Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

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Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Corporation of Harpers Ferry
Panoramic view of Harpers Ferry from Maryland Heights, facing south, with the Shenandoah (left) and Potomac (right) rivers. Potomac flows right to left.
Panoramic view of Harpers Ferry from Maryland Heights, facing south, with the Shenandoah (left) and Potomac (right) rivers. Potomac flows right to left.
Location of Harpers Ferry in Jefferson County, West Virginia.
Location of Harpers Ferry in Jefferson County, West Virginia.
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia is located in Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Location of Harpers Ferry in Jefferson County, West Virginia.
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia is located in West Virginia
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (West Virginia)
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia is located in the United States
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (the United States)
Coordinates: 39°19′27″N 77°44′2″W / 39.32417°N 77.73389°W / 39.32417; -77.73389Coordinates: 39°19′27″N 77°44′2″W / 39.32417°N 77.73389°W / 39.32417; -77.73389
Country United States
State West Virginia
 • MayorGregory Vaughn
 • RecorderKevin Carden
 • Total0.62 sq mi (1.62 km2)
 • Land0.54 sq mi (1.39 km2)
 • Water0.09 sq mi (0.23 km2)
489 ft (149 m)
 • Total285
 • Density527.10/sq mi (203.45/km2)
Time zoneUTC-5 (Eastern (EST))
 • Summer (DST)UTC-4 (EDT)
ZIP code
Area code(s)304
FIPS code54-35284[3]
GNIS feature ID1560593[4]

Harpers Ferry is a historic town in Jefferson County, West Virginia, United States, in the lower Shenandoah Valley. The population was 285 at the 2020 census. 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. It has been called "the best strategic point in the whole South".[5]

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.[6] The United States Board on Geographic Names, whose Domestic Name Committee is reluctant to include apostrophes in official place names,[7][8] established the standard spelling of "Harpers Ferry" by 1891.[9]

By far, the most important event in the town's history was John Brown's raid on the Harpers Ferry Armory in 1859.[10]

Prior to the Civil War, Harpers Ferry was a manufacturing town, as well as a transportation hub. (See Virginius Island and Harpers Ferry Armory.)

The main economic activity in the town in the 20th and 21st centuries is tourism.[11] John Brown's Fort is the most visited tourist site in the state of West Virginia. The headquarters of the Appalachian Trail are there—not the midpoint, but close to it, and easily accessible—and the buildings of the former Storer College are used by the National Park Service for one of its four national training centers. The National Park Service is in the 21st century Harpers Ferry's largest employer.

The lower town has been reconstructed by the National Park Service. It was in ruins at the end of the Civil War, not helped by river flooding.[12]: 15  "The fact that Harpers Ferry was first and foremost an industrial village during the 19th century is not apparent in the sights, sounds or smells of the town today."[12]: 10 


The geographical and physical features of Harpers Ferry were the principal reasons for its settlement and eventual industrial development. It is a natural transportation hub. A major river, the Shenandoah, joins the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry. It guarded the entrance to Virginia's large Shenandoah Valley, and the Potomac provided easy access to Washington. The rivers' valleys made it possible to build the never-completed Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and then the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and shortly after the Winchester and Potomac Railroad. The first railroad junction in the United States was at Harpers Ferry. Essential telegraph lines passed through the town.

The Arsenal, and later other industries, were located in Harpers Ferry because of the abundant water power available from the rivers.

The word "ferry" in the town's name—the ferry ended in 1824, when a covered wooden road bridge, Wager's 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. None of Washington D.C.'s bridges connecting it with Virginia carried more than horse traffic, until after the Civil War.

In 1851, a second bridge was built, across the Shenandoah, one of the earliest Bollman trusses.[13]: 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 the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.[14]

Harpers Ferry 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.

The town's original, lower section is on a flood plain created by the two rivers. It is surrounded by higher ground, and since the 20th century has been part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Most of the remainder, which includes the more elevated 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.

Park sign with mileage information for the Appalachian Trail in Harpers Ferry

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,[15][16] 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.[17] Other popular outdoor activities include white water rafting, fishing, mountain biking, tubing, canoeing, hiking, zip lining, and rock climbing.


