A Visit to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia

Harper’s Ferry is such a beautiful place with lots of atmosphere that it captured my heart.   Located in West Virginia but bordered by Virginia and Maryland, it is defined by two rivers, the Potomac and Shenandoah that meet here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.   The town is also very historic with the National Park Service (NPS) managing a number of sites including some museums.  In the picture below, Mark stands looking out where the two rivers meet.  The views are really neat here.   An old railroad bridge across the Potomac to the left, can be walked on and connected to the Appalachian trail.

In 1747, John Harper, a builder of mills settled here.  He started a ferry service across the rivers, hence the town’s name.   This was once a thriving factory town powered by the rivers with a number of mills built beginning in the early 1800’s.  Walking along the Shenandoah River, you can see the ruins of cotton and flour mills like the flour mill ruin pictured below.   Floods, the Civil War and other factors took their toll on manufacturing here.  Besides the mills, there was also an important armory and arsenal established by George Washington.  It was here that  muskets, rifles and pistols were manufactured between 1800 – 1861.  Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition obtained many of his supplies here including ammunition and guns.

Harpers Ferry is a hilly town with narrow streets and buildings clinging to the hillside.   This makes it even more interesting to explore.

My favorite exploration was the walk up the hill to Jefferson’s Rock.  It involves lots of steep old stone steps to the top.  Along the way is St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, built in 1833 for Irish laborers that came to build the railroad.  During the Civil War, the priest flew the British Union Jack flag as a symbol of the church’s neutral status, sparing it from destruction.  Services are still held here each Sunday.  The view of the church with the steps reminded me of a scene from a European village.

Here is another view looking down at the side of the church as I made my way along the road.

Jefferson’s Rock was named for Thomas Jefferson who loved the view up here so much that in 1783 he was quoted as saying:  “This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”   Around 1860, the armory superintendent ordered supports be placed under the rock because it was endangering the lives and properties of the villagers below.   Today, the rock is off limits to sit or stand on.

The view is really special here.  I couldn’t help thinking though, what a difference from when Jefferson was here.  He would have had lots of peace and quiet as he stared at these hills and the rivers.  Today instead there is lots of road noise from busy Highway 340 far below which travels by the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers.   Here is the view from near the rock looking left toward the Potomac.

Before walking back down the hill, I walked on a little bit of the Appalachian Trail which passes right near to Jefferson’s Rock.  I also explored an old cemetery on the hillside and checked out the Lockwood House, which served as headquarters for Union Generals and after the War as one of America’s first schools for freed slaves.  On my way back down I took this picture of the town with another old railroad bridge and tunnel through the mountain in the distance.

Harper’s Ferry is perhaps best known for John Brown, an abolitionist who in 1859 along with his army of 21 men, seized the armory with the intent to arm enslaved people and start a rebellion.    Thirty-six hours later, the raid was over when Brown and his followers were captured by the U.S. Marines.   Fifteen people died before the raiders were taken.  His raid stirred up the passions of the people on both sides of the slavery issue.  Below is a picture of his “fort “ where he and his followers barricaded themselves during their final hours of the raid and capture.    When Brown took it over, it was the Armory’s fire engine and guard house.  It is located near where the armory once stood.  The building has a rather unique history and became a building on the move.   It survived the Civil War and in 1891 was sold, dismantled and transported to Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition, (the World’s Fair).  In 1894 it was returned to Harpers Ferry and placed on a farm.  It was moved to another location again before the National Park Service acquired the building in 1960 and moved it back near the original location.

John Brown was taken to the county seat of Charles Town, where he was tried and found guilty of treason, murder and inciting slaves to rebel.  He was sentenced to death by hanging.  His trial and death became big news all over the country.   After our visit to Harpers Ferry, we drove over to Charles Town and saw the stately court house where Brown was tried.   This town was founded by George Washington’s youngest brother, Charles.  He donated four plots of land for town and county buildings including the land where the court house sits.

I will close this post with a picture from the RV park we stayed at in Maryland called Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park.  I had heard of these Yogi Bear parks which are in various locations throughout the country but never thought we would stay in one.   When researching parks in the area, this seemed to be the best so booked us a stay.  After arriving here and seeing the large water park tube slides, pools and many kid related activities such as go karts, miniature golf, paint ball range and crafts, I thought we were in for a noisy and busy weekend.  But it was quieter here than we expected, (it did rain some) and the park was really quite lovely, set off a ways from the road with woods surrounding the camp sites.  I even went one night to the outdoor theater where they were showing a silly Yogi Bear movie that came out a few years ago.   Hey, why not, I was in Yogi country!

Thanks for reading and keep following us as we travel on to Delaware and great camping at a state park!

A Day in Two States

After a month in Virginia we left for Maryland and our campsite for a week outside Hagerstown.   Hagerstown is located in the northwest corner of Maryland, close to West Virginia.  This area is known for two main attractions, the C & O Canal Historic National Park and Antietam Battlefield.  We visited both of those places, the old C & O Canal was just a few miles from us.  On this post I wanted to talk about Antietam, the bloodiest single day of battle during the Civil War.

