Harper's Ferry

Harper's Ferry

Map of Harper's Ferry

Map taken from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: I: Sumter to Shiloh, p.115

Return To:
American Civil War Subject Index

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, originally Harpers Ferry National Monument, is located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers in and around Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. It contains the most visited historic site in the state of West Virginia, John Brown's Fort. [3]

The park includes land in the Shenandoah Valley in Jefferson County, West Virginia Washington County, Maryland and Loudoun County, Virginia. The park is managed by the National Park Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Originally designated Harpers Ferry National Monument in 1944, the park was declared a National Historical Park by the U.S. Congress in 1963. The park includes the historic town of Harpers Ferry, notable as a center of 19th-century industry and as the scene of John Brown's failed abolitionist uprising. Consisting of almost 4,000 acres (16 km 2 ), it includes the site of which Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "The passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature" after visiting the area in 1783. [4] Due to a mixture of historical events and ample recreational opportunities, all within 50 miles (80 km) of Washington, D.C., the park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. In 2017, the Park's Superintendent was Tyrone Brandyburg. [5]

The park was originally planned as a memorial to John Brown, responsible for what is by far the most famous incident in Harpers Ferry's history, his 1859 raid and capture of the federal armory. NPS officials in the 1930s focused on John Brown's raid and the Civil War to justify acquiring parts of Harpers Ferry for a historical and military park. Like the figure of John Brown himself, this proved enormously controversial, with opposition from the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. [6] : 86 In 2021, there was no mention of John Brown on the Park's home page ( While there are pages on him, they are not easy to find.

Harpers Ferry

As his Army of Northern Virginia advanced into Maryland in early September 1862, General Robert E. Lee made plans to capture the vital Union garrison at Harpers Ferry in the rear of his invading force. Although Maj. Gen. George McClellan's Army of the Potomac was in pursuit, Lee divided his army, sending three columns under Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to Harpers Ferry while the rest of the army marched towards Hagerstown, Maryland. Surrounded on three sides by steep heights, the terrain surrounding the town made it nearly impossible to defend, a problem made worse by the Union commander, Colonel Dixon S. Miles, who lacked experience leading troops. For three days, Jackson placed artillery on the heights above Harpers Ferry, and on the morning of September 15 ordered an artillery barrage that bombarded the town, followed by an infantry assault by Maj. Gen. A. P. Hill's division. As surrender was debated, Miles was struck by a shell that shattered his left leg, a wound that proved fatal. Jackson took possession of Harpers Ferry before joining the rest of Lee’s army at Sharpsburg, leaving Hill’s division to process the parole of 12,000 prisoners.

The original Harper's Ferry operated from 1733 until it was replaced by a timber covered road bridge in about 1824 at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. [2] [3]

Built in 1836–1837, [3] the B&O's first crossing over the Potomac was an 830-foot (250 m) covered wood truss. It was the only rail crossing of the Potomac River until after the Civil War. The single-track bridge, which comprised six river spans plus a span over the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, II. [4] : 34 In 1837 the Winchester and Potomac Railroad reached Harpers Ferry from the south, and Latrobe joined it to the B&O line using a "Y" span. [4] : 65

John Brown used the B&O bridge at the beginning of his failed attempt to start a slave insurrection in Virginia and further south.

The bridge was destroyed during the American Civil War, and replaced temporarily with a pontoon bridge. [4] : 65

The two crossings today, which are on different alignments, are from the late 19th century and early 20th century. A steel Pratt truss and plate girder bridge was built in 1894 to carry the B&O Valley line (now the CSX Shenandoah Subdivision) toward Winchester, Virginia, along the Shenandoah River. This was complemented in 1930–1931 with a deck plate girder bridge that carries the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) main line to Martinsburg, West Virginia (the line is now the CSX Cumberland Subdivision).

A rail tunnel was built at the same time as the 1894 bridge to carry the line through the Maryland Heights, eliminating a sharp curve. In the 1930s the western end of the tunnel was widened during the construction of the second bridge to allow the broadest possible curve across the river.

Accident Edit

On December 21, 2019, a CSX freight train derailed on the bridge, sending several cars into the river. There were no injuries and the bridge was later reopened. [5]

Harpers Ferry Raid

Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.

Harpers Ferry Raid, (October 16–18, 1859), assault by an armed band of abolitionists led by John Brown on the federal armoury located at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia). It was a main precipitating incident to the American Civil War.

The raid on Harpers Ferry was intended to be the first stage in an elaborate plan to establish an independent stronghold of freed slaves in the mountains of Maryland and Virginia—an enterprise that had won moral and financial support from several prominent Bostonians. Choosing Harpers Ferry because of its arsenal and because of its location as a convenient gateway to the South, John Brown and his band of 16 whites and five blacks seized the armoury on the night of October 16.

Sporadic fighting took place around the arsenal for two days. On October 18, combined state and federal troops (the latter commanded by Col. Robert E. Lee and including Lieut. Jeb Stuart) subdued Brown and his collaborators. Seventeen men died in the fighting. Brown was indicted for treason on October 25. He and his six surviving followers were hanged before the end of the year.

Although the raid on Harpers Ferry was denounced by a majority of Northerners, it electrified the South—already fearful of slave rebellions—and convinced slaveholders that abolitionists would stop at nothing to eradicate slavery. It also created a martyr, John Brown, for the antislavery cause. When he learned that Brown had been executed, essayist, philospher, and dedicated abolitionist Henry David Thoreau said:

I heard, to be sure, that he had been hanged, but I did not know what that meant—and not after any number of days shall I believe it. Of all the men who are said to be my contemporaries, it seems to me that John Brown is the only one who has not died.

History of Harpers Ferry

Harpers Ferry was first settled in 1732 by Peter Stephens, whose "squatter's rights" were bought in 1747 by Robert Harper, for whom the town was named. In about 1750 Harper was given a patent on 125 acres (0.5 km²) at the present location of the town. In 1761 Harper established a ferry across the Potomac River, making the town a starting point for settlers moving into the Shenandoah Valley and further west. In 1763 the Virginia General Assembly established the town of "Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harper's Ferry."

On 25 October 1783, Thomas Jefferson visited Harpers Ferry. He viewed "the passage of the Potomac though the Blue Ridge" from a rock which is now named for him. Jefferson called the site "perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature."

George Washington, as president of the Patowmack Company (which was formed to complete river improvements on the Potomac and its tributaries), traveled to Harpers Ferry during the summer of 1785 to determine the need for bypass canals. In 1794 Washington's familiarity with the area led him to propose the site for a new United States armory and arsenal. Some of Washington's family moved to the area Charles Washington, youngest full brother of the President, founded the city of Charles Town, some six miles to the southwest. President Washington's great-great-nephew, Colonel Lewis Washington, was held hostage during John Brown's raid in 1859.

In 1796 the federal government purchased a parcel of land from the heirs of Robert Harper, and three years later, construction began on the US Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Between 1801 and 1861, when it was destroyed to prevent capture during the Civil War, the armory produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles and pistols. Industrialization continued in 1833 when the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal reached Harpers Ferry, linking it with Washington, D.C. A year later, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad began train service through the town.