18th century[edit]

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.

Robert Harper[edit]

Gravesite of Robert Harper

Robert Harper, from whom the town takes its name, 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.[18] Traveling through Maryland on his way to the Shenandoah Valley, Harper, who was also a millwright, realized the potential of the latent waterpower from the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, at an easily accessible location. He paid Stephens 30 guineas for his squatting rights to the ferry, since the land actually belonged to Lord Fairfax.[19]: 12 

Harper purchased 126 acres (0.51 km2) of land from Lord Fairfax in 1751.[20] In 1761, the Virginia General Assembly granted him the right to establish and maintain a ferry across the Potomac River (even though a ferry had already been functioning since before Harper arrived). In 1763, the Virginia General Assembly established the town of "Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harpers Ferry."[21]: 100  Harper died in October 1782 and is buried in the Harper Cemetery.[22]

Thomas Jefferson[edit]

View of Harpers Ferry from Jefferson Rock in 1854
The same view in 2021

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,"[23]: 22  and stated that, "This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic."[24] It was one of his favorite retreats, and tradition says that much of his Notes on the State of Virginia was written there.[25]

George Washington[edit]

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.[26]: 13 

19th century[edit]

The federal armory[edit]

In 1796, the federal government purchased a 125-acre (0.5 km2) parcel of land from the heirs of Robert Harper. Construction began on what would become the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1799.[27] This was one of only two such facilities in the U.S., the other being in Springfield, Massachusetts. Together they produced most of the small arms for the U.S. Army. The town was transformed into a water-powered 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.[28]: 151 [full citation needed]

Canals built[edit]

The Potomac Canal at Harper's Ferry. Note it is seen in two places.

Harpers Ferry's first man-made transportation facility, that is, other than the rivers themselves, was the Potomac Canal. An identifiable section of it can be seen in the picture of Island Park, below. As a transportation medium the Canal ceased operation in 1828, but a portion of the canal in front of Harpers Ferry channeled river water to run Armory machinery.

The Potomac Canal ran, at Harpers Ferry, on the Virginia side of the river. On the Maryland side, the later Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad competed for right-of-way on a very narrow patch of land downstream from Harpers Ferry.

Arrival of the railroads[edit]

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, after a protracted dispute with the Canal company the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad began service from Harpers Ferry via a small bridge, the Wager Bridge; the same family later built the Wager Hotel across from Harpers Ferry's B&O train station. The bridge connected the town across the Potomac with Sandy Hook, Maryland, which for a few years in the 1830s was the western terminus of the railroad. The railroad crossed the Potomac into Harpers Ferry with the opening of the B & O Railroad Potomac River Crossing in 1837.[29] The first railroad junction in the country began service in 1836 when the Winchester and Potomac Railroad opened its line from Harpers Ferry southwest to Charles Town and then to Winchester, Virginia.

Virginius Island[edit]

Taking advantage of the good routes to markets and the available water power on the Shenandoah, mills and other water-powered industry were built on Virginius Island. Except for the Arsenal, Virginius Island housed Harpers Ferry's manufacturing. It also provided working-class housing at a boarding house and in row houses. No structure survives on Virginius Island, as 20th-century floods have destroyed everything. The Arsenal of course used the Potomac for power, but also built a rifle plant some distance upstream using the Shenandoah's power.

John Brown's raid[edit]

Harper's Ferry in 1859
Preserved John Brown's Fort (the engine house) in 2007

On October 16, 1859, the abolitionist John Brown led a group of 22 men (counting himself) 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.[30] The first shot of the raid mortally wounded Heyward Shepherd,[31] 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. Starry went to the livery and rode to neighboring towns and villages, alerting residents to the raid. 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.[32]

The Secretary of War asked the Navy Department for a unit of United States Marines from the Washington Navy Yard, the nearest troops.[33] Lieutenant Israel Greene was ordered to take a force of 86 Marines to the town. 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 contingent arrived by train on October 18, and after negotiations failed, they stormed the fire house and captured most of the raiders, killing a few and suffering a single casualty. Lee submitted a report on October 19.[34]

Brown was quickly tried in Charles Town, county seat of Jefferson County, for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, murder, and fomenting a slave insurrection. Convicted of all charges, he was hanged December 2, 1859. (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."[35]: 174 

