Sunday, April 19, 2015

Great day trips from DC: Harpers Ferry, W.V.

Every so often I like to do a post about day trips from Washington. Sometimes it’s fun to just get out of town and see something different, but maybe don’t want to do an overnight trip. If you’re like me and enjoy a step back in history, you’ll probably find Harpers Ferry, West Virginia is a terrific day trip to make.

And, even if you don’t want to take a step into the past, you can simply enjoy the outdoors and take a hike or go tubing down the Shenandoah and/or Potomac rivers.

This post is going to look more at the history aspect since I’ve only done the tubing once or twice and still have the hiking on my “to do” list.

Over the centuries Harpers Ferry has played a pivotal role in history. It was once a booming industrial community, but was one also destroyed by war. With a lot in between. Today the historic section of town is run by the National Park Service (NPS) and visitors can step back in time and experience life somewhat like it would have been many, many decades ago.

End of the street in Lower Town - you can see the old hotel. Daily ranger tours are given by NPS

Harpers Ferry’s beginnings

The town is located along the rivers where the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers meet. Over the centuries the town has gone through many transformations, but even in the 21st century, you get a distinct feel of how life once was in this once bustling town.

A man named Robert Harper first settled the location in 1751 after obtaining a patent for 125 acres. His attraction to this particular parcel of land was its strategic location due to the presence of the two rivers. These rivers eventually would serve as a pivotal point for travel and industry.

Aside from the history, the views are stunning. You can see where West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland intersect. Beautiful scenery. 

You can see Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia from this view.


Leaving a permanent mark in history

Not long after Harper settled, this location grew to become a town, experiencing ongoing growth. This is where the history begins to come into play. During the 1700 and 1800s, industry would boom. Subsequently, events, such as John Brown’s Raid and the Civil War, would forever mark this location with historical meaning. As NPS puts it:  

“It is more than one event, one date, or one individual. It is multi-layered - involving a diverse number of people and events that influenced the course of our nation's history. Harpers Ferry witnessed the first successful application of interchangeable manufacture, the arrival of the first successful American railroad, John Brown's attack on slavery, the largest surrender of Federal troops during the Civil War, and the education of former slaves in one of the earliest integrated schools in the United States.”

There are two sections to the town. “Lower Town” is where industry exploded. The rivers allowed easy transport. Today you can see the remains of the former canal system, an abandoned pulp mill, several old buildings where the townspeople lived, dined and worked. Many of these buildings have gone under restoration and are open to the public. 

Inside of the old General Store

Additionally, U.S. government also left its mark on the town. While no longer in existence, the federal armory and arsenal were also located on the riverside. However, the exception is the Armory’s fire engine and guard house that served as John Brown's headquarters in 1859. Years ago it was taken apart and moved, but eventually was brought back to Harper’s Ferry. There are two bricks inside the building that mark the 1895 recovery and the 1910 rebuild of this historical structure.

This was the only building of the federal armory that survived the Civil War.
It is a rebuild of the original Armory’s fire engine and guard house, which John Brown used as his fort during his 1859 raid. After the war, it was sold, dismantled and moved to Chicago. In 1895, it was moved back to Harper's Ferry and in 1910 reassembled about 150 feet away from its original location.

Upper Town has churches, cemeteries and several other structures, along with “Jefferson’s Rock”. Many of the homes are private homes. (You can read more about them here in a document by a local historical society: [PDF]).  I’ve been to the first part you reach in Upper Town a few times and have seen the highlights, but have generally spent most of my time in Lower Town when I've visited.

Historical figures

Many well-known people in American history passed through Harpers Ferry at some point in time. Over the centuries the location became acquainted with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis and Frederick Douglass, to name a few. 

This shale, collectively called "Jefferson Rock" is the location where Thomas Jefferson stood on Oct. 25, 1783 when traveling through Harpers Ferry with his daughter Patsy. He wrote about the experience and it was published in Notes on the State of Virginia in 1785.

Connecting the past with the present

Once a huge railroad town, it is not as active as it used to be as modern technology has changed life as people once knew it. The town no longer rustles with industry but does give a fabulous glimpse into how life was during earlier centuries. And while some of the rails no longer run, there are still a few trains rumbling through town. You do get a sense of “old meets new” when walking through both Lower and Upper Town. 

Harpers Ferry Rail

Harpers Ferry is about 90 minutes from the District (depending on traffic of course!). It is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. There is a bus that runs from the visitor’s center to Lower Town, but if you’re up for a walk it’s about 1 to 1.5 miles (coming back up the hill is steep in one section though). I’ve done it both ways, each was a good experience.

If you did want to stay overnight, I noticed there were a few hotels/motels in the area. We’ve only done a few day trips though so can’t share much info about accommodations.

When visiting Harpers Ferry it is not too hard to envision the past as the town has been so well-preserved.


  1. Great pictures as usual. You have my attention. When are we going?

    1. Soon, soon! :). Thanks for visiting and commenting

  2. I've never been there, but it sounds enchanting!

    1. I think you'd love it! Thanks for stopping by :)

  3. A super enjoyable tour and post. I loved every bit of it. I want to go there now.

    1. Thank you for your kind comment and for dropping in to read the article.
      Hope you can get there one of these days!