On 16 October 1859, the radical abolitionist John Brown led a group of 21 men in a raid on the arsenal. Brown and his men attacked and captured several buildings he hoped to use the captured weapons to initiate a slave uprising throughout the South. John Brown's men were quickly pinned down by local citizens and militia, and forced to take refuge in the engine house adjacent to the armory. A contingent of US Marines, led by then-Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, stormed the engine house and captured most of the raiders, killing a few and suffering a single casualty themselves. Brown was tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, convicted, and hanged in Charles Town. The raid was a catalyst for the Civil War.

The Civil War was disastrous for Harpers Ferry, which changed hands eight times between 1861 and 1865. When Virginia seceded in April 1861, the US garrison attempted to burn the arsenal and destroy the machinery, to prevent the Confederates from using it. Locals saved the equipment, which the Confederate Army transferred to a more secure location in its capital of Richmond. The US Army never renewed arms production in Harpers Ferry.

After the end of the Civil War, in 1867, the historically black Storer College was founded on Camp Hill by Reverend Nathan Cook Brackett. Notable alumni include jazz legend Don Redman and the first President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Nnamdi Azikiwe. Storer College closed in June 1955, and the campus is now part of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

On 15 August 1906, the Niagara Movement, led by author and scholar W. E. B. Du Bois and political activist William Monroe Trotter, held its first meeting on American soil on the campus of Storer College. The three-day gathering, which was held to secure civil rights for African-Americans, was later described by DuBois as "one of the greatest meetings that American Negroes ever held." In 1911, the members of the Niagara Movement joined with others to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, better known as the NAACP.

In 1944 most of the town became part of the National Park Service and is now maintained as the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. All areas of the town not within the Park are contained within the federally-recognized Harpers Ferry Historic District.

Robert E. Lee on John Brown’s Motives

Of Brown, Lee wrote, "He avows that his object was the liberation of the slaves of Virginia, and of the whole South and acknowledges that he has been disappointed in his expectations of aid from the black as well as white population, both in the Southern and Northern States. The blacks, whom he forced from their homes in this neighborhood, as far as I could learn, gave him no voluntary assistance. The servants of Messrs. Washington and Allstadt, retained at the armory, took no part in the conflict, and those carried to Maryland returned to their homes as soon as released. The result proves that the plan was the attempt of a fanatic or mad­man, who could only end in failure and its temporary success, was owing to the panic and confusion he succeeded in creating by magnify­ing his numbers."

That evening, a false rumor that a band of men had attacked a home in Pleasant Valley, Maryland, sent a number of families scurrying to Harpers Ferry for protection.


Harpers Ferry Edit

Robert Harper founded the community of Harpers Ferry in the mid-18th century. Robert Harper was born in 1718 in Oxford Township near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Since he was a builder, Harper was asked by a group of Quakers in 1747 to build a meeting house in the Shenandoah Valley near the present site of Winchester, Virginia. [2] Traveling through Maryland on his way to the Shenandoah Valley, Harper proceeded to the area where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers met. Attracted and amazed by the ample latent waterpower that resided in the rivers and by the strategic location for travel and transport, Harper obtained a patent for 125 acres (0.51 km 2 ) of the land in 1751. [3] He built a ferry to cross the Shenandoah River to help pioneers reach their destination in the new western lands. After the creation of the ferry, more people were attracted to the area and it became a destination with flourishing businesses.

The national armory Edit

In 1794, the United States Congress passed a bill calling "for the erecting and repairing of Arsenals and Magazines". President George Washington, given wide latitude in carrying out this order, selected Harpers Ferry, then a part of Virginia, for the location of the Harpers Ferry National Armory. [4] In 1796, the United States government purchased a 125-acre (0.51 km 2 ) parcel of land from the heirs of Robert Harper. Subsequently, in 1799, construction began on the national armory. Three years later, mass production of military arms commenced. [4]

Firearms and cannons are heavy and needed ready access to river and then railroad transportation. The fuel needs of the foundery meant additional heavy shipments. The Armory was located in Harpers Ferry because it was geographically central and during the Antebellum period, at the center of the country's rail network. The only bridge across the Potomac River that could carry a heavy load—for part of this period, the only rail link between eastern cities and Ohio and the "west"—was the Baltimore and Ohio railroad bridge at Harpers Ferry.

The national armory at Harpers Ferry was actually the second national armory. The first was the Springfield Armory, constructed in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1794 after Congress approved the bill to create the nation's first national armory.

Upon its grand opening, the armory's size seemed inadequate for a work force. It consisted of only one room, and the workers numbered a mere twenty-five. Nevertheless, the armory produced many muskets, rifles, and later pistols for the United States. Between 1821–1830 the armory produced 11,855 arms. Each decade after that, production declined. [5] The building relied on river power to drive the armory's machinery.

Expansion and upgrades Edit

In 1844, the deficient state of the armory was taken into account and demand for military equipment increased, and so the renovation and expansion of the armory was undertaken. The upgrades of the arsenal began in 1845–1854 with the construction of seven brand new workshops and the installation of 121 new machines. [4] The new workshops had a brick superstructure with iron framing and slanted sheet metal roofing. These reconstructed arsenal buildings became collectively known as the "U.S. Musket Factory". [4] The armory canal was enlarged so that more water could get to the armory, which meant it would receive more power. Along with the enlargement of the canal, seven new water turbines were installed. The upgrades formed a well-integrated functional unit that improved the flow of work from one stage of production to the next. [6] All the expansions of the armory were done on heavy stone foundations and included cast-iron framing in the general style of "factory Gothic" architecture. [6]

In addition, more people were employed to work at the armory than before: the labor force increased from a minuscule twenty-five in 1802 to about four hundred workers in 1859. [4] Furthermore, the working conditions improved, but only slightly.

John Brown's raid Edit

In 1859, the armory became the site of the famous seizure by abolitionist John Brown, which, while unsuccessful in inciting a slave revolt, helped precipitate the American Civil War and the eventual emancipation of slaves in the United States.

During the Civil War Edit

While Virginia was still in the Union, the armory regularly shipped manufactured weapons and material throughout the United States. However, once the Civil War began, the national armory became a vital control point for both the Confederates and the Union.

