An Accidental ECW Weekender: Harpers Ferry

Sometimes you find a Civil War site – even a famous one – by mistake.

Driving between Frederick, Maryland, and the Shenandoah Valley, I was looking for lunch and knew that Harpers Ferry was more or less along my route. Without any advance planning, I found a deli online, plugged the address into my phone, and got on my way. 

To my happy surprise, the deli was part of historic downtown Harpers Ferry – called the Lower Town – which has been preserved as a national park site. There’s little or no parking there, but you can park at the Visitor Center and take a shuttle down. At that point, I figured I had already paid the entrance fee, so I should make the most of it and take a look around.

Ruins of the historic Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Bridge over the Potomac River. Photo by author.

Sitting at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, Harpers Ferry was a natural crossroads in 19th century America. Those rivers provided the power for early industrial development, and the gap in the mountains made it a natural route for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.

Harpers Ferry also sat right on the border of the Union and the Confederacy, and changed hands repeatedly during the Civil War. It was quickly occupied by Virginia forces early in 1861, who recognized the strategic importance of the location and the value of both the weapons stored there and the equipment for manufacturing more. It was besieged by Stonewall Jackson in 1862 as part of the Antietam Campaign, when he captured 12,000 Federal soldiers. 

This mural shows Harpers Ferry as it appeared in the mid-1800s. Photo by author.

On arriving, the first thing that struck me was the extent to which the surrounding heights dominated the small town, which is wedged into a narrow part of the riverfront. I expected the town to be low-lying from reading about fighting in the area, but it’s different to see it in person. That geography made the town itself almost impossible to defend, contributing to it changing hands so frequently during the war.

Posted at the historic site of a federal armory and an armed uprising, this might be my new favorite ironic sign. Photo by author.

John Brown’s Raid, appropriately, is a major focus. The armory building where he made his final stand has been preserved, across the street from its original location. The buildings of the Lower Town are a mix of businesses aimed at tourists, museums and interpretative displays, and the park bookstore. It’s a creative use of the space, and worth the time to take the shuttle ride down. At the very edge of the Lower Town, “The Point” offers a fantastic view of the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers.

The building where John Brown and his raiders made their last stand before being captured has been preserved, across the street from its original location. Photo by author.

Beyond John Brown and the Civil War, the park also touches on what, at least for me, are lesser-known pieces of Harpers Ferry’s history, including its role as a launching point for the Lewis & Clark Expedition, and as the site of Storer College. Outside of the Lower Town, the park includes parts of the surrounding heights, including opportunities for hiking, the most popular of which is the Maryland Heights Overlook.

I recommend a little more advance planning than I did before my visit. The Park Service site has good resources for making the most of your day there, including these 10 tips.

4 Responses to An Accidental ECW Weekender: Harpers Ferry

  1. It’s also the HQ for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) which serves as the umbrella organization over the various trail maintaining clubs along its length. As the trail runs though town it is an important stopping point for thru-hikers. In the past it played an important role in obtaining permanent easements/property purchase for the trail route.

  2. To learn more about John Brown’s raid and capture, I recommend: THE FORGOTTEN MARINES, “Prelude to Civil War, Harper’s Ferry, October 1859” (

  3. For those not wanting to bother with the Visitor Center, there’s a small number of metered parking spots on the road adjoining the train station — at least, they were there a few years ago.

    1. There was also a parking lot behind Shipley School… a friend of mine drove, and I think we parked there on a visit to Harpers Ferry… (using arcane local knowledge… had no idea the lot existed). The school is closed, but the parking lot is there and seemingly unused. (Now I wonder if I’ve just ruined a good thing?) It’s a bit of a walk, but we went by Jefferson Rock on our way to points of interest more appropriately “Civil War,” then came back up through Harpers Ferry.

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