Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
|Corporation of Harpers Ferry|
Panoramic view of Harpers Ferry from Maryland Heights, with the Shenandoah (left) and Potomac (right) rivers.
Location of Harpers Ferry in Jefferson County, West Virginia.
|o Mayor||Wayne Bishop|
|o Recorder||Kevin Carden|
|o Total||0.62 sq mi (1.62 km2)|
|o Land||0.54 sq mi (1.39 km2)|
|o Water||0.09 sq mi (0.23 km2)|
|Elevation||489 ft (149 m)|
| o Estimate |
|o Density||527.10/sq mi (203.45/km2)|
|Time zone||UTC-5 (Eastern (EST))|
|o Summer (DST)||UTC-4 (EDT)|
|GNIS feature ID||1560593|
Harpers Ferry, population 286 at the 2010 census, is a historic town in Jefferson County, West Virginia, United States, in the lower Shenandoah Valley. (Until 1863, it was in Virginia.) It is situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, where the U.S. states of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia meet. It is the easternmost town in West Virginia and during the Civil War was the northernmost point of Confederate-controlled territory. (Wheeling, though further north, was Unionist.) It has been called, speaking of the Civil War, "the best strategic point in the whole South".
The town's original, lower section is on a flood plain created by the two rivers and surrounded by higher ground and is within Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Most of the remainder, which includes the more highly populated area, is included in the separate Harpers Ferry Historic District. Two other National Register of Historic Places properties adjoin the town: the B & O Railroad Potomac River Crossing and St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church.
The town was formerly spelled Harper's Ferry with an apostrophe--in the 18th century, it was the site of a ferry service owned and operated by Robert Harper--and that form continues to appear in some references.
Because of its geography, Harpers Ferry was a vitally important junction point. In colonial times and through the early U.S. years, its location at the junction of two rivers, and the feasibility of a ferry - the first regular ferry across the Potomac, antedating the founding of Washington - made it a natural site of commerce. Harpers Ferry has a commanding central location on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, running alongside the Potomac and avoiding its rapids, linking Washington with points west.
The word "ferry" in the town's name - the ferry ended in 1824, when a covered wooden road bridge was built - conceals the fact that Harpers Ferry is the site of the first and for many years the only railroad bridge across the Potomac River, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's bridge, built in 1836-37. It is also the site of the first railroad intersection in the United States, where the older Baltimore & Ohio was met by the newer Winchester and Potomac Railroad. Thus, it was a natural conduit for Union incursions into the South. One of Stonewall Jackson's first actions for the Confederacy was the Great Train Raid of 1861, in which he disabled the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad for almost a year by destroying infrastructure and stealing rolling stock.
It also commanded the railroad and canal routes connecting Washington with points west and the Ohio Valley. Vital telegraph lines connecting Washington with points west also went through Harpers Ferry.
In 1851, a second bridge was built, across the Shenandoah, one of the earliest Bollman trusses.:67 A newer Bollman truss bridge, which carried both rail and highway traffic, opened in 1870. It was washed away in a flood in 1936.
Historically, Harpers Ferry is best known for John Brown's raid in 1859, in which he attempted to use the town and the weapons in its Federal Armory (munitions plant) as the base for a slave revolt, to expand south into Virginia. At that time and until 1863, it was part of Virginia.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) headquarters is in Harpers Ferry. The Appalachian Trail passes directly through town, which some consider the psychological midpoint of the trail, although the exact physical midpoint is farther north, in Pennsylvania. Uniquely, the towns of Harpers Ferry and Bolivar partnered with the ATC to be declared a united Appalachian Trail Community. Other popular outdoor activities include white water rafting, fishing, mountain biking, tubing, canoeing, hiking, zip lining, and rock climbing.
In 1733, Peter Stephens, a squatter, had settled on land near "The Point" (the area where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet), and established a ferry from Virginia (now West Virginia) to Maryland, across the Potomac. Fourteen years later (1747), while traveling from Maryland to Virginia, Robert Harper passed through the area which was named "The Hole" (the gap in the mountains along the Potomac River). Harper recognized the potential for industry, given the power the two rivers could generate, and the traffic he could ferry across the Potomac River. Harper paid Stephens 30 guineas for what was essentially Stephens' squatting rights, since the land actually belonged to Lord Fairfax.:12
In April 1751, Harper purchased 126 acres of land from Lord Fairfax. In 1761, the Virginia General Assembly granted Harper the right to establish and maintain a ferry across the Potomac River (even though a ferry had been functioning successfully in the area before and after Harper first settled there). In 1763, the Virginia General Assembly established the town of "Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harpers Ferry.":100
On October 25, 1783, Thomas Jefferson visited Harpers Ferry. He viewed "the passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge" from a rock that is now named for him. This stop took place as Jefferson was traveling to Philadelphia and passed through Harpers Ferry with his daughter Patsy. Jefferson called the site "perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature,":22 and stated that, "This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic."