Close to the beginning of the war on April 18, 1861, just a day after Virginia's conventional ratification of secession, Union soldiers, outnumbered and deprived of reinforcements, set fire to their own armory in an attempt to thwart the usage of it by an advancing Virginian Confederate militia numbering 360 men in all. Harpers Ferry residents (many of whom made their living off the armory) were able to put out the fires swiftly enough to save most of the armory's weapon-making machinery. After rescuing the equipment, the Confederates shipped it south by rail to Winchester, Virginia, and from there to Richmond, as Virginia had decided to reopen the Richmond Armory. [7] The South had virtually no small-arms production and an inadequate supply of raw materials. The machinery taken from Harpers Ferry became the foundation of the Confederate arms manufacturing. [8] Two weeks later, the Confederates abandoned Harpers Ferry. The Southern forces confiscated what was left in the armory and burned the rest of the remaining armory buildings. [4] They also blew up the railroad bridge of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, but returned in two weeks to destroy the Rifle Works and a bridge that crossed the Shenandoah river. [6]

The armory's strategic location Edit

During the Civil War, the armory became a site of great strategic importance because it was located very close to the Mason-Dixon line, or the border between the free and the slave-holding states. Consequently, the Union used it as an effective means to supply troops with weapons quickly as they marched into battle. [ when? ] The downside to being on the border was that the armory could easily change hands and fall into Confederate control–the town of Harpers Ferry changed hands at least eleven times during the Civil War. [6]

Aftermath of the Civil War Edit

Due to the degree of damage to the armory during the Civil War, the U.S. government decided not to re-establish the armory at Harpers Ferry, instead focusing the quickly developing areas west of the Mississippi River. [8]

Today the site is mostly covered by railroad track embankments.

John Brown's Fort Edit

John Brown's Fort was the only building to survive the destruction wrought upon it by the Confederates and the Union. It was the armory's fire engine and guard house, [4] which Brown and his raiders barricaded themselves in. It was given after the war the name of John Brown's Fort.

This building has been moved four times. The first time, freeing up the site for the railroad to use for an embankment, it was moved to Chicago, where it was displayed at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Abandoned after that, it was moved back to a farm near Harpers Ferry. From there, it was moved to the place it was the longest, and where it was most honored: Storer College, a school established for freedmen in Harpers Ferry, which also was given by Congress the Arsenal managers' housing, set back on Camp Hill.

The Fort remained at Storer until after the College closed in 1955, contributing greatly to Harpers Ferry's role as a destination for African-American tourists in the early 20th century. It was afterwards moved by the National Park Service to near its original location.

Harper's Ferry - History

This is an historical account of some of the events and people involved in the creation, operation and activities of St. Peter's Catholic Church and School. It is a partial account only, based on research using available documentary evidence, such as correspondence, wills, deeds, photographic records, and newspaper articles from the relevant time periods. Such documentary evidence provides only a limited view of the many past experiences, varied personalities, and dynamics of social and religious life which revolved around this place in times past. Hopefully, as we obtain additional data from other documentary sources and the archaeological record, this account will grow in detail, breadth, and in the variety of past perspectives that can be represented.

Creation of the Parish

Construction of St. Peter's Catholic Church in Lower Town, Harpers Ferry, started in 1830 and was completed in 1833 (Smith 1959: 6, 13). It was the third church built in Harpers Ferry, and the only church not located on government land (Theriault 1996). Before 1830, the nearest Catholic Church was located in Martinsburg, several miles to the northwest of Harpers Ferry. Reverend John Gildea was the first pastor of St. John Catholic parish, which was established in Martinsburg in 1825, with Harpers Ferry assigned to him as a mission (DWC History: 1). In 1830, Church officials decided that the number of persons seeking to attend Catholic services in Harpers Ferry had increased to a sufficient level to justify construction of a new parish there (Magri & Dittmeyer 1930: 6). By some accounts, Father Gildea had arranged for an earlier Catholic church to be built in the late 1820's along Shenandoah Street in Lower Town, but it was promptly destroyed by a flood.

Several churches of different denominations were established in Harpers Ferry over the period of 1825 through 1852. The Free Church was Harpers Ferry's first, built in 1825 on property adjacent to the location of St. Peter's. It was destroyed by fire in 1845, and St. John's Episcopal Church was built on the same property in 1852 (Shackel 1996: 166 Null 1983 Snell 1959d: 2-4). Other churches established in Harpers Ferry included a Methodist Episcopal church in 1828, St. Peter's in 1833, a Presbyterian church in 1841, Methodist Protestant in 1843, and Lutheran in 1850. Before the establishment of these churches, Armory managers complained about the lack of a focal point for maintaining the moral and religious discipline of Armory workers and their families, and residents often met in assembly areas such as workshops for Sunday services (Snell 1959d: 1, 3-7 Shackel 1996: 166).

A May 5, 1830, notice in the Virginia Free Press sought financial contributions for the building of the new St. Peter's parish: "'Subscriptions have been opened at Harpers Ferry, for the erection of a Roman Catholic Church at that place and it is stated that liberal contributions have been made by persons of other denominations, as well as by members of that Society.'" (Smith 1959: 6, quoting Virginia Free Press , May 5, 1830, p. 3, col. 1). A cornerstone was set on October 15, 1830, and construction started in that year, even though the property had not yet been fully conveyed to the Church (Magri & Dittmeyer 1930: 6). John Tearney, a master stone mason, supervised construction of the first Church building (Gilbert 1995: 59).

A May 9, 1833, article in the Virginia Free Press described the creation of this new parish as follows:

From 1833 through 1896, the structure of St. Peter's Church was 39 feet wide, 75 feet long, and had an interior height of 25 feet to the eaves. It was one story tall, built with brick walls over a stone foundation, an oversized front facade of brick, and a central steeple made of wood (Smith 1959: 7 see 1861, 1865, 1890 and 1895 images above and below). There were four arched windows on each side wall, and one window in the Vestry room at the rear of the Church (the west end). The front facade had three arched windows and two round windows, along with the entry door, and four stone steps leading up to that entrance.

The interior included arched ceilings, a marble pulpit, and an image of the Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus (Smith 1959: 7-8). Samuel Kercheval's 1833 History of the Valley of Virginia stated: "The Roman Catholic Society have erected several chapels in several places. They have built a superb edifice at Harper's Ferry, with a beautiful pulpit, with the image of the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus in her lap" (Kercheval 1850: 318).

Maintenance and improvements were undertaken in the following decades, often with the help of funds raised through local fairs and festivals organized by parishioners. The Church received a new altar, made by an artisan named "Mr. Vilwig" of Winchester, Virginia, in 1877. A new pipe organ was installed in 1882 (Virginia Free Press, Oct. 6, 1877, p. 3, col. 3 Sept. 23, 1882, p. 2, col. 2). A local newspaper noted that the Church had received a fresh coat of paint in 1877, and new frescoes were planned for completion by the Christmas of 1881 (Virginia Free Press, Oct. 13, 1877, p. 3, col. 3 Spirit of Jefferson, Dec. 6, 1881, p. 3, col. 1).

St. Peter's Church and Rectory, 1890. © Leib Collection, York, Pennsylvania. Click on the image above for a larger view.

Robert Harper and his great grand nephews, James B. Wager and Gerard B. Wager, and his great grand niece, Sarah Ann Wager, had donated the property on which St. Peter's stands (Magri & Dittmeyer 1930: 20). Harper's last will and testament in 1782 set aside approximately four acres for use in establishing a Church. The three Wager siblings implemented his desire in 1831 by conveying the land on which St. Peter's is now located to the Catholic Church (Magri & Dittmeyer 1930, app., quoting Jefferson County, West Virginia Deed Book 17, pp. 6-7, May 10, 1831). These conveyances provided that the land could only be used for establishment of a religious institution. Those conditions were satisfied, and the Catholic Church has retained ownership of this land to the present.