Civil War[edit]

Stereoscopic picture of contraband camp at Harpers Ferry, about 1861. Note John Brown's Fort in background.
July 20, 1861 Harper's Weekly news illustration: camel back locomotive and tender wrecked by the rebels in Harpers Ferry
Harpers Ferry in 1865, looking east (downstream); the ruins of the musket factory can be seen in the center

The town was "easy to seize, and hard to hold".[36]: 284  The Civil War was disastrous for Harpers Ferry, which changed hands eight times between 1861 and 1865.[37] It was described thus in March 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 monument 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.[38]

John G. Rosengarten described it in similar terms, saying that the town and Bolivar Heights, in 1859 "a blooming garden-spot, full of thrift and industry and comfort", in 1862 had been reduced to "waste and desolation".[39]

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. "Jefferson County is where the North and South met."[40] The town's garrison of 14,000 Federal troops attracted 1,500 contrabands (escaped slaves) by the summer of 1862.[41] 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.[42]

Harpers Ferry and bridge from Maryland Heights, 1872
Maryland Heights, Harpers Ferry, 1873

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.[43] 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.[42]

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.[44]

In 1862, the paymaster`s quarters (Lockwood House) and superintendent`s clerk`s quarters (Brackett House) were used as hospitals.[45]: 23  Lockwood House did not have that name intil later; in 1863 Union general Henry Hayes Lockwood briefly made the paymaster's quarters his home.[45]: 24 

After the Civil War[edit]

Inspired by John Brown, both runaway and freed slaves came to Harpers Ferry during and after the Civil War. This created social tensions between white and black residents of the community and generated a growing need for services for the increasing African-American population. Accordingly, a freedman’s school was opened on Camp Hill by Freewill Baptist missionaries following the Civil War.[45]: 4 

Storer College[edit]

Soldiers' Gate, Storer College

The town and the Armory, except John Brown's Fort, were destroyed during the Civil War. "The larger portion of the houses all lie in ruins and the whole place is not actually worth $10", wrote a Massachusetts soldier to his mother in 1863.[36]: 285  A visitor in 1878 found the town "antiquated, dingy, and rather squalid";[46] another, in 1879, described it as "shabby and ruined".[36]: 286  The Arsenal had been Harpers Ferry's largest employer; since it was never rebuilt, the population never recovered to pre-Civil War levels.

Storer College, devoted to training teachers for freedmen, opened in 1868, much to the displeasire of many residents of Harpers Ferry, who did not want a "nigger college" and petitioned the Legislature to revoke its charter. The War Department gave to the Freedmen's Bureau its remaining assets in Harpers Ferry, principally four sturdy residences for the managers of the Armory, structurally sound but in need of repairs from Civil War damage, and the Bureau gave them to Storer College. A one-man school for Blacks was already operating in one of them.

African-American tourism[edit]

1903 advertisement for the Dime Museum, showing that Harpers Ferry, easy to reach by rail, was already receiving tourists.

In 1859 Harpers Ferry became a town of great historical importance to African-Americans, where the end of slavery began, as Frederick Douglass put it. With good rail connections to major eastern cities, it became a destination as soon as railroad operations returned to normal after the War. As put in a newspaper in 1873: "One need only to alight from the train and look a little envious toward the old Engine House or the ruined walls of the old Arsenal in order to have a score of persons offering to become a kind of guide or to point out to your whatever you may desire to know about the great struggle which ended in the 'opening of the prison doors, the breaking of every yoke, the undoing of heavy burdens, and letting the oppressed go free.[']"[47]

Storer, the only black college located at a location historically important to African-Americans, became a civil rights center and made the town even more of a destination for black tourists and excursionists. Frederick Douglass spoke in 1881, as part of an unsuccessful campaign to fund a "John Brown professorship", to be held by an African American. The Niagara Movement, predecessor of NAACP, whose first meeting was in Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada, held its first meeting in the United States at Storer, in 1906.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad wanted the land where the Fort was located, so as to make the line less vulnerable to flooding, and some white townspeople were eager to get rid of it;[48]: 181 [49]: 19  it was dismantled and moved to Chicago for display at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Abandoned there, it was rescued and moved back to Harpers Ferry. The Baltimore and Ohio moved it back for free, motivated by their expectation that having it back in Harpers Ferry, it would be a tourist attraction and a way to build ridership on the railroad.[48]: 183  Most whites were opposed to any commemoration of John Brown.[48]: 182  For lack of a better location (the town was not much interested) it was placed on a nearby farm.