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; his great-great-nephew, Colonel Lewis Washington, was held hostage during John Brown's raid in 1859, and George's brother Charles Washington founded the nearby Jefferson County town of Charles Town.:13
In 1796, the federal government purchased a 125-acre (0.5 km2) parcel of land from the heirs of Robert Harper. Construction began on the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1799. This was one of only two such facilities in the U.S., the other being Springfield, Massachusetts. Together they produced most of the small arms for the U.S. Army. The town was transformed into an industrial center; 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. Inventor Captain John H. Hall pioneered the use of interchangeable parts in firearms manufactured at his rifle works at the armory between 1820 and 1840; his M1819 Hall rifle was the first breech-loading weapon adopted by the U.S. Army.:151
Industrialization continued in 1833 when the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (which never reached the Ohio River) reached Harpers Ferry, linking it with Washington, D.C. A year later, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad began service through the town.
On October 16, 1859, the abolitionist John Brown led a group of 22 men in a raid on the arsenal. Five of the men were black: three free black men, one freed slave, and one fugitive slave. Brown attacked and captured several buildings, hoping to secure the weapons depot and arm the slaves, starting a revolt across the South. Brown also brought 1,000 steel pikes, which were forged in Connecticut by a blacksmith and abolitionist sympathizer, Charles Blair; however, the pikes, a weapon that does not require training, were never used as Brown failed to rally the slaves to revolt. The first shot of the raid mortally wounded Heyward Shepherd, a free black man who was a baggage porter for the B&O Railroad.
The noise from that shot alerted Dr. John Starry shortly after 1:00 am. He walked from his nearby home to investigate the shooting and was confronted by Brown's men. Starry stated that he was a doctor but could do nothing more for Shepherd, and Brown's men allowed him to leave. Instead of going home, Starry went to the livery and rode to neighboring towns and villages, alerting residents to the raid. When Starry reached nearby Charles Town, the church bells were rung to arouse the citizens from their sleep. John Brown's men were quickly pinned down by local citizens and militia, and forced to take refuge in the fire engine house (later called John Brown's Fort) at the entrance to the armory.
The Secretary of War asked the Navy Department for a unit of United States Marines from the Washington Navy Yard, the nearest troops. Lieutenant Israel Greene was ordered to take a force of 86 Marines to the town. In need of an officer to lead the expedition, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee was found on leave at his home in nearby Arlington, and he was assigned as commander, along with Lt. J. E. B. Stuart as his aide-de-camp. Lee led the unit in civilian clothes, as none of his uniforms were available. The whole contingent arrived by train on October 18, and after negotiation failed they stormed the fire house and captured most of the raiders, killing a few and suffering a single casualty themselves. Lee submitted a report on October 19 and returned home to finish his leave. The Marines returned to the Navy Yard.
Brown was quickly tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, murder, and fomenting a slave insurrection; convicted of all charges, he was hanged December 2, 1859, in nearby Charles Town. (See Virginia v. John Brown.) Starry's testimony was integral to his conviction. John Brown's words, both from his interview by Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise and his famous "last speech", "captured the attention of the nation like no other abolitionist or slave owner before or since.":174
The Civil War was disastrous for Harpers Ferry, which changed hands eight times between 1861 and 1865. It was described thus in March of 1862:
Harper's Ferry presents quite a gloomy picture. The best buildings have been shelled to the ground, and nothing now remains but their foundations to mark the spot where they once stood. The old Arsenal has been burnt to the ground; that part of the building where old John Brown made such a fatal stand, still stands as a monunent to his memory. Before the destruction of the town, it contained near 3000 inhabitants, but at the present time there are not more than 300 or 400 families there.
Because of the town's strategic location on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, both Union and Confederate troops moved through Harpers Ferry frequently. The town's garrison of 14,000 Federal troops attracted 1,500 contrabands (escaped slaves) by the summer of 1862. They were returned to slavery when Confederate forces took Harpers Ferry in 1862.
Harpers Ferry played a key role in the Confederate invasion of Maryland in September 1862. Gen. Robert E. Lee did not want to continue on to Maryland without capturing the town. It was on his supply line and could control one of his possible routes of retreat if the invasion did not go well.