St. Peter's Church was the focal point for a variety of religious and social activities over the years. Marriages, funerals and mass services were held regularly. The Bishop for the local diocese officiated at Confirmation services at St. Peter's nearly every year. Fairs, picnics and festivals were held to raise funds for a variety of causes, including charity efforts and improvements for the Church and its congregation.

St. Peter's was also a focal point for a growing temperance movement in the 1840's. John H. Hall, an inventor from Massachusetts who operated a local rifle works, had undertaken an earlier effort to organize and operate a "Temperance Society" at Harpers Ferry in the 1830's. However, this society apparently became inactive by the early 1840's, as other abstinence societies were forming.

Hall was not alone in attempting to promote temperance in such manufacturing communities. The managers at the Springfield, Massachusetts armaments factory prohibited the consumption of alcohol on factory grounds and would terminate the employment of anyone found violating this rule. In contrast, James Stubblefield, the second Superintendent of the government-run armory in Harpers Ferry (from 1815-1829), did not promote temperance. Ever an entrepreneur, Stubblefield owned a part interest in a local distillery and had relatives who owned a tavern in the town. Along with Armistead Beckham, the first master armorer (from 1815-1830), Stubblefield also owned shares of the firm of Wager, Beckham, which operated a retail store on the armory grounds. Rather than condemn consumption of alcohol by armory workers, Stubblefield tended to encourage it as long as no one became disruptive (Smith 1977: 150-51 Shackel 1996: 114).

At the same time that Hall's efforts declined in the early 1840's, a number of "Total Abstinence Societies" were organized in Harpers Ferry in conjunction with local churches. The activities of these societies gained momentum throughout the 1840's and 1850's. The Catholic Total Abstinence Society of Harpers Ferry was organized in association with the activities of St. Peter's Church. That society had enlisted 383 members by 1843, and continued to grow thereafter (Virginia Free Press , Jan. 19, 1843, p. 3, c. 1).

Many temperance and abstinence societies were organized in other manufacturing towns in the early 1800's. This trend was motivated in part by reformist sentiments earlier created by the evangelical movement called the second great awakening. It was also motivated by the concerns of proprietors and industrialists who relied upon a productive work force (Wallace 1978: 296-97, 322 Johnson 1978: 60-61, 79-84). The activities of many temperance societies were eclipsed during the Civil War. However, they again gained momentum in the late 1800's, particularly through promotion targeted at members of the working middle classes, and resulted ultimately in the national prohibition of alcohol in the 1920's (Mrozowski et al. 1996: 71-74).

The First School House & Rectory

The Church acquired additional adjoining land by lease in 1854, on which it built a school house, which is today part of the existing Rectory building on the west side of the Church. The Church first requested that this parcel be provided under a lease, as reflected in a December 16, 1853, letter from Superintendent Benjamin Huger of the Harpers Ferry Armory to Colonel Henry Craig of the U.S. Ordnance Office:

A school house was built on that parcel between 1854 and 1857, and was later converted into the existing Rectory in 1889 (Smith 1959: 14 Snell 1959c: 8-9 Theriault 1996). This school house was built as a two-story stone structure, and the exterior was covered in plaster and scored to resemble the outlines of cut stones. The building had a cupola centered on the ridge of the roof, and a large two-story porch on the south side, both of which were later removed (Snell 1959c: 9 Theriault 1996).

This first school was open to Catholic and non-Catholic students alike, and was operated until approximately 1886, when a second school house was built for St. Peter's on Shenandoah Street (Snell 1959c: 9 Magri & Dittmeyer 1930: 20). The Church building was originally 60 feet to the east of this first school house, but is now closer after the 1896 reconstruction of the Church. The Catholic Church has retained ownership and possession of these additional parcels and improvements to the present day (Smith 1959: 2, 9, 13).

View Artists' Renderings of Harpers Ferry in 1857 and 1859

Restoration work on the Rectory in 1971 and 1972 revealed details of the construction of this first school house. The original dimensions of the building were 40 feet in length and 22 feet in width. A later addition of 10 feet extended off the west end. This addition is evident by the existence of an original exterior bearing wall, which is 24 inches thick and made of stone, located 10 feet inside the current west facade (Gavin n.d.: 3-4). The building sits directly on an out-cropping of Harpers Ferry shale, which intrudes into the space of the basement. The original walls appear to be made of the same type of stone used in the dry-stacked retaining walls on the north and south sides of the Rectory grounds (Gavin n.d.: 4). Those retaining walls were likely built by Armory personnel as part of general landscaping work undertaken around the time the school house was constructed (Snell 1959c: 10).

The Church and School in 1865. Click on this image to see enlarged portions of an 1865 photograph.

The privy off the west end of the Rectory is also made with a stone base, which was unusual for such an outbuilding. Most privies in the area were built of wood frames (Gavin n.d.: 4). It was likely constructed at the same time as the first school house. This privy is visible in a photograph made in 1865, shown above (Snell 1959a: 112-13 Harpers Ferry Archive Photo No. HF-361), and in another taken between 1892 and 1896 (Snell 1959a: 116 Photo No. HF-99).

A timber frame bell tower was added to the grounds in approximately 1880, and stood just north of the northwest corner of the school house. This bell tower served the Church until a year or two after completion of the 1896 Church renovations, which added a new stone bell tower on the southeast corner of the Church. In 1890, an earlier bell weighing 400 pounds was replaced with a new bell weighing 1,400 pounds. The new bell, made by the McShane firm of Baltimore, was 3 feet 6 inches tall and cost $430.00 (Virginia Free Press, June 4, 1890, p. 3, col. 1 Spirit of Jefferson, July 29, 1890, p. 3, col. 4). This tower is visible in photographs taken in 1886, 1890 and 1895 (above).

St. Peter's Church and Rectory, 1865-1900. Click on the image to the left for a detailed map of the site's structures and features.

The Second School House

A second school house was built in 1886 on the north side of Shenandoah Street, on a lot at the base of the slope off the south side of the Church (see 1865-1900 map above). This second school house was one and half stories tall, and was made of brick. It was open to Catholic and non-Catholic students alike, and was operated from 1886 to 1899, when school operations ended due to a shortage of students (Snell 1959c: 9). The reduction in the number of school-aged children likely resulted from a general trend of families moving out of Harpers Ferry to other towns and cities in the region that offered greater employment opportunities (Magri & Dittmeyer 1930: 20).

Second School House, 1895. Click on this image to see the second School House in an 1895 photograph excerpt.

This school building was slightly damaged by fire in 1896, and promptly repaired (Spirit of Jefferson, Nov. 24, 1896, p. 3, col. 3). It fell into disuse after the school was closed in 1899. Eventually, the ruins of this building were removed from the lot in the mid-1950's, after the State of West Virginia acquired the property from the Church (Snell 1959c: 12 Jefferson County, Deed Book 191, pp. 259-60, Jan. 7, 1953, Harpers Ferry Archive, Doc. No. HFD-174).