Antietam Battlefield is located near the small town of Sharpsburg and is managed by the National Park Service.  There is a visitor center with a film and exhibits.  In the picture above, I am standing outside the visitor center with the field of battle behind me.  Today, much of the area retains the look as during the Civil War as the battlefield has been preserved.  A driving tour winds throughout the area with many monuments and plaques honoring the different regiments that fought on these fields.  Mark and I did not stop to read all these monuments as it is just too much to absorb and remember.   In this blog I wanted to note some of the interesting places that we did stop and explore along the route.

The Dunker Church pictured above, was built in 1852 and used by German Baptist Brethren.  A half dozen farm families worshipped here in the early years.   It became the focal point for Union attacks the morning of the battle.  It is noteworthy that one of the most important structures left from Antietam is a place of worship associated with peace and love.   When the fighting was over, the church was used as a medical aid station as well as a place to exchange the dead and wounded after a truce was made.   The church building was damaged by bullets and artillery shells, suffering hits to both walls and roof.   In 1864 it was repaired and continued to be used for worship.  The congregation eventually moved to a new church and the building was subsequently destroyed by a storm in 1921.  The building was restored in 1962 on the same foundation with as many original materials as possible.  Today you can view the inside of the church.  The Dunkers believed in simplicity which can be seen in their plain wooden benches.  Men sat on one side and women on the other.

The Joseph Poffenberger Farm was one of my favorite stops with an original farm house, barn and outbuildings.  Union troops occupied the farmstead and also used stored goods, wood and farm animals to keep troops fed and supplied.  This was a common occurrence not only at Antietam but also at other Civil War battlefields when farms were taken over by armies and families were left with depleted or ruined homes, lands, crops and livestock.  Today it is beautifully maintained by the National Park Service.

Known as the “Angel of the Battlefield,” Clara Barton is one of the heroes of Antietam and honored with a monument and plaque at the tour stop above.   It was on this field that Clara and her volunteers first ministered to the troops bringing bandages for the wounded and providing food to wounded and dying men.  She also provided aid on later battlefields.  Clara is perhaps best known for founding the Red Cross in 1881.

In the picture above, I am standing on Sunken Road, also known as “Bloody Lane,” one of the sites with numerous casualties.   For three hours, 2,200 Confederates, later reinforced by additional troops, held off the attacks of a combined Union force of almost 10,000.  An observer to the battle noted:  “They were lying in rows like the ties of a railroad, in heaps like cordwood mingled with the splintered and shattered fence rails.  Words are inadequate to portray the scene.”

Burnside Bridge which spans Antietam Creek is one of the most scenic areas of the Battlefield.  It was here that approximately 500 Confederate soldiers held the area for three hours until the Union finally captured the bridge, forcing the Confederates back towards Sharpsburg.  The “Burnside Sycamore” tree you can see by the bridge in the photo, would have been a witness to the fighting.  It still stands more than 150 years later.

This farm pictured above was quietly owned by the Pry family for twenty years before a knock on the door changed all that.  General George McClellan, in charge of Union forces decided to make this home his headquarters.  Thousands of soldiers and horses took over the farm, knocking down fences, trampling crops and taking livestock to feed the army.  The house and barn were used as field hospitals and the Union Army remained here for two months.  After the battle, Mr. Pry filed numerous claims with the War Department for damages to his farm.  Some of the claims were paid but not all, causing financial hardship for the family.  In 1874, the Prys sold the home and moved to Tennessee.

The youngest person to die at Antietam was a 13 year old drummer named Charley King who served with the Pennsylvania Infantry.   Musicians were important with buglers and drummers leading armies into battle.   Charley was wounded by an artillery shell and died three days later.  The drum, pictured above was found in a field and belonged to another drummer from New Jersey whose name is inscribed on the drum head.

The cost in human life was high at Antietam – of nearly 100,000 soldiers engaged in fighting, about 23,000 were killed, wounded or missing.   Although the Union Army fared better, there seemed to be no clear winner in this contest.

After Antietam we headed to Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  A few days earlier we found out that a general store there has a music jam session each Thursday night which we wanted to check out.  We had an early dinner in Shepherdstown and then walked around this cute historic town, considered the oldest in West Virginia.   O’Hurley’s General Store has been around a long time, more than 100 years and has old, creaky wooden floors and an ancient cash register.  The store has several rooms filled with all manner of things including hardware, cookware, housewares, toys, and gift items.  The music jam takes place in the large back room which also has items for sale.

A good size group showed up to play at the jam bringing an array of instruments including a harp, autoharp, guitars, mandolin, hammered dulcimers and fiddles.   The store owner cracked us up when he walked around showing everyone a sign about no talking while the group was playing.  Below, a picture of the jam in progress with Mark sitting in one of the rockers on the side of the room.  There were a number of rockers for sale that visitors could sit in while listening to the music.

We stayed for a few hours and it was an enjoyable evening of folk and Celtic music.  The funniest part was when the store clerk came in and interrupted the group saying that someone wanted to buy two red Tiffany style lamps.  The lamps were on a table against the wall and she couldn’t get to them unless a few of the musicians moved out of the way.  The musician/owner laughingly stated, “first things first.”

It was a great day in Maryland and West Virginia, with history and music!

Thanks for checking in with us.  In the next post I will write about our day at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.