpers Ferry as the spot of a new national armory, and one was erected in 1799. By the outbreak of the Civil War, in 1861, the U.S. Armory and Arsenal had churned out more than 600,000 muskets, rifles and other weapons.

John H. Hall, a Maine gunmaker, devised precision machinery to forge interchangeable parts that could be assembled by less-skilled workmen, rather than individual craftsmen making individual rifles. It increased production and quality and changed the face of American manufacturing.

At that time, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, the Winchester & Potomac Railroad and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad already had established the area as a transportation powerhouse. In the 1850s, Harpers Ferry was a bustling place, with pigs running through the streets, hundreds of people working in the armory, and many more laboring in associated mills along the rivers.

All that came to a halt, though, with the Civil War. Even before that, the abolitionist Brown made a move that hastened both the start of the war and the decline of Harpers Ferry.

Harpers Ferry
The long-planned raid on Harpers Ferry included John Brown and fewer than two dozen men. Brown was eventually captured, tried and found guilty of treason.
Library of Congress


The John Brown Raid

Today, at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (which covers parts of three states), you can visit the building where the famed abolitionist hero holed up — it's now called John Brown's Fort — as his plans for sparking a slave rebellion went terribly awry, almost from the start.

The long-planned raid Oct. 16, 1859 consisted of Brown and fewer than two dozen men taking over the armory. Two days later, the engine house into which he retreated — his "fort" — was surrounded by soldiers. Brown was captured and, about two weeks later, tried and found guilty of treason. He was hanged Dec. 2. That morning, he wrote these words:

I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.

Brown's audacious plan of a slave uprising struck fear into slaveholders in the south. And when he was hanged, Northerners saw it as a rallying cry to finally end slavery.

Harpers Ferry found itself in the middle of everything once again.

Harpers Ferry
Just before the Civil War, U.S. forces abandoned Harpers Ferry, burning the armory on their way out of town.
Library of Congress


The Town After John Brown

Once war erupted, Harpers Ferry turned out to be a critical spot to occupy but a difficult one to defend, stuck as it was under high ridges with few avenues for escape. "Whoever controlled Harpers Ferry could control the railroad, which would supply the Army," Shackel says. "It was considered key, but the North and the South did not invest enough to hold it. So they were always blowing up the bridge and rebuilding the bridge."

U.S. forces abandoned the town when the war began, burning the armory on the way out. But the soldiers didn't do a very good job of it and the Confederates took over, moving much of the gun-making machinery deeper into the South.

"The guns that were produced in the Civil War [for the South] were from Harpers Ferry equipment and technology and machinery," Shackel says. "That was just a major blunder on the part of the Union."

John Brown's Fort, used as a prison and a powder house at various times during the war, became a touchstone for both sides; Union soldiers often treating it with reverence, Confederates cursing it as they passed.

"It was one of the only buildings that wasn't destroyed," Shackel says. "U.S. troops would cross the bridge into Harpers Ferry, and there would be a silence as they would march by, or they would break out into song: 'John Brown's body lies a'mouldering in the grave' ..."

The damage inflicted as troops came and went (often burning buildings in their wake) eventually took its toll. From "The Making of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park: A Devil, Two Rivers, and a Dream," co-authored by Shackel and Teresa S. Moyer:

At the end of the war, Harpers Ferry lay in a deteriorated state. Union troops occupied the town for more than a year after Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Every day, residents endured, "the ear-piercing notes of the fife and the boom of the drum on the streets." ... "What a God forsaken place," wrote local resident Annie Marmion ...


Harpers Ferry Today

The C&O Canal proved to be an economic boon postwar, and the town soon wobbled back to its feet. It became a pilgrimage of sorts to those who revered Brown and what he stood for, even as the town's main attraction — Brown's Fort — was moved to Chicago (for the World's Columbian Exhibition of 1893), back to a farm near Harpers Ferry (many Southern sympathizers didn't want it in town), to a black college established in Harpers Ferry shortly after the Civil War, and finally, in 1968 (years after the National Park Service bought it), to within 150 feet (45 meters) of its original location, now part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

The hills and mountains around Harpers Ferry now are frequented by hikers and trail lovers. The waters are used by kayakers and rafters and are good for catching smallmouth bass. The town also marks the approximate halfway point of the Georgia-to-Maine Appalachian Trail and the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Many of the 19th-century buildings in the lower town now have been restored. John's Brown Fort continues to be a place visited by those still dreaming of racial equality. And the townspeople, thanks largely to the efforts of those telling the town's story at the national park, mostly have embraced their place in the middle of American history.

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