Harpers Ferry NHP: Lower Town

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Harpers Ferry National Historical Park sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. The park includes the historic center of Harpers Ferry, notable as a key 19th-century industrial area and as the scene of John Brown’s failed abolitionist uprising. It spans three states (West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland) and contains four national park units:

  • Harpers Ferry
  • Appalachian Trail
  • C&O Canal
  • Potomac Heritage Trail

In 1783, Thomas Jefferson visited the area and declared, “The passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature.” Then, in 1801, the United States Armory began producing guns here.

In 1859, in protest of slavery, John Brown led a raid and captured the federal armory. He was defeated and hanged for inciting a slave uprising. Two years later, the Civil War started. Harpers Ferry sat on the boundary between the North and South and was important because of it’s manufacturing capabilities. The town changed hands eight times during the course of the war.

I visited Harpers Ferry with the National Park Travelers Club for NPTC Across America in August 2022. We started the day with a hike on the Virginius Island/AT Loop. Then we went to the visitor center for “The Story Behind the Scenery,” a ranger program. The ranger gave our group an overview of the history that made this place famous. Next we took the shuttle to Lower Town to see the historic buildings and to have lunch. After lunch, I explored the C&O Canal and Potomac Heritage Trails.

Lower Town is a historic district in Harpers Ferry. It preserves many buildings, some of which date back to the 1700s. Key sites include John Brown’s Fort and Storer College.

John Brown and his followers barricaded themselves inside the Armory’s fire engine house before their capture in 1859. The building survived the Civil War, the only armory to do so. The fort moved to Chicago for the World Exhibition in 1891. It returned to Harpers Ferry in 1895 to be reassembled on a farm 3 miles outside of town. Storer College purchased it in 1903 and moved it to their campus as a museum. The Park Service purchased it and moved it close to its original location in 1968.

Storer College served as the only place in West Virginia the formerly enslaved could receive an education for 25 years. The school continued its mission through the 1950s when segregation ended in public schools.

Location: 171 Shoreline Dr, Harpers Ferry, WV
Designation: National Historical Park
Date designated/established: June 30, 1944
Date of my visit: August 2022