The Parsonage Unbuilt

The Church had earlier considered building a parsonage on another lot on the south side of Shenandoah Street in Harpers Ferry. On August 13, 1852, Reverend Joseph Plunkett, the pastor of St. Peter's, wrote a letter to Colonel Benjamin Huger, the Superintendent of the Armory. He stated that the "'Bishop of Richmond asks for a parsonage for his church at this place,'" and he observed that "'Vacant Lot No. 2, on Block D, Shenandoah St.'" would be suitable (Snell 1959b: 13, quoting letter from Plunkett to Huger, Aug. 13, 1852, Microfilm Reel 26, vol. 2, p. 141). In June 1852, Secretary of War C. M. Conrad had issued a directive stating the government's desire to encourage the establishment of churches, schools, and other public institutions in Harpers Ferry by reserving lots for such use (Snell 1959b: 13-14).

Lot 2, Block D, Shenandoah Street. Click on the image to the left for a map showing the unused site for a parsonage.

This Lot 2 was part of a tract purchased by the U.S. government from John Wager, Sr. for use in establishing the Armory. The Armory sold these parcels in Block D at private and public auctions in August and September of 1852, but reserved Lot 2 for the Church to use as a parsonage (Snell 1959b: 1, 13-14). St. Peter's obtained a lease for Lot 2 in 1852, and the Government conveyed full title in that parcel to the Church in 1868.

However, Church officals never built a parsonage on that lot, likely due to the frequency with which Shenandoah Street was flooded by storms and the overflow of the river (Smith 1959: 6 Snell 1959b: 2, 13-14). Instead, the Church pastor and support staff lived elsewhere in the area until 1889, when the first school house next to the Church was converted into a Rectory. For example, the 1860 census indicates that Reverend Michael Costello, the pastor at that time, lived with William Stephen's family in their house in Lower Town (Snell 1959b: 15).

Houses were built on the parcels adjoining Lot 2 in the early 1800's, and those houses were likely used as residences for Armory workers and their families. These neighboring properties were damaged frequently by the floods that flowed through Shenandoah Street during this period (Snell 1959b: 2). Lot 2 contained four houses, all made of wood and ranging in size from one to two stories tall, in the period of 1811 through 1852 (Snell 1959b: 11). Those structures were dismantled by the time the lot was conveyed to the Church. Lot 2 later remained largely vacant, except for a livery stable maintained there after 1859 (Snell 1959b: 15-16). The State of West Virginia eventually acquired this parcel in the 1950's.

Surviving the Civil War

Harpers Ferry changed hands between Union and Confederate control fourteen times during the years of the Civil War (Hearn 1996: 290). St. Peter's was the only church in the town that was not severely damaged or destroyed by the heavy bombardments and destruction leveled on Harpers Ferry by both northern and southern forces. The Reverend Michael A. Costello is credited with this feat of preservation. Born in Ireland in 1833, he became Pastor of St. Peter's in 1857, and was in his late 20's during the War (Barry 1903: 148 Smith 1959: 9 Virginia Free Press, Dec. 17, 1857, p. 2, col. 4). Rather than accept an invitation from Bishop McGill to travel to Ireland during the War, he stayed at the Church throughout the hostilities and even during severe artillery bombardments from the surrounding heights (Magri & Dittmeyer 1930: 12 Hearn 1996: 288).

Father Costello witnessed the dramatic events of John Brown's 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry first hand. After one of the Harpers Ferry residents was shot by a member of Brown's company, Father Costello was summoned to give last rights to the dying man. Later, after the United States Marines stormed the Armory firehouse in which Brown and his company had barricaded themselves, Father Costello was summoned to give last rights to two wounded soldiers, one of whom died. Costello later visited Brown in his jail cell in Charles Town. He related these events, experiences, and his views on slavery, the hazards faced by free African Americans, and the dangerous prospects of a coming war in the following letter to a fellow priest at All Hallows College.

You must look upon me as one of the most ungrateful children of All Hallows, as one who has forgotten all he owes to his "Alma Mater" in having allowed so long a time to elapse without writing but such is not the case. On the contrary, it is only when separated by time and distance that a person can fully realize how strong and endearing is the chain that binds him to the hallowed place where his mind was nurtured in piety and in learning and as trials, dangers and difficulties encompass the young and inexperienced minister of the sanctuary, the more affectionately will he turn to his college home.

You know that I was appointed shortly after my arrival in Richmond to take charge of my present mission. I have two churches which are thirty miles apart, to attend, besides several small stations that I visit occasionally. At Harper's Ferry, where I principally reside, I have a very pretty little church, capable of holding between 400 and 500 persons and, as it is too small to hold all the congregations at the same time, I have leave to say two Masses on Sundays. The church is literally built upon a rock, and it is one of the first things that strike the visitor's view as he approaches the town. Harper's Ferry is situated in the north-east part of Virginia, two hundred miles from Richmond, and eighty miles from Baltimore. The waters of the Potomac river wash its banks on one side, while the Blue Ridge confines it on the other. The scenery at this locality is most picturesque and romantic. Nature has been lavish indeed in her gifts, so as to render it one of the most beautifully wild scenes in the United States. Truly worthy is it of the artist's pencil and of the poet's dream and the author of "the declaration of American Independence", the great and illustrious Jefferson, has but done it justice when he declares that "it is worthy of a trip across the Atlantic to see the scenery at Harper's Ferry". The population is about 4000. Of this number there are between six and seven hundred Catholics. Harper's Ferry is chiefly remarkable for its scenery, and for an armoury where arms are manufactured for the United States. Latterly it has become famous throughout the Union as the theatre of war. I suppose you have heard about the invasion made by Northern abolitionists to liberate the slaves of Virginia, and as an account from me may not prove uninteresting to you, I shall give you a short sketch of it.

On the night of the 16th of October last, a party of abolitionists came to Harper's Ferry, and while the citizens peacefully slept, they took possession of the United States' Armoury, Rifle Works, and Arsenal. Next morning, when the inhabitants awoke, they were surprised to see parties of armed men patrolling the streets, and as some of them attempted to pass to their employment they were taken prisoners by the insurgents and marched into the Armoury, where they were placed under guard. As soon as the object of the insurrection became known, the citizens prepared to defend themselves and drive away the invaders. Accordingly, armed with any old guns they could find, they shot at the enemy who appeared in the streets, and the invaders returning their fire mortally wounded one of the citizens. The wounded man being a Catholic, I was called to attend him, and as I had to pass through the insurgents on my way, when I started I had very little hope that they would allow me to pass, as they were making prisoners of all they could catch. However, they allowed me to attend the dying man. I administered to him the last Sacraments, and he died soon after. During the day volunteer companies came from every direction to the aid of the inhabitants, and the firing continued without intermission, several of the invaders and four of the citizens losing their lives. At night, I attended another member of my congregation who was dangerously wounded. Meantime a company of the United States' soldiers arrived from Washington, and were immediately drawn up in front of the engine-house, into which "Osswattomie" Browne and his followers with their prisoners were finally driven.

