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.
The 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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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 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.