Around Picturesque Harper's Ferry, 1904—a book for tourists.

Now Harpers Ferry, easily accessible by rail, began its conversion to its new industry, tourism. Many African-Americans visited Harpers Ferry; there was a black-owned hotel to accommodate them, the Hilltop House, and in the summer Storer rented rooms to black vacationers, until 1896.[50]: 183  The Fort was the great monument where the end of slavery began. There were so many tourists that they were a nuisance to the farmer on whose lands the Fort sat. It was moved from the farm to Storer in 1909, and there it remained until several years after the College closed in 1955. It functioned as the College Museum. Male students practiced their public speaking by giving tours of it.

Visits by tourists, then, many of them black, slowly turned the town into a tourist center. As early as 1878 the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was running excursion trains to Harpers Ferry from Baltimore and Washington.[51][52] Tourism was cited as a reason for the town's recovering population growth. "Harpers Ferry proved to be one of the most visited places of leisure for nineteenth-century African Americans.[53]: 41–42 

Island Park Resort and Amusement Park[edit]

Footbridge over the Potomac Canal and part of the Potomac River to Island Park, a recreation area built by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad on Byrne Island, Harpers Ferry, WV

In 1879, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, to increase ridership, built a park they called Island Park Resort and Amusement Park, on Byrne Island, in the Potomac, which the railroad bought. The railroad built a footbridge to the island. One had to pay 5¢ ($5 in 2021 value) to cross, an entrance charge, after which rides and other activities were free. It was a site for outings and church picnics, suitable also for holding political rallies; it was also used by Railroad as a perk for its employees. (See also Relay, Maryland.) A list of events held there would be long, but as examples, in 1880 there was a reunion of 4,000 Odd Fellows, and there were six special trains to Harpers Ferry from various points;[54] on October 19, 1892, there was a "Grand Tri-State Democratic Mass Meeting".[55]

The Park was large enough that parades could be held. There were a steam-powered Ferris wheel and carousel, a pavilion for dancing or roller skating, swings, a merry-go-round, and a bandstand. All were free, except for the bridge toll.[56] There was a midway. Visitors could also play croquet, tennis, rent boats, fish, or wade in the river. Later there were baseball games. It operated until 1909,[57] Blacks and whites attended on different days.[53]: 73  In 1883, there were an estimated 100,000 visitors.[53]: 50  The bandstand, the only surviving structure, has been moved twice. In 1909 it was moved first to the Arsenal Square (current location of John Brown's Fort), then later to the park at Washington and Gilmore Streets, where it is now The Bandstand or the Town Gazebo.[58]

The bridge was destroyed by flooding first in 1896,[59] and a rebuilt bridge in 1924. Remaining structures on the island were destroyed by flooding in 1942.[58]

20th century[edit]

Steam heat, electric light, and fishing guides and bait at short notice. 1903.

2nd Niagara Movement Conference[edit]

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, an integrated, primarily 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 farm of the Murphy family, location at the time of John Brown's historic "fort", the arsenal's firehouse. As a direct result, the Fort was soon moved to the Storer campus, where it was the College's central icon. After the College closed in 1955, the National Park Service moved it back to as close as possible to its original location.[60]

Harpers Ferry National Monument and National Historical Park[edit]

National Park Service map of Harper Ferry showing the Appalachian Trail, with (1) being the scene of John Brown's raid[61]

The combined effects of Civil War damage and flooding left lower Harpers Ferry in poor condition. The devastating effects of the 1936 flood left the lower town "shabby and almost uninhabited", with no bridge across the Shenandoah to Virginia and no highway bridge to Maryland. All remaining structures on Virginius Island were destroyed.[62]