On the morning of the 18th a white flag was dispatched to Brown with a command to surrender, which he refused to do, unless he was allowed to pass in safety to Maryland, taking with him his prisoners until, he reached there, when he would give them their liberty and then the soldiers might attack him and his party if they liked. Of course those terms were not listened to, and the order was given to storm the engine house, and take all the invaders at the point of the bayonet, in order that the prisoners might be rescued in safety. Soon after, the door of the fortress was battered down, and in a few moments "Ossawattamie" Brown and his deluded followers were secured. In the final attack on the insurgents two of the soldiers were wounded, one of them mortally. As both were Catholics, I was summoned to attend them. As private Luke Quin fell, pierced through with a ball, his first exclamation was to Major Russel, of the United States Marines, who seeing him fall, went up to him. In pitiful accents he cried out: "Oh! Major, I am gone, for the love of God will you send for the priest". I administered to him the holy rites of the Church he died that day, and was buried with military honours in the Catholic graveyard at this place. The invaders who survived were tried at Charleston [i.e., Charles Town] in this county, and were convicted of treason against the commonwealth of Virginia, murder, and attempt to excite slaves to rebel. Five of them, have been already executed, and two more are under sentence of death. The abolitionists calculated, when they invaded Harper's Ferry, that the slaves would immediately flock to their standard, and for this purpose they came provided with over 1000 pikes and 200 Sharps rifles, to arm the Negro population to free their coloured brethren throughout Virginia. They were, however, sadly mistaken, for they could not get a single slave in Virginia to join them, and the first man shot by them was a free Negro who refused to take arms and join their standard. I have seen the slaves, trembling with terror, hide themselves, for fear the insurgents would come and take them, though the boon offered was liberty. The fact is that the slaves are much better off than the free Negros, and they know this to be the fact, hence it is that they prefer to remain as they are, and it is better for them, I am sure. The invasion against the rights of the south by northern abolitionists has created the greatest excitement throughout the country, and it does not require a prophet to predict that if a dissolution of the union of the States ever takes place, it will be on account of the question of slavery. I hope, however, that such a misfortune will never happen to this country, for no matter how high political excitement may be carried, I believe that there will always found good and sound men in the north and in the south who will rally round the constitution and preserve it inviolate. I visited "Old Brown", who was the commanding general of the invaders some time previous to his execution, and he informed me that he was a congregationalist. He said that he would not receive the services of any minister of religion, for he believed that they as apologists of slavery, had violated the laws of nature and off God, and that they ought first to sanctify themselves by becoming abolitionists, and then they might be worthy to minister unto him. Let them follow St. Paul's advice he said, and go and break the chains of the slaves, and then they may preach to others. I told him that I was not aware of St. Paul's ever giving any such advice, but that I remembered an epistle of St. Paul to Philemon, where we are informed that he sent back the fugitive slave Onesimus from Rome to his master. I then asked him what he thought of that, and he said that he did not care what St. Paul did, but what he said, and not even what he said if it was in favour of slavery!

I hope you enjoy good health, and that all the directors are well and happy. Remember me to them very kindly. Will you kindly send me two latest Annual Reports of the College I am always pleased to hear news about it. I hope that you do not forget to pray for me. Wishing every happiness to you, and continually increasing to my dear Alma Mater, I remain, dear Father Harrington,

Your devoted and affectionate child in Jesus and Mary.

During the War, Father Costello reportedly raised a Union Jack flag over the Church to dissuade the Confederate artillery from aiming their guns at it. If true, this would make sense given the Confederate forces' view of Britain as a potential ally. The Confederate forces' artillery fire from the surrounding School House Ridge, Maryland Heights and Loudoun Heights in September 1862 was particularly heavy and destructive. They targeted their fire at Union forces located on nearby Camp Hill and Bolivar Heights (Hearn 1996: 172-75). Colonel William H. Trimble of the 60th Regiment from Ohio described the barrage of fire leveled at the Union troops as so fierce that there was "'not a place where you could lay the palm of your hand and say it was safe'" (Frye 1998, quoting Trimble).

St. Peter's Church, 1861 and 1862. Click on the image to the left to see a larger view of Harpers Ferry in 1861, and the image to the right to see a panoramic view of the Church and Town in 1862.

The Lower Town of Harpers Ferry came under artillery fire at other times, including June and July of 1863, and July of 1864, when the Union artillery on Maryland Heights was targeted at Confederate forces that had made incursions into the town (Hearn 1996: 247-48). Many buildings were damaged in the course of these various hostilities. Remarkably, all bombardments missed St. Peter's, even though it was located close by other buildings that were destroyed. For example, St. John's Episcopal Church, located on an uphill lot adjacent to St. Peter's (see 1895 image above), was heavily damaged (Null 1983). The undamaged St. Peter's Church and the school house were used as make-shift hospitals at various times during the War, and Father Costello held services and administered the sacraments as much as possible throughout its duration (Hearn 1996: 288). He died of an illness just a few years later, at the age of 34, and was buried in St. Peter's cemetery (Virginia Free Press, Feb. 21, 1867, p. 2, col. 4).

The drama of the War left St. Peter's with a number of local legends. Two ghost stories are applied to the Church. In one, the ghost of a priest walks the path along the north exterior wall of the Church, reading a book, and then turns abruptly, disappearing into the wall, at a spot where the original 1833 Church's front facade likely stood. In another story, the stone steps leading into the east entrance of the Church are haunted by the cries of a baby who was killed there by a falling mortar shell. Archaeological excavations in the summer of 2000 dispelled a third belief. A large capstone from the Armory wall rests in the ground just outside the west, exterior door of the old School House. Some speculated that the School and Church were used as temporary hospitals during the War, and that this capstone was hauled to the School yard as a marker to cover a burial of limbs amputated from unfortunate soldiers. No such remains were found beneath the capstone by the archaeologists.

St. Peter's Church, before 1896.

Renovations in 1896

A visiting priest conducted the last mass service in the original Church building on July 2, 1896. That structure was replaced in the following year by the current neo-Gothic structure, built with granite walls and red sandstone trim (see 1983 image below). Those materials are not native to the Harpers Ferry area, and were brought in for this project. The granite was obtained from Loudoun County, Virginia, and the sandstone from Seneca, Maryland (Spirit of Jefferson, Aug. 31, 1897, p. 2, col. 1).

John Tearney's son Edward was a supervisor in this construction project (Gilbert 1995: 59, 62 Theriault 1996). The main construction contract was awarded to "Mr. Withrow" of Charleston, and the brickwork to George Armentrout of Charles Town (Spirit of Jefferson, Aug. 26, 1896, p. 2, col. 4 Sept. 8, 1896, p. 3, col. 1). William Phillips' Sons handled the finish work, including wood trim, door frames, window frames and sashes (Farmers Advocate, Jan. 23, 1897, p. 3, col. 1). This construction project overall cost approximately $12,000 (Spirit of Jefferson, Aug. 31, 1897, p. 2, col. 1).

