Back in 1798, Congress selected the town as the site for one of only two federal arsenals and armories. Due to its strategic location, it quickly became an important transportation hub. In the spring of 1803, Meriwether Lewis visited the Harpers Ferry armory to obtain guns for his expedition west. By 1859, a large booming industrial complex stood on the Potomac River at town’s edge.
John Brown, a militant abolitionist, hatched a daring plan to raid the federal arsenal in order to arm nearby slaves and begin a slave revolt he anticipated would spread throughout the slave states. The Captain, as Brown was known to his men, secretly raised money to put together an “army” of twenty-one men who would carry out the attack. Late on the evening of October 16, 1859, he and his men silently crossed the railroad bridge from Maryland, moved into town and quickly captured the armory. The citizens raised the alarm of insurrection and eventually a group of marines from Washington under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee trapped Brown in the engine house. His war ended just 36 hours after it had begun and not a single slave had joined his effort. His subsequent trial, conviction, and hanging vilified him in the South while many in the North revered him as a martyr.
Today the lower section of Harpers Ferry, restored to its mid-nineteenth century appearance, is part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, forever preserved for the American people. Exhibitions in various buildings tell stories of the town’s past. While John Brown gets his own large exhibition, smaller exhibits present additional stories of the town’s occupation during the Civil War, of major floods, of the armory, its bosses and workers, and of Storer College and the Niagara Movement. The engine house sits close to its original location on that chaotic fall night, silently reminding visitors of the cost of protest.
If you’re in good shape, I highly recommend the climb to Maryland Heights, across the Potomac River from the town. There you will see one of the best views anywhere. You will also understand why control of the heights was so important during the Civil War. Thomas Jefferson boldly said that the view from what is today called Jefferson Rock was worth a trip across the Atlantic. I would have to disagree… it’s the view from Maryland Heights that fits that description.
Have you been to Harpers Ferry? What did you think?