The Reason for Harpers Ferry and Why John Brown Raided It

While working as a ranger at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, I often began my tours about the United States Armory with this simple question to visitors: “Why are you here today?” Common answers included vacation, an interest in history, get out of the house, or wanting to explore an incredibly scenic place. Those answers are not wrong, I told them before holding up one of the many firearms manufactured throughout the armory’s 59 years of existence. “This is the reason you’re here,” I’d say.

John Brown’s Fort can be seen on the left side of this famous image of the Harpers Ferry Armory.

It is difficult for visitors to Harpers Ferry today to grasp but it was once referred to as “The Hole.” That unflattering description did not come from the beauty of the point of land where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers joined but it is a good indicator that Harpers Ferry was not always on the top of people’s bucket list of places to visit. When the United States government determined to establish its second national armory in Harpers Ferry, it changed the town’s story dramatically. The bucolic peninsula suddenly became a town of industry. That is why John Brown considered raiding Harpers Ferry the first step in his plan to end slavery in the United States.

When Brown’s raiders snuck into Harpers Ferry under the cover of night on October 16, 1859, the first place they came to was the iron gate of the armory. Stored in the nearby arsenal were approximately 100,000 firearms that Brown planned to confiscate and thurst into the hands of slaves, thus igniting his plan. Like a magnet, the potential to arm his makeshift force drew Brown in. Unfortunately for Brown, that magnet was too strong for him to pull away from.

Brown himself and portions of his force remained within the grounds of the armory throughout the raid. Thirty-six hours after they arrived, United States Marines escorted them out of the armory’s fire engine house where Brown and his crew stayed during the raid.

The armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry became a symbol of Brown’s raid. Unfortunately, both sets of buildings suffered extensive damage during the Civil War and none of them, save one, survived the 19th century. John Brown’s Fort, as the fire engine house came to be known, was the lone survivor. The Fort has moved around over the previous decades but today sits a few dozen feet from its original location since 1968.

For today’s visitors, it is easy to forget what put Harpers Ferry on the map: its gun factory. While it’s not fair to the rest of Harpers Ferry’s history (and there is a lot of it) to claim that without the armory and arsenal and without John Brown coming to Harpers Ferry for the guns stored there, there would be no National Park Service in Harpers Ferry today, the role of the armory in the raid cannot be understated. Perhaps if it was not for the trees chopped down around Harpers Ferry, shaped into a gun, and fitted with metal pieces, John Brown might never have set his eyes on Harpers Ferry, and neither would thousands of people today.

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6 Responses to The Reason for Harpers Ferry and Why John Brown Raided It

  1. Mike Maxwell says:

    Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. One little town, with so much history: George Washington slept here; the United States Arsenal was established here; many of John Brown’s raiders died here… History on top of History. I decided to visit, years ago, after a period of residing near Washington, D.C. and one day realizing Harpers Ferry was only a couple hour’s drive away. And the visit did not disappoint: the town is wonderfully preserved, with continual maintenance and restoration, asserting confidence that Harpers Ferry intends to “stick around for a while.”
    A number of museums and historic sites were viewed; the most memorable facts uncovered: “Harpers Ferry changed hands seventeen times during the war.” And, “during one of those occupations, a Massachusetts regiment took the bell from John Brown’s Fort” [and West Virginia is still trying to get the bell back.]
    Thanks to Kevin Pawlak for the well written article (and inspiring the memory.)

  2. Stan Killian says:

    No mention of Jefferson’s Rock.

  3. scott s. says:

    it’s also HQ for the Appalachian Trail and the private ATC organization, so is always a destination for through hikers.

  4. Mike Maxwell says:

    “Down the C & O Canal” by Thomas Edison (1917) provides another perspective on Harpers Ferry (see especially 10 minute mark of YouTube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZCw0gcn2r0

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