The renovation enlarged the Church's footprint to 39 feet in width and 90 feet in length. The piazza on the front (east) side of the Church was enlarged, and the front facade of the Church, with a new recessed portico, was built several feet further to the west. The central steeple was replaced with a larger bell tower located at the southeast corner of the new front facade. An original lean-to of brick on the west end of the Church was similarly replaced with a cut-stone apse. Heating stoves were replaced with a central heating system. A slate roof was also added in this renovation, but has since been replaced with a roof of composite shingles (Smith 1959: 9 Theriault 1996 see image below).

St. Peter's Church and Rectory, 1983.

More Recent Developments

An expanded St. James Catholic parish was established in Charles Town, just six miles to the west of Harpers Ferry, in 1967. Charles Town was assigned as a mission to St. Peter's Church from 1899 until that time (DWC History: 7). Due to the reduced size of its congregation, regular services at St. Peter's were curtailed in 1995, as part of a reorganization and revitalization plan of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. This plan called for the preservation of St. Peter's Church in view of its historical significance, and anticipated that occasional liturgical celebrations would be held there each year (DWC History: 13). St. Peter's remains open to the public, and receives hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, many of whom come to tour the surrounding Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Reverend Brian Owens, pastor of St. James Church, maintains responsibility and oversight for the activities at St. Peter's.

Reverend Owens is working to coordinate substantial restoration work on the Church, Rectory and surrounding grounds. This work will include improvements of the landscape and repairs to the stone retaining walls that surround the grounds. Archaeological investigations have been conducted to coincide with these efforts in order to preserve the record of artifacts located on those grounds.

Archaeological Investigations

From the 1950's through the mid-1990's, the National Park Service conducted extensive archaeological and historical research on many properties located throughout Lower Town, Harpers Ferry and nearby Virginius Island. However, due to their location on private property, no such archaeological investigations of the grounds of St. Peter's Church and Rectory were conducted in the course of those efforts. The Church and Rectory grounds offered a potential wealth of archaeological data on the daily lives and material culture of the Church pastors, support staff, teachers, students, parishioners, and neighbors, for the time period of 1830 onward.

St. Peter's Church and Rectory, 1865-1900. Click on the image to the left for a detailed map of the site's structures and features.

In the summer of 2000, the author of this article organized excavations on the grounds of the Church and School. A team of sixteen volunteers, including participants who travelled from as far away as California, Louisiana and England, undertook these efforts. They surveyed the site and excavated three-foot-square units and one-foot-wide shovel test pits along a grid of survey lines (called transects) laid out along the cardinal directions. This team excavated 26 units and over 50 shovel test pits in the areas surrounding the Church and School House. We uncovered thousands of artifacts, including an array of nineteenth-century ceramic types, iron hardware, two religious artifacts, and various materials from later time periods as well.

The soil layers on this site proved to be notably shallow. The Church and School were built on a ridge of rock on a steep hillside overlooking Lower Town Harpers Ferry. This bedrock, called Harpers Ferry Shale, often lies just twelve to sixteen inches below the grass surface at the site. The soil layers extend deeper along portions of the southern, downslope edge of the property. In his Strange Story of Harpers Ferry, Joseph Barry applied his usual poetic license in describing the landscape of St. Peter's: "There can be no doubt that this church, at least, is 'built on a rock,' for there is not soil enough anywhere near it to plant a few flowers around the House of Worship or the parsonage, and the worthy Fathers have been obliged to haul a scanty supply from a considerable distance to nourish two or three rosebushes" (1903: 6-7).

As a result of such a shallow space for soils on this shoulder of bedrock, the grounds surrounding the Church and School House have been extensively disturbed and churned up over time by erosion and the impact of past construction and landscaping work. Almost all excavation units contained artifacts which had been jumbled, with some older artifacts higher in the soil than more recent ones. When archaeological sites exist in an undisturbed state, they possess more orderly layers of sediment and soil that contain artifacts, with the earliest found at the deepest layers and the most recent found closest to the surface.

There are three general causes of such deposition of soil and artifacts onto the site, and their disturbance over time:

    the artifacts were discarded and deposited into the soil on-site, and the soil and artifacts were later mixed and disturbed by landscaping and construction work

Works in Progress

An array of parishioners, students and scholars are continuing efforts to learn more about the history of St. Peter's Church and School, and about the lifeways of the many people who shaped and enlivened these social, educational and religious centers over time. The past documents that should reflect the daily events and operations of the Church and School likely exist in private archives, which are the focus of ongoing research efforts. Additional documents may be available in the public archives of historical societies in the region as well. For example, substantial gaps exist in some collections of the local nineteenth-century newpapers, which researchers hope to fill in future work. Oral histories provide valuable and varying perspectives on St. Peter's past events and present importance. Archaeological excavations have been completed. Some additional excavations may be undertaken in the future, but the disturbed character of the layers of soil and artifacts at the site makes documentary and oral history research a greater priority in future efforts. By comparing and contrasting the varying stories and facts yielded from the documents, oral histories and archaeological record, we hope to obtain the richest view possible of the many pasts and individual stories that played out at St. Peter's Church and School.

This archaeology project was supported by the West Virginia Humanities Council, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

This web site has also been featured as a lesson plan by Education World, The Study Web, and Bigchalk Education Network, among others.

References Cited

  • Barry, Joseph, The Strange Story of Harpers Ferry. Shepherdstown, West Virginia: Shepherdstown Register, 1903.

Harpers Ferry National Historic Park

If you have an interest in History, Harpers Ferry is a good place to visit. The fact that John Brown led a raid on the the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry was the historical info that I recalled from history class. I knew John Brown made an attempt to lead an uprising of slaves, and that he failed and was hanged.

Looking deeper into the history of 1859 and 1860 revealed more facts. After his hanging, John Brown’s name was frequently read in newspapers around the country. With the 1860 presidential election looming, politicians were greatly divided with the slavery issue at the forefront. Because politicians could not agree on a candidate for the Republican Party for the 1860 election, they compromised on Abraham Lincoln. So now I know that the actions and hanging of John Brown compelled politicians to deal with the issue of slavery and resulted in secession and the Civil War. John Brown was a great proponent of the Declaration of Independence. He believed in “Liberty for All”, including education for all Americans, black or white. His actions set off a sequence of events that led to the start of the Civil War and freedom for slaves.

Reconstruction of John Brown Fort

The second major historical event at Harpers Ferry began in March 1862 when Union Colonel Dixon Miles was assigned to the remnants of a once productive Armory. Before the Confederate Army burned the Harpers Ferry Armory in 1861, it produced 10,000 firearms a year. Because of it’s location, Harpers Ferry remained important to the military as a supply base for the Shenandoah Valley and to protect the railroads. Due to the destruction from the Confederate assault, there were very few local residents, but Colonel Miles commanded thousands of military troops at Harpers Ferry.

As the Confederate troops moved north, Stonewall Jackson led a massive assault on the Union troops at Harpers Ferry. The Union troops were pinned in the valley with the confederates stationed in the hills firing at will against them. The Union Commanders held a military council and determined that they must surrender or die. On September 15, 1862, the Union soldiers raised white flags. However, a stray Confederate shell mortally wounded Colonel Dixon before the Union surrender could be finalized. During the surrender, the Confederate Army captured the largest number of Federal military soldiers in the Civil War…over 12,000 troops.