The backbone of the effort to preserve and commemorate Harpers Ferry was Henry T. MacDonald, President of Storer, an amateur historian; West Virginia Governor Okey Patteson appointed him head of the Harpers Ferry National Monument Commission.[49]: 45  He was assisted by the Representative from West Virginia's Second District, Jennings Randolph. In 1935 Randolph introduced a bill to establish Harpers Ferry National Military Park in "the area where the most important events of [John Brown's raid] took place.[49]: 35–36  This bill did not pass, but the flood of 1936 made the project more feasible by destroying buildings not historically important, freeing land. After several other attempts, a bill creating Harpers Ferry National Monument was passed and signed by President Roosevelt in 1944, subject to the proviso that nothing would be done until the war ended.[49]: 39 

An urgent priority was the new highway which is today U.S. Route 340. A new bridge connecting Sandy Hook, Maryland with Loudoun County, Virginia opened in October 1947; work had begun in 1941, but was interrupted by the war.[63] Another new bridge over the Shenandoah connecting Virginia to Bolivar, West Virginia, opened two years later; now federal highway traffic bypassed Harpers Ferry entirely.[64]

Recreation of a 19th-century gun-making shop

Land acquisition started in lower Harpers Ferry; the project was supported both by Harpers Ferry mayor Gilbert Perry and Governor Patteson. Twenty-two eviction notices were served in the lower town, and two taverns closed.[49]: 57 Property acquisition, not all of which was unproblematic, was completed in 1952 and was presented to the United States in January 1953.[49]: 46  The National Monument's first on-site employee, John T. Willett, began in 1954.

Aerial view, looking east in October 1974.
View from Maryland Heights

In 1957 the Baltimore Sun said that the lower town was "a sagging and rotted ghost town". The idea of making Harpers Ferry into a National Monument was to prevent the further deterioration and to rebuild the tourist industry.[65][66] The first task of the Park Service was to stabilize the buildings on Shenandoah Street, the main commercial street of lower Harpers Ferry. Roofs were covered, missing windows replaced, walls on the verge of collapse reinforced, debris removed. Post-1859 buildings were not restored, and most were removed.[67] The NPS built a Visitor's Center and a John Brown Museum.[68] Harpers Ferry National Monument became Harpers Ferry National Historical Park on May 29, 1963.[69]

"Recreationists" who wanted a park and did not care about the history were a problem. Local residents did not want to lose recreational opportunities, but swiming and fishing on the Shenandoah shore, formerly common, were prohibited. In order to keep recreationists out of the historic area, and especially Virginius Island, lower town parking was removed and a shuttle bus service begun.: 62  Tensions between the NPS and town residents were ongoing.

The NPS helped the town achieve Main Street Status from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2001.[49]: 64 

The population of Harpers Ferry continued to decline in the 20th century. The majority of the surviving homes in Harpers Ferry are historic. Some are registered in the National Register of Historic Places.

21st century[edit]

On July 23, 2015, a fire broke out in downtown Harpers Ferry, destroying eight or nine businesses and two apartments in two historic buildings. The buildings are being rebuilt.[70][71]

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.[72] The bridge reopened in early July 2020.[73]


Under the auspices of the National Park Service, the archeology of the town of Harpers Ferry, as well as that of Virginius Island, have been studied in depth. The journal Historical Archeology in 1994 published an entire issue on Harpers Ferry.


Roads and highways[edit]

The junction of US 340 and unsigned US 340 Alternate in Harpers Ferry

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.


B&O RR Columbian at Harpers Ferry in 1949

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.


Mennen's Borated Talcum Toilet Powder advertisement on the cliff face of Maryland Heights opposite Harpers Ferry.

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.[74] Some properties are currently threatened by development.[75]

From most of Harpers Ferry, a fading advertisement for Mennen's Borated Talcum Toilet Powder painted on the cliff face of Maryland Heights decades ago is still visible.[76]


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.[77]


Historical population
Census Pop.
U.S. Decennial Census[78]

2010 census[edit]

As of the census[2] 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.

2000 census[edit]

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.


Federally, Harpers Ferry is part of West Virginia's 2nd congressional district and is represented by Alex Mooney (R) in the United States House of Representatives. Mooney was first elected in 2014.

Notable people[edit]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]