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Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers in and around Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. The park includes land in the adjacent states of Maryland and Virginia.

Harpers Ferry

 P.O. Box 65
Harpers Ferry , WV 25425

Phone - Visitor Center
(304) 535-6029
Education Reservations
(304) 535-6223

GPS: 39.322778, -77.729722


View Larger Map 


The park is managed by the National Park Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior. 

Originally designated a National Monument in 1944, the park was declared a National Historical Park by the U.S. Congress in 1963. 

 West Virginia: Wild and WonderfulThe park includes the historic town of Harpers Ferry, notable as a center of 19th century industry and as the scene of John Brown's abolitionist uprising. Consisting of almost 4,000 acres, the land marks the site on which Thomas Jefferson once said, "The passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature" after visiting the area in 1783.

Due to a mixture of historical events and ample recreational opportunities, all within 50 miles of Washington, D.C., the park has over one million visitors annually. The park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966.

Early History

American Indian history in the region dates back to at least 8,000 years ago. The Tuscarora Indians were the last native peoples known to inhabit the area in large numbers, essentially vanishing due to disease and conflict with European settlers in the early 18th century. 

One of these European immigrants, Robert Harper, obtained a patent for the land from the Virginia legislature in 1751. Note that prior to 1863, West Virginia was still a part of Virginia. The town was originally known as Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harper's Ferry (1763) due to the ferry business Robert Harper managed and operated.

Today, the original house built by Robert Harper is the oldest remaining structure in the lower part of the park. Though it is believed that George Washington visited the area earlier, his trip to the rivers' confluence in 1785, searching for a waterway to ship goods westward. 

It was Washington's earliest mention of the area. Later, Washington began the construction of the federal Harpers Ferry Armory on the site, utilizing the superfluous latent waterpower in the rivers needed for manufacturing purposes.

Meriwether Lewis, under government contract, procured most of the weaponry and associated hardware that would be needed for the Lewis and Clark Expedition at the armory in Harpers Ferry. Blacksmiths also built a collapsible iron boat frame for the expedition. 

Between the years 1820 to 1840, John H. Hall worked to perfect the manufacturing of interchangeable parts at the armory. Utilizing precision molds and jigs, this was one of the birthplaces of precision manufacturing so that armaments and related mechanical equipment could be standardized and parts would be interchangeable. Subsequently, the development of the modern bullet to replace the round lead slug was achieved by James H. Burton and this improvement was adopted by the U.S. Army in 1855. 

Employing at times up to 400 workers, the armory produced over half a million muskets and rifles between 1801 and 1860.

John Brown's Raid

Abolitionist John Brown led an armed group in the capture of the armory in 1859. Brown had hoped he would be able to arm the slaves and lead them against U.S. forces in a rebellion to overthrow slavery. 

After his capture in the armory by a group of marines (led by U.S. Army Colonel Robert E. Lee), Brown was hanged, predicting in his last words that civil war was looming on the horizon, a prediction that came true less than two years later. The most important building remaining from John Brown's raid is the firehouse, now called John Brown's Fort where he resisted the Marines.

Harpers Ferry and the Civil War

The Civil War (1861-1865) found Harpers Ferry right on the boundary between the Union and Confederate forces. The strategic position along this border and the valuable manufacturing base was a coveted strategic goal for both sides, but particularly the South due to its lack of manufacturing centers. 

Consequently, the town exchanged hands no less than eight times during the course of the war. Union forces abandoned the town immediately after the state of Virginia seceded from the Union, burning the armory and seizing 15,000 rifles. 

Colonel Thomas J. Jackson, who would later become known as "Stonewall", secured the region for the Confederates a week later and shipped most of the manufacturing implements south. Jackson spent the next two months preparing his troops and building fortifications, but was ordered to withdraw south and east to assist P.G.T. Beauregard at the First Battle of Bull Run. Union troops returned in force, occupying the town and began to rebuild parts of the armory. 

Stonewall Jackson, now a major general, returned in September 1862 under orders from Robert E. Lee to retake the arsenal and then to join Lee's army north in Maryland. Jackson's assault on the Federal forces there, during the Battle of Harpers Ferry led to the capitulation of 12,500 Union troops, which was the largest number of Union prisoners taken at one time during the war. The town exchanged hands several more times over the next two years.

Today

Several historical museums now occupy restored 19th century buildings in the Lower Town Historic District of Harpers Ferry. North of the park and across the Potomac from Harpers Ferry is the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which operated from 1828 to 1924. 

The canal provided a vital waterway link with areas up and downstream prior to and during the early years after the arrival of the railroad. Today, the park can be accessed via U.S. Highway 340. Aside from the extensive historical interests of the park, recreational opportunities include fishing, boating, and whitewater rafting as well as hiking, with the Appalachian Trail passing right through the park. 

The park adjoins the Harpers Ferry Historic District, as well as two other National Register of Historic Places locations: St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church and the B & O Railroad Potomac River Crossing.

Picnicking Information:

Picnicking is allowed in the designated picnicking area adjacent to the Cavalier Heights Visitor Center parking facility. This area is open on a first-come, first serve basis. Please note open fires and alcohol are not permitted anywhere in the park.

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