During our visit to Harpers Ferry, we visited the Murphy-Chambers Farm. Today, the farm is a wonder of nature and a peaceful place to hike. But during the Civil War, it was the site of a major defeat of the Union military.

Harper Ferry’s very early history dates back to 1783 when nature-loving Thomas Jefferson first travelled through the Shenandoah Valley. Along the high trails above Harpers Valley, Jefferson enjoyed the mountains and rivers and found nature at it’s best. According to history, Thomas Jefferson first stood at the location of Jefferson Rock on October, 25, 1783. A news article about his travels through the Shenandoah area was published in Virginia in 1785 and these quotes from Jefferson were included.

“The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature.

You cross the Patowmac above the junction, pass along its side through the base of the mountain for three miles, the terrible precipice hanging in fragments over you, and within about 20 miles reach Frederictown and the fine country around that. This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”

Jefferson Rock, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

The very top original slab of Jefferson Rock became unsafe due to weather and curious tourists. Sometime between 1855 and 1860, stone reinforcement pillars were place at the corners to offer better support.

“If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. ”
Michael Crichton

A Historic Visit at Harpers Ferry

When I was traveling to West Virginia during my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states, I knew the top thing that I had to visit in the Mountain State of West Virginia was definitely Harpers Ferry. If you are looking for an old town full of history, Harpers Ferry is the place to visit.

Where is Harpers Ferry?

Harpers Ferry is located in the northeastern corner of West Virginia near the Maryland border. The Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet in Harpers Ferry. These two rivers are part of how Harpers Ferry got it’s name. In the mid 1700s, Robert Harper was passing thru the area and saw the two rivers as a way to generate industry. He purchased the land and started a ferry across the Potomac River. The town was eventually named Harpers Ferry.

The Point where the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers Meet

History of Harpers Ferry

Harpers Ferry is full of history dating back to the 1700s. In 1796, the first President of the United States, George Washington purchased land in Harpers Ferry as a site of a US armory and arsenal. This was one of only two facilities of it’s type in the United States and in the 60 years the armory was in operation it produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles and pistols.

Probably the most well known event in history that Harpers Ferry is known for is John Brown’s raid that essentially led to the Civil War. John Brown was an abolitionist known for his aggressive action towards slave owners. In October of 1859, with the help of fellow abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, John Brown planned a raid on the armory in Harpers Ferry. On October 16th, John Brown and 22 freed slaves raided the armory at Harpers Ferry.

After taking over the armory, locals from Harpers Ferry fought back, resulting in casualties on both sides. John Brown and his remaining men, barricaded themselves in the armory’s engine house, which became known as John Brown’s Fort. On October 18th, Robert E. Lee tried to get Brown to surrender and when Brown refused they stormed the fort and arrested John Brown. Less than two months later on December 2, 1859 was hanged after being found guilty of treason.

John Brown’s raid may not have ended slavery, but it definitely started a more aggressive approach to trying to end slavery. This more aggressive approach led to the Civil War which eventually ended slavery in 1865.

Harpers Ferry was a very strategic location during the Civil War and played a key role in many battles, most notably the Battle of Harpers Ferry in 1862. During the battle, Confederate General Robert E. Lee invaded the town and with the help of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson forced the war’s largest surrender. Even though the Confederates took control of the town after this battle, the town went from confederate and union control a total of 8 times during the war.

Visiting Harpers Ferry

The town of Harpers Ferry is part of the National Park Service and is known as the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The museums and visitor centers are open daily (except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years) from 9am to 5pm.

Parking in Harpers Ferry is minimal, therefore its best to park at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Visitor Center just a few miles outside of town. The cost to park here is $20 per car, annual passes are available for $35 per year and the America the Beautiful Annual National Park Pass is also accepted. There is a shuttle bus that runs regularly from the visitor center to town throughout the day.

What to do in Harpers Ferry

With all this history, what is there to do in Harpers Ferry? The answer is quite a lot, it’s a great place to spend the day. Here is a list of the top things to do in the Historic Lower Town of Harpers Ferry:

  • John Brown’s Fortand Monument – This is definitely the top thing to see in Harpers Ferry. The fort has moved quite a bit since John Brown and his men barricaded themselves there in October of 1859. In 1891, it was dismantled and transported to Chicago for a few years, then it was returned to Harpers Ferry and was located at a couple of different locations before it was ultimately purchased by the National Park Service and moved to it’s current location in 1968 which is 150 feet east of the original location. There is a monument that marks the original location of the fort.
  • John Brown’s Fort
  • Inside the fort
  • Monument on original site of John Brown’s Fort
  • U.S. Armory Site – Located next to the original site of John Brown’s Fort is the US Armory site. At this location, they have signs set up throughout the site with historical information on the Armory.
  • Arsenal Square – Located behind John Brown’s Fort is Arsenal Square. This is where the Arsenal which held the weapons made at the Armory was located. It once held about 100,000 weapons at this site.
  • Museums and Period Exhibits – There are multiple museums and exhibits to check out both at the visitors center and in lower town. Unfortunately at this time a lot of the museums are closed but some of the period exhibits are availabe to see. And just walking thru town seeing the outsides of the buildings makes you feel like you have stepped back in time. They have done a very good job of keeping the old facades of the buildings.
  • The Point – Just past John Brown’s Fort is The Point. This is where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet. When standing at the Point, you can see the three states of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.
  • St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church – Up a hill above Harpers Ferry is the only church that survived the Civil War without any destruction, St. Peter’s. The views from the church are stunning and definitely a must see.
  • Ruins of St. John’s Episcopal Church – Continuing up the hill past St. Peter’s you will come upon the ruins of St. John’s Episcopal Church. This church served as a hospital and was damaged during the Civil War. The ruins were very interesting to see.
  • Jefferson Rock – Continuing up the path past the ruins, you will eventually reach the top of the hill. This is where Jefferson Rock is located. This rock is named after the third President of the United States, Thomas Jeffereson. In the 1780s, Jeffereson wrote of the view from this point. It’s definitely quite the view to take in!
  • Unofficial Midpoint of the Appalachian Trail – The path up to Jefferson Rock is part of the famous Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail is a 2,200 mile trail that stretches from Georgia to Maine. Many people set out to hike the entire trail each year. Although it’s not exactly the midpoint of the trail, Harpers Ferry has been known as the mental midpoint and is also where the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters is located. The headquarters offers many hiker services as well as has exhibits and a gift shop. If you like to hike, why not take a shorter hike along the Appalachian Trail while in Harpers Ferry.
  • Self Guided Battlefield Driving Tour – Outside of Lower Town of Harpers Ferry, you can take a self guided driving tour of the Battlefields from the Civil War. Along the driving tour, there are signs giving information about the Civil War battles.

Harpers Ferry definitely has a lot to offer and is a great place to spend the day. It’s a wonderful trip for a family, so you can bring the history books alive for your kids.