Dividing his army of approximately 40,000 into four sections, Lee used the cover of the mountains to send three columns under Stonewall Jackson to surround and capture the town. The Battle of Harpers Ferry started with light fighting September 13 as the Confederates tried to capture the Maryland Heights to the northeast, while John Walker moved back over the Potomac to capture Loudoun Heights south of town. After a Confederate artillery bombardment on September 14 and 15, the Federal garrison surrendered. With 12,419 Federal troops captured by Jackson, the surrender at Harpers Ferry was the largest surrender of U.S. military personnel until the Battle of Bataan in World War II. The 1,500 contrabands were returned to slavery.
Because of the delay in capturing Harpers Ferry and the movement of Federal forces to the west, Lee was forced to regroup at the town of Sharpsburg. Two days later he commanded troops in the Battle of Antietam, which had the highest number of deaths among troops of any single day in United States military history. By July 1864, the Union again had control of Harpers Ferry. On 4 July 1864, the Union commanding Gen. Franz Sigel withdrew his troops to Maryland Heights. From there he resisted Jubal Anderson Early's attempt to enter the town and drive the Federal garrison from Maryland Heights.
Because the Arsenal, Harpers Ferry's largest employer, was never rebuilt, the population never recovered to pre-Civil War levels.
On August 15, 1906, author and scholar W. E. B. Du Bois led the first meeting on American soil of the newly-founded Niagara Movement. The conference was held at the campus of Storer College, a historically black college that operated until 1955. (After it closed, the campus became part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.) The three-day gathering, which was held to work for civil rights for African Americans, was later described by DuBois as "one of the greatest meetings that American Negroes ever held." Attendees of the 1906 meeting walked from Storer College to the nearby farm of the Murphy family. At the time, John Brown's historic "fort"--the arsenal's firehouse, which had numerous Black visitors--had been moved to the Storer campus; it has subsequently been moved back to as close as possible to its original location.
The population of Harpers Ferry continued to decline in the 20th century. In 1944 Congress authorized the establishment of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, to take in most of the town and have it administered by the National Park Service. The majority of the existing homes in Harpers Ferry are historic. Some are registered in the National Register of Historic Places.
In the early morning of December 21, 2019, multiple cars of a train owned by CSX derailed from the railroad bridge crossing the Potomac River. The derailment damaged a portion of the Goodloe E. Byron Memorial Pedestrian Walkway, which is attached to the railroad bridge and connects the Appalachian Trail between West Virginia and Maryland. The accident did not result in any injuries or fatalities but effectively inhibited all pedestrian access across the Potomac River. The bridge reopened in early July 2020.
The only significant highway providing access to Harpers Ferry is U.S. Route 340. Although signed north-south, the road runs generally eastward from Harpers Ferry across the northern tip of Loudoun County, Virginia after crossing the Shenandoah River, then quickly crosses the Potomac River into Maryland, eventually reaching its terminus at Frederick. To the west, U.S. Route 340 passes through Charles Town before turning southwest and traversing the eastern edge of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Harpers Ferry and neighboring Bolivar host an unsigned alternate route of U.S. Route 340, which follows Washington Street, High Street and Shenandoah Street.
Amtrak provides service to Harpers Ferry two times a day (once in each direction) on the Capitol Limited. It is also served by MARC on the Brunswick Line. The city's passenger rail station is at the West Virginia end of the historic railroad bridge across the Potomac River. In addition about 40-50 CSX freight trains daily pass through Harpers Ferry and over the bridge spanning the Potomac River.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the town has a total area of 0.61 square miles (1.58 km2), of which, 0.53 square miles (1.37 km2) is land and 0.08 square miles (0.21 km2) is water. Some properties are currently threatened by development.
The climate in this area is characterized by hot, humid summers and generally mild to cool winters, with yearly snowfall averaging 20.7 inches. According to the Köppen Climate Classification system, Harpers Ferry has a humid subtropical climate, abbreviated "Cfa" on climate maps.
As of the census of 2010, there were 286 people, 131 households, and 78 families residing in the town. The population density was 539.6 inhabitants per square mile (208.3/km2). There were 175 housing units at an average density of 330.2 per square mile (127.5/km2). The racial makeup of the town was 94% White, 4% African American, 1% Native American, 0% from other races, and 1% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1% of the population.
There were 131 households, of which 21% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 44% were married couples living together, 13% had a female householder with no husband present, 3% had a male householder with no wife present, and 41% were non-families. 29% of all households were made up of individuals, and 15% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.18 and the average family size was 2.69.
The median age in the town was 52 years. 17% of residents were under the age of 18; 3% were between the ages of 18 and 24; 19% were from 25 to 44; 38% were from 45 to 64; and 23% were 65 years of age or older. The gender makeup of the town was 49.3% male and 50.7% female.
In the census of 2000, there were 307 people, 153 households and 89 families residing in the town. The median income for a household in the town was $52,344, and the median income for a family was $70,313.